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Cherokee Nation church celebrates Decoration Day

BELFONTE, Okla. - People arrived from all over the United States to attend ''Decoration Day'' at the Belfonte Baptist Church in Belfonte in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Every Mother's Day, the cemetery comes alive with the sounds of people talking and laughing, reacquainting with friends and family that have attended this annual event.

One may find it interesting to know that Decoration Day is a day when Cherokee families come together to ''honor those who have gone on before us.'' Beginning the church service at 10 a.m., the Rev. Tom Cochran delivered the sermon and paid tribute to the ancestors in the cemetery, as well as to the mothers in attendance.

Belfonte Baptist Church is one of the few churches that still preach in Cherokee, or at least in part; however, the hymns are all still performed in Cherokee. For many years, the sermon was mostly in Cherokee and on Decoration Day, the pastor would present the sermon more in English to accommodate returning family members who did not retain the language.

After the service, the church members proceeded to the cemetery singing ''Amazing Grace'' and a few other hymns until they arrived beneath the ''big tree.'' There, everyone gathered to offer prayer and thanksgiving, and then proceeded to their own families' grave plots.

At the Belfonte Cemetery, like many other cemeteries in Oklahoma, Decoration Day is a planned and anticipated event. Volunteers from the church work diligently to clean the graves and prepare for the big day. The graves are decorated with pretty memorial flowers, small figurines; and, in some cases, they plant flowers and other live plants. Among the graves at the Belfonte Cemetery, there are 10 World War I veterans, 16 WWII veterans, eight deacons, five deaconess, one ordained minister and countless family members. Many of the graves are marked, but sometimes a single stone is the only indication of the grave there - a stone with no inscription or any indication whose grave it is. The identities of the unmarked graves are passed on from generation to generation.

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An impromptu survey revealed that the majority of those who attended this year believe that the traditional event is held to celebrate and honor those who have passed on with a ''handshake,'' a ''hello'' to the ancestors.

Sally Sevenstar of Muldrow said she believes Decoration Day is a very important tradition. Every year she come to the cemetery, bringing flowers and food, as a way of ''sharing what we have today with our ancestors.''

According to Cecil Qualls of Nicut, ''Indians have always decorated themselves''; so it stands to reason in his mind that the Cherokees continued decorating themselves even after death, as shown with the many colors of flowers adorning the graves at the Belfonte Cemetery.

To many attendees, it is also a time to reconnect with family and friends. George Byrd of Nicut celebrates Decoration Day ''to wish greetings to the ones who have gone ahead of us and to see our friends.'' Byrd has attended the Belfonte Baptist Church all his life and has many relatives buried in the cemetery.

William and Juanita Terrapin of Stillwell have attended Decoration Day at Belfonte Cemetery throughout their lives. They said it was something their parents taught them to do by example and today, for them, it is like a family reunion.

Belfonte Baptist Church welcomes all visitors anytime, but Decoration Day on Mother's Day in Cherokee country is a special day to visit and enjoy a moving service spoken in the native language of the Cherokee people.