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Studying abroad, Native style

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla. have entered a unique and important partnership. They have created a program that helps students explore historical and contemporary factors that have shaped today’s Cherokee Nation.


The course, which began as the brainchild of UNC professor Theda Perdue, is an immersion program that offers students a rare opportunity to study dynamic aspects of contemporary tribal life in eastern Oklahoma. UNC professor Tol Foster, a citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation, organized the program’s first foray into the Oklahoma Cherokee Nation.

Twelve students made the journey, spending 22 days in Tahlequah at NSU. They interacted one-on-one with tribal experts, authorities, politicians, grassroots leaders and community members seeing the workings of a modern tribal community – law enforcement, health care, government, politics, community organizing, art and culture – on a firsthand basis.

“Theda has a long relationship with Cherokee history and culture,” Foster said. “She initially conceptualized this program as a focus on what is happening today on a large scale with successful tribal nations with sophisticated governments.”

Foster said the program was organized with two objectives: for students to view a dynamic, vibrant tribal community in a contemporary context, and as a catalyst to encourage new ways of thinking about the most critical issues contemporary tribal communities face.

“Even the title of the program is provocative,” Foster said. “One-third of UNC’s students choose to study various cultures abroad. We want students to think about the cultures of Indian nations in the same way. By calling the program ‘Study Abroad,’ we hope to create a new conceptual argument about ways to think about tribal sovereignty.”

The adventure began when UNC students boarded a bus in Chapel Hill, N.C., to travel more than 1,000 miles to Tahlequah. At NSU, participants were welcomed by students Chris Smith, Kinsey Shade (both Cherokee), Travis Wolfe (United Keetoowah Band), and Tribal Studies professor Phyllis Fife, who oversaw the program from the Oklahoma side.

“Dr. Perdue and Dr. Clara Sue Kidwell (Choctaw/Chippewa) and I had long discussed the benefits of such a class, but the actual program far exceeded any of my expectations,” Fife, a citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation, said. “The experience benefited our students as much as it did the visiting students. Our students were empowered by the interest and enthusiasm the UNC students showed for Cherokee history.”


Vanessa Matos, a student at the University of North Carolina, attended the first Study Abroad in the Cherokee Nation summer seminar.

The students stayed in dorm rooms at NSU, a university with the highest enrollment of Native American undergraduates of any public institution in the nation. Nestled in the heart of the western Cherokee Nation on the site of the historic Cherokee Nation Female Seminary, NSU is the perfect setting for immersion in Cherokee culture.

The course began with a reading of Wilma Mankiller’s autobiography, “Mankiller: A Chief and Her People,” and Robert Conley’s “Ned Christie’s War,” and “Cherokee Thoughts: Honest and Uncensored.” The curriculum also included Cherokee language instruction, contemporary film, art and literature, and an extensive class on Cherokee history and law taught by UC Davis professor and Cherokee Nation tribal councilwoman, Julia Coates.

Students also visited the tribe’s heritage center, museum, historic sites and participated in traditional games and cultural activities. Students were required to log their thoughts and reactions throughout the journey on a special blog site, a good method for assessing the students’ understanding of their experiences and the effectiveness of presentations.

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In the first days of the program, students became familiar with Cherokee oral tradition through Conley’s writings and a presentation by Cherokee storyteller Jerry Cook. They attended a film festival that included pieces by Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Creek), Joseph Erb and Roy Boney Jr. and others. Harjo, whose first feature film, “Four Sheets to the Wind,” received acclaim at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, was on hand to answer questions, as were Cherokee filmmakers Erb and Boney, who have received a number of awards for their animated films expressing the intricacies of Cherokee culture and worldviews.

“Sterlin and other Indian filmmakers are very important for determining how people view Indians, as many popular ideas of who Indians are have stemmed from years of romanticized scenes or misconceptions in movies,” said UNC student Ben Booker.

“Cherokee culture is living, breathing and changing, but it is rooted.” – UNC student H.W. Elliot

Students were introduced to the Cherokee language by NSU professor of Cherokee Education Wyman Kirk, and native speaker Ed Jumper. Students learned about the written language’s history at the Cherokee Heritage Museum and visited the home site of its creator, Sequoyah, where they participated in language activities.

“The Cherokee language lessons were the glue that brought the entire course together,” UNC student Andrei Stefanescu said. “For someone to become a fluent speaker, they needed something like 3,000 hours of training and classes. I had no idea that Cherokee was on the same (difficulty) level as languages like Japanese and Arabic.”

Coates led the students through a four-day seminar on Cherokee history and law. Topics included tribal government, kinship relations, colonial events, treaties and land, migration and removal, religion, and 20th century politics and culture.

“(Dr. Coates’ class) completely changed my perception of the Cherokee. … and provided a strong base for everything else we studied on the trip,” said UNC student Vanessa Matos.

Former Principal Chief Mankiller and current Principal Chief Chad Smith met with the students during the seminar. “Mankiller suggests that being an indigenous person in the 21st century means using reciprocal relationships to gather the most valuable and ancient knowledge and then trusting that knowledge again,” Matos observed. “We all live in a troubled world, and by employing some of the ideals Mankiller outlines in her autobiography. … Indians and non-Indians alike can employ ancient worldviews to move us all into a new era of awareness.”


The UNC participants were not restricted in their studies to topics concerning the Cherokee Nation. They also met with United Keetoowah Band tribal authorities and enjoyed a tour and luncheon with Keetoowah elders. They engaged in discussions with members of the Cherokee Freedmen’s Association, Marilyn Vann, Norman Hightower, Teresa Wolfe and Rodslen Brown.

UNC student Becky Duggan said meetings with the Keetoowahs and the Freedmen were illuminating and important. “The Freedmen had an amazing story to tell, and. … gave us much to look at. This was an effective way for us to connect the past to the present.”

Foster and Fife believe the program is a vital, innovative and valuable contribution to the future of American Indian cultural studies. Foster plans to expand the program next year from three to five weeks, and Fife hopes more NSU students can travel to the historic Cherokee homelands in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee.

“I have come to believe that the Cherokee system is an extremely elastic one,” said UNC student H.W. Elliot. “From the development of a centralized tribal government, to the invention of a Cherokee system of writing, to the founding of the modern-day Cherokee immersion school, the Cherokee people and government have found ways to make their culture adaptive, without losing the kernel of ‘Cherokeeness.’ They venerate their ancestors and heritage, but generally do not view their culture as a relic to be preserved and coddled. Cherokee culture and modernity grew up together and influenced one another: American modernity is in many ways as Cherokee as Cherokee culture is modern. Cherokee culture is living, breathing and changing, but it is rooted.”