Sat July 5, 2008
For some Cherokees, group offers way home
By Devona Walker
Lee Burgess, a Cherokee, was nicknamed "Whitey” as a child because of his fair skin.
At 19, he returned home from fighting in World War II and made a conscientious decision to live as a white man. He traveled the United States, doing construction work. He spent 35 years with a local tire company. He bought a home. He survived prostate cancer. He never married. He does not know other Cherokees.
"It was really my momma who said it. She said, ‘It's a white man's world. You're going to have to make a living now, so you're going to have to get out there in it,'” Burgess said. "White people had all the good jobs and all the privileges. And that's what I wanted and that's what I wanted to be. And that's what I became.”
From time to time, he has made the drive back up U.S. 62, taking his foot off the accelerator as he passes the sign that says he is now entering the Cherokee Nation, just east of Muskogee.
It was there that he fell in love with fishing and became acquainted with the tall rocks at Lake Tenkiller. He recalls the day he got his draft papers at age 17, and the next day, when his father went down to the draft board "raising hell.”
He returned home to Muskogee from war to find his mother in front of the same TV program she was watching the day he left. He remembers the quarrel he and his brother had so long ago, one that still troubles him some 10 years after his brother's death.
Still a Cherokee, but living outside the tribal nation
For Burgess, who is 80 and lives in Oklahoma City, the words "Cherokee Nation” mean both tribe and family. He has lived his life as an expatriate, outside its jurisdiction, but he votes absentee in every election. It is still his home.
"You know that old saying, you can never go home again. If I went back home again, I'd be like a stranger and I'd be treated like a white man,” Burgess said.
About six in 10 Cherokee tribal members live outside the Cherokee Nation jurisdictional area. The area encompasses all or part of 14 counties in northeast Oklahoma, inside which the Cherokee Nation is a sovereign tribal government.
At a recent meeting in Oklahoma City, tribal leaders offered an olive branch to expatriates living outside the area — the beginning of a Cherokee group in Oklahoma City and the promise of an Indian hospital in the city and college scholarships for Cherokee children who live outside the nation.
In return, the tribe hopes to bolster its voting bloc, becoming a more persuasive voice in state and perhaps national politics.
"Reconnecting expatriate communities is a fundamental part of building community. We bind ourselves together as a community, and not just in the Cherokee Nation proper,” Cherokee Principal Chief Chad Smith said. "What we encourage is that expatriate community members reconnect with their tribe, and their family. For us to survive as a people, we have to have a sound community foundation. It helps the nation, and it helps the people.”
Smith said Cherokees have survived numerous U.S. policies that have not respected American Indian sovereignty. At times, the U.S. has been supportive, Smith said, and at other times the federal government has sought to destroy the Cherokee Nation. And there have been other times, such as now, he said, when the government has left the tribe alone to thrive and survive.
Tribal unity, he emphasized, is important because times are bound to change.
A few months ago, Smith was invited to speak as part of the eighth annual Cherokee National Legislative Day at the state Capitol. But he was later denied the opportunity to speak during a committee hearing on the English-only bill. Mike Miller, Cherokee Nation spokesman, said the incident was symptomatic of the tenuous relationship between the nation and the country in which it lives. It illustrates the importance of uniting all Cherokees, he said.
J.R. Cook., another member of the tribe, works with youths. He, too, lives in Oklahoma City. Just as Burgess made a decision to live as a white man, Cook made a decision to re-acquaint himself with his tribal heritage.
"We're all pretty much in that same boat. Identity and figuring out ways of dealing with that,” Cook said. "It wasn't until right after college that I started to learn about my culture.”
Cook and Burgess were among more than 200 Cherokee expatriates called to an organizational meeting three weeks ago by the tribal government. Cook pointed to people in the room, some fair with blond hair, others dark-skinned.
"The majority of all Cherokees are going to be of mixed blood; we will be of all shades. So identity issues are always there,” Cook said.
For people like Burgess, reconnecting with the tribe could perhaps mean something more. He lives alone in a three-bedroom, two-bath ranch-style home on a cul de sac off N Council Road. His neighbor checks on him from time to time. He doesn't drive much anymore. And he doubts he will make it back to the Cherokee Nation's base area.
Sitting in his living room, Lee Burgess showed off a black-and-white photograph of a cousin who worked in the movies in the 1940s, a snake dancer named Buck Burgess.
"I'm awful proud of that Indian blood. I'm awful proud of their history,” he said. "They had it rough. The government drove them all across these United States.
(Many) of them died along the way. But they kept in there.”
For him, this group might be the closest he ever comes to going home again.