The Cherokee Word for Water

I grew up within in a large extended Cherokee, Lenape, Seneca family, with lots of cousins, grandparents and great-grandparents, with roots in Oklahoma. Great-grandma could fix a meal to feed fifteen of us and I loved to sit beside her coal black stove, listening to her stories. I’m the granddaughter of sharecroppers, and I was born to a teenage mother and father in 1953. When I was young, we were poor—but we had water. 

Having water meant we always had plenty to eat. We had fresh running water to rinse, soak and simmer pots of pinto beans and black-eyed peas. In the summer when rainfall was not plentiful, since the water table was usually high, we could turn the hose on to soak the apple and peach tree and their fruit fed us in return.

There was water for pie baking, and when the sun seared overhead water to mix with Kool-Aid to freeze into popsicles. Home canned goods must be put up in hot, sterilized jars and we had water for boiling before we used them. We had water to wash our hands before pressing a tortilla on a hot skillet, and it was clean and safe to drink.

 

When no one else believed in them, they believed in each other. 


Set in the early 1980s, the story of The Cherokee Word for Water begins in a small town in rural Oklahoma where many houses lack running water. The film tells the story of a tribal community joining together to build a waterline by using traditional Native values of reciprocity and interdependence and is told from the perspective of Wilma Mankiller and Charlie Soap, who join forces to battle opposition and build a 16-mile waterline system using a community of volunteers. In the process, they inspire the townspeople to trust each other, to trust their way of thinking, and to spark a reawakening of the universal indigenous values of reciprocity and interconnectedness. This project also inspired a self-help movement in Indian Country that continues to this day.


The Cherokee Word for Water” is dedicated to Wilma Mankiller’s vision, compassion and incredible grace, and tells the story of the work that led her to become the Chief of the Cherokee Nation. The film was funded through the Wilma Mankiller Foundation to continue her legacy of social justice and community development in Indian Country. 

Yellow Medicine Review

Indigenous writers, young, old, established, emerging, traditional, urban, two spirt, academic, incarcerated, are brought together. We are sharing our voices, our best words, the thing we do in our community.  

I’m honored to have my work included. 

Learning to Grow Right as an Elder, an excerpt from my memoir, We Who Walk the Seven Ways, shares space with a unique tapestry of voices, and speaks to the diversity and complexity of Native writings and culture. 
 

Yellow Medicine Review: Women’s Wisdom, Women’s Strength

“Remember that I am just a woman who is living a very abundant life. Every step I take forward is on a path paved by strong Indian women before me.” 
—Wilma Mankiller 
 
From our grandmothers and aunties and sisters to the women who write stories, lead states, and sit as poet laureate for the United States, we turn to Native women for their strength, wisdom, and leadership. 

“Oh woman 
Remember who you are 
Woman 
It is the whole earth.” 
“The Blanket Around Her” 
—Joy Harjo 

I’m honored to have my work included. Growing Old in a Beautiful Way (page 59) is an excerpt from my memoir, We Who Walk the Seven Ways, forthcoming from University of Nebraska Press, Spring 2023.

A Journal of Indigenous Literature, Art, and Thought

10 of my favorite places in the US where you can experience Native American cultures responsibly


One of my earliest memories is watching Grandma sew beads on Uncle Elmer’s deer skin leggings. Listen to my grandmother and you’ll hear stories about me in diapers moving to the heartbeat of the drum. 

Talk to me and I’ll tell you about my husband recalling how unfamiliar he felt when he first met me and found himself the only non-Indian person among American Indians. Blending our lives (and later raising our children) helped me gather opportunities where he could begin to understand and learn about Native lifeways.  

Recently an editor invited me to contribute an article about friendly places to experience Native American cultures. While researching the piece I had fun traveling from my armchair revisiting some of my favorite places. 

You will notice that the title of the original article says culture. It ought to read cultures, reflecting the fact that Native American people are of many tribes, Nations, cultures, languages and histories. 

I greatly enjoyed researching and writing the article and I’m thankful for the invitation to take my readers into Native America to visit the thriving lifeways of a continuing land and people. 

Read my article at Matador Network to see 10 of my favorite places to discover modern-day Indian life and to observe tribal descendants echo and give expression to cultural traditions. 

Tending the Fire: Native Voices and Portraits

University of New Mexico Press

I’m honored to have my work and portrait included.

