As a 4-year-old child, I had a recurring dream in which my father and I were running for our lives, chased by terrifying cannibals who happened to be a well-respected white family from our church. The dream ended with our leaping into the darkness to avoid being captured and eaten.
I grew up in Missouri, the place to which many of our Chickamauga Cherokee people immigrated, in the early 1800s, following a long resistance against European-American conquest and expansionism. There are no Indian reservations in Missouri, a state that hardly acknowledges its Indian population. I did not grow up speaking Cherokee nor did I know, until later, that powwows still exist. The only formal ceremonies my family participated in were those of the General Baptist Churches (e.g., Sunday School, Preaching, Altar-Call, Baptism, Communion, and Foot-Washing). However, I was raised to value oral tradition, revealed in the many stories of my family—most going back, only two to four generations, with just a few speaking of a time before our world was torn apart.
I was raised to pay close attention to significant dreams and visions and taught that all things, made by Creator, have life, personhood, and awareness. I was guided by an understanding of relatedness and respect; I was brought up with the land.
I remember coming home from Bible School and telling my momma, “The teacher said, ‘Animals don’t have souls.’”
“You know better than that,” Momma said, “But don’t argue; you’ll never convince them.”
I remember hoeing watermelons with my daddy and hearing him say that even the little grass plants will cry out when they are cut off from their roots.
I remember my grandma getting a far-off look in her eyes and saying, “In the old days, a hunter told the deer he was sorry.”
At 14, I spent a week at a church camp near the St. Francis range of the Ozarks. The first thing we campers were told upon arrival was “Don’t go in the woods. There are snakes in the woods!” Considering this an unreasonable restriction, each day, while other campers were busy playing softball or volleyball, I would slip into the woods to find a quiet place to sit, listen, and watch. For me, it was easier to hear the voice of Creator in quiet, secluded places, surrounded by trees and the soft voices of birds. As I sat among towering oaks on a hillside above the camp, I felt a distinct spiritual impression that the time had come for me to seek out a secluded hilltop to watch and pray for a few days. Although I did not know it at the time, my Chickamauga people refer to this as “Going on a Hill,” or sometimes as “Singing on a Mountain.” Afraid my parents would not understand, I had no idea how I was going to take leave for such an extended period of solitude.
Yet, Creator, being resourceful, took a different track with me. At 15, I began feeling a spiritual call to ministry. I was confused since I had never felt truly comfortable in church. For this reason, I decided to keep the call private and set myself to the task of reading and studying the Bible along with increasing my involvement in church.
In the summer of 1983 I met Janet Tucker. I was a 24-year-old college drop-out, working without salary on my parents’ farm, teaching Sunday school, leading the songs at our church, and singing in a Christian quartet. Also of Native ancestry, Janet lived on her family’s farm in the Hocking Hills of Ohio. We were pen pals for a few months until she took initiative and traveled to Missouri for a visit.
By the summer of 1985, Janet and I had been married for over a year. Living in what we called “the little house,” on her family’s farm, we tended the sheep while I did construction and oil-field work. We were active members of a Southern Baptist Church. Less than a month after our first child, Peter was born, in the evening, just at bedtime, I told Janet about my call to ministry, adding that it was time for me to make the call public. Janet cried all night long.
During my years as a Baptist minister, I swayed between (1) privately following a strong, spiritual leading toward Cherokee spiritual practices and (2) recoiling from fear that this was a compromise of my Christian belief, irreconcilable with biblical content. In December 1992, I was serving as pastor of Perkins Baptist Church in southeast Missouri while working toward a M.Div. at a branch-campus of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. That year, a young man suggested we do something special for our Christmas Eve service: wrap a large box with a fancy bow on top and, on slips of paper, write down things we wanted removed from our lives, e.g., perceived sins or issues of struggle. Before partaking of the Lord’s Supper bread and grape juice, we were individually to approach and drop the tightly folded slips of paper through a slot in the top of the brightly wrapped box—this would be our gift to Jesus. Finally, the box was to be taken outside the building and burned. Everyone liked the idea, and so it was incorporated into the service, that year.
