What we can learn from the Cherokee

Image of Harry Eyres

In 1762, a delegation of three distinguished Cherokee leaders accompanied by a Virginian ensign, Henry Timberlake, arrived in England and became one of the sensations of the summer season. They were entertained at Wilton House in Salisbury by the Earl of Pembroke, admired by Goldsmith and Reynolds (who painted a fine portrait of the charismatic Chief Ostenaco), and granted an audience with King George III, who presented Ostenaco with a silver vessel inscribed with his name.

Some may have regarded the visitors as picturesque primitives but, in fact, they were prosperous Appalachian farmers, who depended on trade with the British and wanted to restore relations that had broken down following the French and Indian war.

Ostenaco, in particular, was not just a formidable warrior but an astute politician and inspired orator who had seen the importance of protecting trade routes. A close friendship had developed between him and Timberlake after the young soldier volunteered to go on a peace mission by canoe to the Cherokee villages. He ended up staying months, writing an absorbing account of the Cherokee way of life.

This first visit to England may have been a triumph but a second mission, two years later, when Timberlake once again accompanied his friend Ostenaco, was much less successful. This time there was an explicitly political motive: a plea to the king to respect the “proclamation line” of 1763, which had been violated by settlers. Lord Halifax, a minister, turned down the request on the grounds that it was unofficial. However, in spite of this, the Cherokee continued to support the British and made the strategic error of siding with them in the American war of independence.

Not surprisingly, a Cherokee delegation to England this summer chose to recall and, as far as possible, repeat the glittering first mission: the visitors were entertained by the current Earl of Pembroke in a miraculously unchanged Wilton, and granted an audience not with Queen Elizabeth II but with a possibly more relevant figure, Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt. Unfortunately, they were not painted by one of the big beasts of British art. Where were you, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin?

I met Elizabeth Bird, Lynne Harlan and Jack Baker in the café of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and I couldn’t help reflecting that they cut more modest, even humble, figures than the splendid chief Ostenaco, with his embroidered robes and silver-tooled tomahawk. This, no doubt, reflects the tribulations their people have gone through in the past 250 years. But in their humble and modest way, they might have lessons to impart to the culture that once considered itself superior to them.

Tribulations is perhaps too mild a word to use of the sufferings of the Cherokee at the hands of the young American democracy founded on the Enlightenment principles of brotherhood and equality. They were betrayed, maltreated, forced from land they had occupied for centuries, rounded up in concentration camps and driven on one of the most notorious eviction marches in US history, the Cherokee Trail of Tears of 1838. When the Supreme Court found in their favour, against the state of Georgia, which wanted to remove them, President Andrew Jackson said: “Build a fire under them. When it gets hot enough, they’ll go.” One of the soldiers who enforced their removal in 1838 later confessed that “the Cherokee removal was the cruellest work I ever saw”.

The Cherokee I met in the V&A did not want to recall any of this painful history. In their determined way the Cherokee have not only survived but prospered (some of their prosperity comes from casinos and related tourism but they are diversifying into other economic areas, including electronic wiring for space programmes). Before their removal from the Appalachians to Oklahoma, the Cherokee had developed, in 1821, the first syllabary of a native American language, a written constitution and, in 1828, a newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix. In their new homeland they have become the most numerous of all the Native American peoples.

I was interested in asking Elizabeth, Lynne and Jack about the distinctive values of their people. They seemed shy at first but then spoke more confidently about the priority they give to the elderly, even above the young, about the importance of history (“I sit here representing all my ancestors”), about the natural environment (they are restocking trout streams) and about gadugi, the value of working together for the good of the community.

This value operates in the areas of social housing, education and healthcare, which mainstream American politics and society, for all their wealth, often seem to neglect. The Cherokee nation operates the second-largest tribal healthcare system in the US and has provided more than 26,000 higher education scholarships over the past decade.

Perhaps a bit more gadugi is what we all need now.


More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.