Tending the Fire by photographer Christopher Felver with an Introduction by Linda Hogan and a foreword by Simon J. Ortiz, celebrates the poets and writers who represent the wide range of Native American voices in literature today. In these commanding portraits, Felver’s distinctive visual signature and unobtrusive presence capture each artist’s strength, integrity, and character. Accompanying each portrait is a handwritten poem or prose piece that helps reveal the origin of the poet’s language and legends.

As the individuals share their unique voices, Tending the Fire introduces us to the diversity and complexity of Native culture through the authors’ generous and passionate stories, reminding us that “Native Americans today are as modern as the Space Age, and each in their own way carries forth the cultural heritage ‘from whence they came.’ Their abiding legacy as the first people of this continent has found its voice in the hard-won wisdom of their art and activism.

Featured authors include: Francisco X. Alarcón; Sherman Alexie; Indira Allegra; Paula Gunn Allen; Crisosto Apache; Annette Arkeketa; Jimmy Santiago Baca; Dennis Banks; Jim Barnes; Kimberly L. Becker; Duane Big Eagle; Sherwin Bitsui; Julian Talamantez Brolaski; Lauralee Brown; Joseph Bruchac; Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle; Elizabeth Cook-Lynn; Jonny Cournoyer; Alice Crow; Lucille Lang Day; Susan Deer Cloud; Ramona Emerson; Heid E. Erdrich; Louise Erdrich ; Pura Fé; Jennifer Elise Foerster; Eric Gansworth; Diane Glancy; Jewelle Gomez; Rain Gomez; Sequoyah Guess; Q.R. Hand, Jr.; Joy Harjo; Allison Hedge Coke; Travis Hedge Coke; Lance Henson; Trace Lara Hentz; Inés Hernández-Avila; Charlie Hill; Roberta Hill; Geary Hobson; Linda Hogan; LeAnne Howe; Andrew Jolivétte; em jollie; Joan Naviyuk Kane; Maurice Kenny; Bruce King; Sharmagne Leland-St.John; Chip Livingston; Charly Lowry; James Luna; Lee Marmon; Molly McGlennen; Russell Means; Deborah Miranda; Gail Mitchell; N. Scott Momaday; Catherine Nelson-Rodriguez; Linda Noel; dg nanouk okpik; Simon J. Ortiz; Laura Ortman; A. Kay Oxendine; Juanita Pahdopony; Evan Pritchard; Mary Grace Pewewardy; Ishmael Reed; Martha Redbone; Bobby J. Richardson; Ladonna Evans Richardson; Barbara Robidoux; Linda Rodriguez; Wendy Rose; Kurt Schweigman; Kim Shuck; Cedar Sigo; Leslie Marmon Silko; Arigon Starr; James Thomas Stevens; Inés Talamantez; Luci Tapahanso; Nazbah Tom; Cecil Taylor; Rebecca Hatcher Travis; David Treuer; Terra Trevor; Quincy Troupe; John Trudell; Gerald Vizenor; Elissa Washuta; Floyd Redcrow Westerman; Orlando White; Kim Wieser; Diane Wilson; Elizabeth A. Woody.

Children of the Dragonfly: Native American Voices on Child Custody and Education

 The University of Arizona Press

I’m honored to have an excerpt from my memoir, Pushing up the Sky, included.

Native American children have long been subject to removal from their homes for placement in residential schools and, more recently, in foster or adoptive homes. The governments of both the United States and Canada, having reduced Native nations to the legal status of dependent children, historically have asserted a surrogate parentalism over Native children themselves.

Children of the Dragonflyedited by Robert Bensen, is the first anthology to document this struggle for cultural survival on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border. Through autobiography and interviews, fiction and traditional tales, official transcripts and poetry, these voices— Seneca, Cherokee, Mohawk, Navajo, and many others— weave powerful accounts of struggle and loss into a moving testimony to perseverance and survival. 

Included are works of contemporary authors Joy Harjo, Luci Tapahonso, and others; classic writers Zitkala-Sa and E. Pauline Johnson; and contributions from twenty important new writers as well. They take readers from the boarding school movement of the 1870s to the Sixties Scoop in Canada and the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 in the United States. They also spotlight the tragic consequences of racist practices such as the suppression of Indian identity in government schools and the campaign against Indian childbearing through involuntary sterilization.

Invoking the dragonfly spirit of Zuni legend who helps children restore a way of life that has been taken from them, the anthology explores the breadth of the conflict about Native childhood.