Christmas Eve came and as I walked up to the decorated box that night, I thought of my struggle with issues related to Cherokee spirituality. Ultimately, I was willing to completely back off and forever leave the ways of Cherokee spirituality behind. On my slip of paper, I wrote a single word: IDOLATRY.
As the box burned that night, all of us stood in awe. A pasteboard box, holding only fifty to sixty small slips of paper, threw twenty-foot, multi-colored flames into the night. Showers of sparks dispersed and blended into the starry sky.
That night marked a turning point in my life. Shortly after, Creator’s communication during my prayer times stopped, except for a still, small voice that said, “Meet me on Des Arc.” The summer of 1993 found me fasting and praying on the summit of that remote Ozark peak in the St. Francis Range, the second highest mountain in Missouri, where Creator had much to show me. An internal process began in which my idols were stripped away, one by one. Surprisingly, none of them had anything to do with Cherokee spirituality!
Since January 1999, I have served as consultant/helper for Mid-American Indian Fellowships, a network of American Indian spiritual groups in Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas. Although MAIF is not a Christian organization, they have adopted the slogan, “following Jesus in the context of our Native cultures.” With Jesus’ life and teachings understood in the context of resistance to imperial colonization, MAIF’s organizational focus is on the decolonization of previously Christianized American Indian people and restoration of indigenous cultures.
Along with two of our four children, Janet and I live on a small subsistence farm in Bates County, Missouri. In our large garden plots, we raise indigenous heirloom crops such as Old Tobacco, Cherokee corn varieties, beans, squash, tomatoes, and peppers. Our family farm also serves as the site of the Daksi Grounds, a traditional Chickamauga Cherokee Practice Grounds established in the spring of 2010 with the coming of the Sacred Fire. Now, as a traditional medicine society member, I serve as Fire Keeper for the Daksi Grounds. Chickamauga people gather here from near and far to continue the six major, annual Chickamauga Cherokee ceremonies, and more.
The name “Daksi,” Cherokee for “Terrapin” or “Box Turtle,” is in reference to the following story, abbreviated from our oral tradition:
According to the old ones, Daksi or Terrapin was once a mighty warrior, much larger than he is today.
There came a time when some vengeful wolves captured Terrapin and threw him off a high cliff into the river at a place where the water was low and the bottom just one big solid rock. Falling from the precipice, Terrapin reasoned this might be the day he would die. Splashing through the shallow water and crashing into the stone bottom of the river, Terrapin’s shell shattered. He lay there in great pain, his blood flowing down the river. He could have died there, but with the wolves watching from above, Terrapin painfully crawled up, out of the river, onto the low bank opposite the cliff. There he lay, still bleeding, still in pain, but Terrapin began to sing. “Gu-da ye-wu; gu-da ye-wu. Gu-da ye-wu; gu-da ye-wu.” The English translation is, “I sew myself together,” “I sew myself together,” “I sew myself together,” “I sew myself together.”
As Terrapin continued to sing, the pieces of his shell began to come together. When Terrapin finished singing, he stood up, and with the wolves still watching, he walked away. Terrapin walked away much smaller and humbler than he had been before, and Terrapin will always bear the scars. But, Terrapin is still Terrapin or Daksi, as we call him. He is still the one Creator made him to be.
And so, the people gather at the Daksi Grounds, to sing ourselves together.
To Christian people who want to help with the decolonization and restoration of indigenous cultures, I say this: First, be honest enough to lay aside all claims to exclusive ownership of ultimate truth, for such claims are bigoted and, in the end, lead to violence (i.e. spiritual and cultural cannibalism). Look above and around, and know that the good news of Creator is everywhere heard and everywhere followed. Finally, live out your spirituality and do not interfere with others seeking to live out their own, even when others’ spiritualities seem very different.