When I was six or seven, my mom started a hunt for information about our roots.
I’m really thankful for her extensive research, because I wouldn’t have done as great of a job as she did. My mom had some amazing stamina in climbing every thin branch on our specific family tree.
I benefited from her work, and so have my kids and my cousins.
I remember many sleepy Saturday mornings at the Greenville Library. She would hunker down in the archives room, turning reel after reel of newspaper rolls. As her eyes were fixed on the lighted past, my head was in the clouds of the mythology and multicultural sections. I would wander over to a little alcove by a large glass window and read books in warm Southern sunlight.
Page after page, I studied every intricate illustration gathered from around the world. A large picturesque globe slowly swiveled in the middle of the library, and I would often longingly look up and watch the continents with their peaking mountain ranges roll by.
If an elder had been a tad perceiving based on the piling collection and my stares at the rotating replica, they probably could have guessed that I was meant to travel.
Now I can see how formative those moments were, how I have one foot entangled by my roots, and one foot looking for the next place to land and explore. Even my parenting has a mixture of ideas from those learned traditions and a smattering of ideas gathered from other cultures. Isn’t that a great aspect of being a cultural shape shifter?
My native culture does not identify me.
I can pick and choose what I want to accept.
One afternoon many years after this hunt for our past began, my mom abruptly walked out of her bedroom with puffy skin framing her almost pink eyes. I asked her why she had been crying.
“A courthouse with documents about my grandfather’s heritage burned down a few years ago,” she responded in a cracking voice.
I don’t know if she told me directly then, but I understood that those papers were the only way to prove our American Indian ancestry. Although there was a small material benefit lost, (American Indians receive educational benefits from the US government), I think she was more heartbroken on the loss of that chunk of the puzzle. A puzzle which she can’t complete without documentation.
My great grandfather was a smart man, seriously. His family left the famous Carolinian foothills for Arkansas before the forced and bloody exodus to Oklahoma. In an age when discrimination was more rampant than now, he decided to lie about his heritage. Despite being full-blooded Cherokee, he portrayed himself as “black French” – I believe an olden term to generally describe darker shaded people from that region. I’m not sure how much actual advantage he or his father acquired from lying about his ancestry; at least, I assume, he was able to provide for his own.
Even though we don’t have identification that proves we have authentic American Indian ancestry, the heritage is obvious when you look at my mom, sister or brother. I look more like a mix when I have a tan, and the comparison is easier when I’m around other American Indians.
We cannot deny our heritage, especially when we look into mirrors.
So despite papers, my mom would load my brother and I up into her little vehicle and drive us to the mountains. My sister was already in college by the time Mom started to explore the modern extension of our people.
Mom also started to read about our culture, and there was a section or a story in her book about Cherokee parenting.
“The Cherokee,” she told me, “would not tell their children, “Don’t touch that pot! It’s hot.” Instead, they would say, “If you touch the hot pot, it will hurt you.” In this way, the children would learn to trust the instruction of their parents after feeling the pain on their own.”
This Cherokee parenting wisdom stuck with me.
I try to incorporate this into my own parenting style as much as I can. I prefer it because I can lower my threshold for what is actually dangerous, and let them feel the pain of foolishness on their own.
In the US, there’s a very popular saying, “Curiosity killed the cat.” Cats, like children, are very curious. Cats have been found dead after touching a power line or doing something else that they didn’t know would kill them.
I don’t want my children to be more dominated by inquisitiveness than cautioned by the discomfort of reality.
In this Cherokee teaching style, I don’t need to tell them, “That tree is too high, stay off of it because I said so.” They’ll just keep meandering back out of consuming curiosity and adventure if I forced them to obey without any explanation. Now, I can simply say, “I’m not going to help you get up or get down. Do it yourself. If you can’t climb the tree on your own, it’s too high. Be careful coming down, if you fall, it might hurt.”
Trusting my voice and trusting that pain is real, they consider more carefully the feat of climbing the skinny but fun trees at the Wudaokou playground. They have felt pain from their own mistakes and understand the risks. Curiosity has been tempered with caution.
The first time I let them feel pain was when they were trying to walk. As awful as some may think, I let them fumble onto the floor to experience that pain. There was no real risk at their ages. At an 8-month-old height, they’re not falling very far. No sharp table edges were nearby. The carpet was plush enough that the pain would only hurt a bit. Of course they cried, but only for a few seconds until the thrill of a few steps sent them back into wobbly walking.
I didn’t need to let them play with a pot heating over a fire for them to understand that the word “hot” is closely associated with pain. They learned that water gets hot, ovens get hot, food gets hot, water gets hot, clothes get hot, etc. I’m so thankful hot is associated with pain because we’ve been in genuinely dangerous situations where a pot boiled over or they were playing too close to an exposed heater in another home. “That’s hot!” produced a response of caution.
Despite this understanding of danger and pain, my daughter is still totally wild and active. She loves climbing, acting silly-drunk, falling on the floor, sliding down forwards, backwards, headfirst and riding her little brother like an airplane. She likes licking things. She likes screaming, laughing in an annoying way on purpose. Our cleaning lady said she was very scared when she watched her skillfully climb up the side of our stairwell. She’s four.
I feel like this valuable Cherokee tradition has made keeping my job of protecting her much easier than if I never let her feel pain. Or never let her taste dirt or other disgusting things.
What cultural characteristic have you adopted in your life?
My mom taught me this cultural lesson, but who taught you?
Tell me your story in the comments. I want to hear.