In the Veins Lost Children of the Indian Adoption Projects

POETRY | First Nations and American Indian Poets | Native Studies | History 

 

In the Veins Lost Children of the Indian Adoption Projects 


I'm honored to have my work included.

Refection of Veins from Dr. Carol A. Hand, Anishinabe poet:

We are inter-connected branching vessels
carrying the pain of the earth back to source
like the roots of the sacred cedar
to heal and breathe new life into being? 
Have we been forced deep underground, 
pressurized through the weight of suffering,
to become a treasure sought by others
who don’t understand that we carry
healing powers in the wisdom of our ancestors?

Sacred life interwoven with sorrow, blood memory, in our very DNA 

The People Who Stayed: Southeastern Indian Writing After Removal

The University of Oklahoma Press 

Native literature, composed of western literary tradition is packed into the hyphens of the oral tradition. It is termed a “renaissance” but contemporary Native writing is both something old emerging in new forms and something that has never been asleep. The two-hundred-year-old myth of the vanishing American Indian still holds some credence in the American Southeast, the region from which tens of thousands of Indians were relocated after passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830. Yet, a significant Indian population remained behind after those massive relocations. 

I'm honored to have my work included in the first anthology to focus on the literary work of Native Americans with ancestry to “people who stayed” in southeastern states after 1830. 

This volume represents every state and every genre, including short stories, excerpts from novels, poetry, essays and plays. Although most works are contemporary, the collection covers the entire post-Removal era. While many speak to the prospects and perils of acculturation, all the writers bear witness to the ways, oblique or straightforward, that they and their families are connected and honor their Indian identities despite the legacy of removal. 

The People Who Stayed: Southeastern Indian Writing After Removal 
edited by Geary Hobson, Janet McAdams, and Kathryn Walkiewicz

Unraveling the Spreading Cloth of Time: Indigenous Thoughts Concerning The Universe

"All the tribes say the universe is just the product of mind... It fits perfectly with the quantum. Indians believe the universe is mind, but they explore the spiritual end of it, not the physical end." 
—Vine DeLoria Jr.

This brilliant anthology explores quantum physics in relation to Indigenous peoples' understanding of the spiritual universe. Includes writings from 40 Native writers from various nations, and I'm honored to have my work included.  

Contributing authors include, Suzan Shown Harjo, Gabriel Horn, John Trudell, Dean Hutchins, Lois Red Elk, Suzanne Zahrt Murphy, Amy Krout-Horn, Jack D. Forbes, John D. Berry, Sidney Cook Bad Moccasin, III, Trace A. DeMeyer, Clieord E. Trafzer, William S. Yellow Robe, Jr., Bobby González, Duane BigEagle, Carol Wille`e Bachofner, Lela Northcross Wakely, Georges Sioui, Keith Secola, Mary Black Bonnet, Kim Shuck, Trevino L. Brings Plenty, Dawn Karima Pe`igrew, Stephanie A. Sellers, Natalie bomas Kindrick, Basil H. Johnston, Barbara-Helen Hill, Alice Azure, Phyllis A. Fast, Doris Seale, Terra Trevor, Denise Low, Vine Deloria Jr., Jim Stevens, ire’ne lara silva, Susan Deer Cloud, Odilia Galván Rodríguez, Tiokasin Ghosthorse, Tony Abeyta, MariJo Moore. 

Unraveling the Spreading Cloth of Time
Edited by MariJo Moore and Trace A. DeMeyer

Birthed from Scorched Hearts: Women Respond to War

Author MariJo Moore contacted me about an anthology she was putting together, a gathering of women's voices steeped with themes of  war, and asked if she could include a selection from my memoir Pushing up the Sky
 
I'm honored to announce the chapter “Fall, 1998” in Pushing up the Sky, along with a new introduction, now shares company in Birthed from Scorched Hearts: Women Respond to War, which includes work by an impressive tapestry of women's voices. 
 
Award-winning author MariJo Moore, asked women writers from around the world to consider the devastating nature of conflict—inner wars, outer wars, public battles, and personal losses and battles on the home front. Their answers, in the form of poignant poetry and essays, examine war in all its permutations, from Ireland to Iraq and everywhere in between. With contributions from well-known authors including Linda Hogan, Paula Gunn Allen, Carolyn Dunn, Kim Shuck, Terra Trevor, and numerous others, this moving anthology encompasses a wide range of voices. 
 
