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Hastings Shade keeps the Cherokee culture alive

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. - Hastings Shade is more than deputy principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, he is the living embodiment of the Cherokee culture.

Shade, a descendent of Sequoyah, inventor of the Cherokee syllabary, has dedicated his life to making sure the language, history and traditional crafts of the nation are not lost forever.

For man, simply working in tribal government would be enough, but Shade also dedicated himself to being the keeper of the old ways of making traditional Cherokee crafts. He has spent thousands of hours teaching and passing on those skills to make sure that none of the beauty and history of the Cherokee Nation disappears.

Shade is believed to be the last Cherokee who knows how to make marbles in the traditional Cherokee way. He is teaching others to make the historic, round rock objects, but he is considered the real master of the craft. He also carves objects from horns, makes bows and arrows and knives and has written several books on the Cherokee language, history and traditions.

As he sat among some of his intricate carving, he said, "I've been doing this since I was young, I watched my grandpa do these. I'm also a blacksmith. I forge knives ... anything that has to do with Cherokee, I do them. Traditional crafts we call them."

"Right now I'm the only one who does (the marbles) the old way," Shade said. "I use no modern tools, you use only rocks. You take the stone to shape it and to smooth it. It is about the size of a golf ball, maybe a little bigger."

A full-blood, bilingual Cherokee, Shade lives in Lost City where he grew up. He and his wife, Leanna, have been married for 36 years and have three sons.

Shade attended Northeastern State University, but his real education was at the hands of his grandfather and elders of the Cherokee Nation. What he learned as a young man about his culture is being taught to younger generations.

He is most proud of establishing Cherokee Youth Elder camps. The idea came from a young Cherokee woman, Mary Horsechief Henderson, who came from Alaska where she saw Alaska Native elders teach their children about their culture. The idea took off and for the past few years a dedicated group of volunteers have put on the camps for their children and families.

Children camp out for two nights and three days and learn a variety of crafts, games and stories along with Cherokee lore.

As members of the nation search for a place to find out more about their rich heritage, the camps have become increasingly popular.

Shade extended an invitation to all Indian nations to take part in the camps, not only to learn about Cherokee traditions, but to teach their cultural traditions. He said he believes sharing of traditions from various nations will strengthen understanding between tribes to the benefit of all.

"What I teach is our culture. If we don't sit down and teach it we will lose it."

Shade explained how elders come to the camps and sometimes just sit around and visit with younger Cherokees.

"The rest of us do traditional cooking and crafts. Any tribe who wants to come and bring their crafts and traditions is welcome. All we ask is that they share. Anyone can learn and take it away with them. The only thing we ask is, if you learn it, share it."

Shade's entire life, if he has learned it, he shared it. For him it is a matter of survival for the Cherokee Nation to make sure old ways aren't lost forever.