TAHLEQUAH, Okla. - Challenging the Cherokee Nation to remember the legacy of the ancestors, Principal Chief Chad "Corntassel" Smith pledged to rebuild the nation to its former greatness during his State of the Nation address.
From the steps of the Cherokee Courthouse, Smith spoke to a crowd of thousands Sept. 2. In oppressive temperatures exceeding 110 degrees, listeners were silent, the only sounds, the soft swish of hundreds of hand-held fans. They came to hear the man who leads the largest Indian nation in the United States and his dream for a strong Cherokee Nation.
In a powerful speech, Smith instructed members to grow not only as tribal members but also as individuals to strengthen the nation's spirit and legacy. Smith said he believes the strength of the nation and its survival depends upon the personal growth of its members.
"Since I have been in office, one thing has become clear, there is a weakness," Smith said. He said he wants to see members building one another up, instead of tearing each other down, to go beyond being "wards of the government."
"Some of our people have given up their Cherokee pride and initiative and resign themselves to expecting the government to provide for them."
He told the crowd it needed to look beyond the horizons to expand their world and make it better. He warned against comparing themselves to others as they form individual identities.
"I have found that there is strength within each of us, including our leaders, if we take a broader view of ourselves, our people and especially our future. When that happens, we can look around to each corner of the Cherokee Nation, to our people and our communities and to the future.
"We can learn to define and judge our successes and failures based on what we have envisioned and accomplished, rather than 'Have we stacked up' against someone else or have kept someone else down and from accomplishing their goals."
Smith said he realized there were Cherokees who needed help who either had no families or had families which expected the government to take care of them. He urged members of the nation to look to its rich tradition of caring for one another.
"It is a solid Cherokee value to take care of one's own family and neighbors. Why have so many of our people drifted away from that?" he asked.
"There is a Cherokee concept from our language that means come together and help one another. As Benny Smith said a year ago and affirmed in his teachings, let's take them to heart and use them this year.
"Sometimes it is simple, like not seeing the forest for the trees. Sgadugi, is not only the key for tribal survival it is the key for personal fulfillment. We must learn the joy of giving, and doing for others, those who receive these gifts when they
Smith defined the Cherokee spirit as generous, kind, compassionate, warning, "We are doomed to extinction unless we as a people, abandon and condemn jealousy and adopt and embrace our historic value of sgadugi, which means come together and work.
"It means that each and every one of us must grow up and set aside small behaviors and stand as one people with a common mission and a shared reward. This is a burden we carry."
Smith then asked, "How do we survive another hundred years and regain the valuable strengths that have carried us thus far?" His answer is to make sure the nation is not destroyed by outsiders or from within by weakness.
"If we don't come together now as a people, we will become nothing more than a footnote in a book forty years from now that will say, 'Once there was a great Cherokee Nation, but it is no more.'
Without that unity, Smith warned that, "In the future our descendants may be a generation that are dark haired and brown skinned, with Cherokee names, but the Cherokee spirit is gone. These people ... know nothing about that spirit, the legacy, the art, the history, tradition, the religion or the culture or wisdom of us as Cherokees.
"We have the resources, intelligence, the ability to rebuild this nation, our people and ourselves. The only reason, or perhaps excuse, is the absence of will, the absence of the Cherokee spirit."
The chief said volunteerism is one way the nation could begin to rebuild itself. Reading to children and helping the elderly and disabled care for their homes are ways that can help the Cherokee Nation become great again, he said.
"Although volunteerism doesn't have financial reward, it has spiritual reward. The reward is the enrichment in your life by helping others."
In closing Smith said, "I cannot explain it, there is a mysticism, a magnetism, there is some draw, that every time I appear in the name of the Cherokee Nation as a principal chief, every time I come among our people, I have to say these things. I have to refresh our memory as what our Cherokee legacy is.
"Some folks say, 'What is the legacy?'
"The legacy is a gift from our ancestors. Our legacy has been paid for with millions of acres and thousands of lives along the Trail of Tears, the trials and the tribulations;
"The smallpox epidemics of the 1720s where we lost half of our people; the genocidal wars of the 1770s, when the United States government tried to eradicate us; The Trail of Tears, the American Civil War, the Cherokee Civil War, the Allotment, the Depression, relocation, 70 years of bureaucratic imperialism by the BIA - we've paid for this legacy dearly.
"What is a legacy? It is a gift that is given to us by our ancestors.
"Receive that gift, but you know that when you receive a gift, this legacy, it comes as a duty, an obligation and a responsibility," Smith challenged. "But even more important," he reminded, "it comes as an honor, an honor to take this legacy and hand it on to our children."
As the crowd jumped to its feet in a standing ovation, Smith urged them to move forward.
"We're here now to take resolve. To take this Cherokee legacy to prepare it, embrace it and hand it to that child, and that child's child, and that child's grandchild, so that one hundred years from now we have a strong, enduring, powerful, and passionate Cherokee legacy.
"... We are people who face adversity, survive, adapt, prosper and excel. Face adversity, survive, adapt, prosper and excel!
"Now we must decide to evoke that Cherokee spirit, and pledge ourselves to prosper and excel! This place is a sacred place. This moment is an important moment. Today we decide our future, the future of our children."