A page from Birthed from Scorched Hearts: Women Respond to War by Terra Trevor 
 
On a crisp December morning in 1984 under a bright blue sky in Seoul, Korea, a wide-eyed baby was readied to leave his homeland. Dressed in a pink bunting to keep out the winter chill, one-year-old Kook Yung was carried aboard Korean Airlines, and he set off for a new life; adoption in the United States. When the plane landed at Los Angeles International airport that boy was placed in my arms and he became my son. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. My story begins in 1953, shortly after I was born, when the end of the Korean War set the course of my life, because the ending of the war signaled the beginning of inter-country adoption of Korean-born children. 
 
After the war everything changed. Within a country with a long-standing national tradition of pure blood lineage, shared ethnic identity and culture, suddenly there were mass numbers of orphaned children. Many of these babies and children were mixed race, and were introduced to a largely unwelcoming homogenous Korea. Single mothers were shunned. Crowded orphanages operating with scarce resources were unable to accommodate the high numbers of orphans. In response, South Korea turned to alternatives to find a solution and Korean adoption was born officially in 1954. 
 
Today a growing number of families in Korea have begun to adopt and the country is hoping to eventually eliminate the need for adoption outside of Korea. Yes, the Korean people do adopt, I know this because I was invited to speak on a panel, and it was comprised of four American adoptive mothers and four Korean Nationals who are adoptive mothers, at the KAAN Conference in 2006, held in Seoul. 
 
Yet in 1984, when I adopted my son, Korea was a nation still struggling to come into its own. I had a profound knowing-feeling when the telephone rang the day we received our adoption referral. I was outside watering sprouting morning glories, and before I answered the phone, I knew it would be the adoption agency telling me about my soon-to-be child. 
 
The first time I held one-year old Kook Yung, immediately I understood something was far beyond ordinary about him. He was a calm and centered baby, in a way that let you know he possessed a great amount of wisdom. His presence made skeptics believe in angels. 
 
I didn’t know that my son’s life would be short and that he would live to be only fifteen, and that I was being called for the highest motherhood duty. Yet if I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. The amount of joy Kook Yung brought me outweighs anything else, and has made me whole.

Copyright © 2008 Terra Trevor. All rights reserved.

What Thanksgiving Means To This Mixed-blood American Indian

Often in late November I gather with some of the people I love best for a Friendsgiving. And yet for me, it's important to honor and hold space for the fact that many Native American people do not participate in any of form of Thanksgiving. I find it ironic and sad that Native American Heritage month and Thanksgiving have been braided together in the month of November. Thanksgiving, as it has come to be observed in America, is a time of mourning for many Native people. It serves as a reminder of how a gift of generosity was rewarded by theft of land and seed corn, extermination of many Native people from disease, and near total elimination of many more from forced assimilation and as a reminder of 500 years of betrayal. 

My family is mixed-race. I’m of Cherokee, Lenape, Seneca, German descent, and my immediate family was formed through marriage, adoption, kinship care, love and community. We have loved ones who survived Nazi Germany, and aunties and uncles who lived under the Japanese occupation in Korea through the end of World War II. They left Korea to immigrate to America. Others in my blended family emigrated from Balikpapan. 

My loved ones tell me when they came to the United States everything was new—the foods, the smells, the language and the people. They felt alone and out of place while learning to become fluent in English in those first early years. But most of all they were thankful for the privilege of gaining American citizenship. A sense of belonging began to take hold. They were encouraged to assimilate, but they were not forced to let go of their traditions, language and cultural heritage. From that deep place of thankfulness, a respect for the holiday known as Thanksgiving was born. 

This is in great contrast to my American Indian ancestry, identity, mindset and Native community belonging. Thanksgiving and the myths associated with it have done damage and harm to the cultural self-esteem of generations of Americans by perpetuating cultural misappropriation and stereotyping that leave harmful images and lasting negative impressions in Native American and non-Native minds. 

My immigrant family members and intimates know all too well the effects of assimilation. It gave way for thoughtful examination of cultural differences with emphasis on renewal and survival. Never having been washed in the American tradition of the First Thanksgiving falsehoods, there is no standard set linking it to a day in 1621. No myths carried about roasted meats and Indians sharing a table with Plymouth settlers. 

I’m well into grandmotherhood now, doing my best to learn what I need in order to grow right as an elder and to do my part to make better for the next seven generations. I'm not opposed to the tradition of gathering for a Thanksgiving meal with family and friends, yet it must be done respectfully. I tell stories to the children and parents in my community. They ask me many questions about Native Americans and Thanksgiving. I tell them about the Wampanoag people. About this tribe of Southern Massachusetts and how their ancestors ensured the survival of the Pilgrims in New England, and how they lived to regret it, and that now the tribe is growing strong again. 

I tell them Native people have a history largely untold and that gathering to give thanks for the harvest did not originate in America with the Pilgrims, it was always our way. I read books to the kids written by Native American authors who are working to make sure that Native lives and histories are portrayed with honesty and integrity.

And so the histories of Native People are painful to hear, still they need to be told and retold and never forgotten by generations of Americans. 

But I tell this this story today for ALL people in America, with the hope that through truthful knowledge of the past we will not allow another group of people in America to have their life ways taken from them, to have their ethnicities and cultures erased, to be exterminated and reach near total elimination, even again.  

This article was first published in a slightly different form in the Huffington Post and reprinted at Matador Network. 

Copyright © 2016 Terra Trevor. All rights reserved. 

Why Native-inspired Halloween costumes devalue our Indigenous cultures

On Halloween I was sitting on the front porch watching Scrub Jays dart from branch to branch. The evening shadows melted into liquid dusk. Then I lit candles in the pumpkins we carved and waited for the parade of neighbor kids Trick-or-treating. There was a rush of footsteps and laughter. I chatted with parents, ooh and aah over the costumes. One kid was dressed as a purple dinosaur. Another was made to look like grapes wearing a green shirt covered with green balloons. And there was a tiny girl with two long black braids, wearing faux-leather, dressed as Pocahontas and her dad was wearing a headdress.

I love Halloween, but my thoughts are heavy saddlebags. It was unintentional, of course. This father was unaware that it is disrespectful to dress his daughter and himself as Native American. I could shrug it off as cultural borrowing and overlook cultural appropriation, after all, he means well. But I can’t. As Native American people we are a culture—not a costume. I understand that wearing a culture as costume is not intended to hurt most of the time. However, the fact of the matter is that it does.

Native social justice activists have been speaking out against Native American themed costumes for decades, yet companies still produce them, and stores still order and sell them. When I contacted a number of the costume supply stores in my city and state the owners I spoke with said that their Pocahontas, Indian Brave and Big Chief costumes are top sellers, and they would lose business if they didn’t stock and sell them. Some people buy and wear these costumes out of naiveté and others in a blatant disregard, disrespect and irreverence.

Our Native American regalia is a tradition for our Native people, and the wearing of it is a distinctly indigenous activity. It is imbued with spiritual meaning and an expression of culture and identity. For Native dancers, not only is the act of dancing that expression, but also the wearing of dance regalia is a visible manifestation of one's heritage. Often the beadwork contains personal motifs that reflect the dancer’s tribe and frequently beadwork is created by a family member and given as a gift to the dancer. Feathers receive utmost respect. Regalia is one of the most powerful symbols of Native identity and is considered sacred. This is one reason why it is inappropriate to refer to regalia as a "costume." 
However we (by we, I mean American society) are stuck in a mode where too many people tolerate imitating American Indian people. These activities are indicative of an ignorant society that refuses to see American Indian people as people.
Most damaging is the Halloween " Pocahottie” and “Sexy Indian Girl” costumes which have gained popularity. I can begin by referencing statistics about how many Native women are sexually assaulted (one in three). The rate of sexual assault is more than twice the national average, stressing the point that dressing up and playing Indian is not a harmless activity.
When a costume or sexiness is based on race, ethnicity, or culture, human people are being extracted for the sake of making the wearer of the costume feel powerful, or exotic. There is also cultural appropriation. It involves members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of a less privileged group and equals belittling the lived experience and ethnicity of those who have birthright.

Native American people are one of the most underrepresented and misunderstood minorities in all of North America. Too often the First Americans are depicted as existing during colonization and western expansion, as if belonging only in the past, but not as people in todays world. No myth about Native people is as prevalent, or self-serving as the myth of the vanishing Native, also known as “the vanishing Indian” or “the vanishing race.” Therefore it’s no surprise so many feel that wearing Native American-alike regalia as costume isn’t offensive—because in their mind Indians no longer exist.

In my mind the problem stems from the fact that America has a long history of regarding its Native people as profoundly different and somehow not human. By traditional western values Native peoples are viewed as creatures of whimsy that have disappeared into history, making their images, cultures and manner of dress and regalia available for the taking. 


Author’s Note: As a writer of mixed descent, including Cherokee, Lenape, Seneca, I neither presume to speak for any sovereign nation nor identify with the dominant culture.