Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Boy Who Thought He Owned His Culture

My name is Little Running Bull. As you can guess, I am what they call a Native American. I am told that just means I was here before the white man came. This was our land, my people’s land, long before they came and took it away from us. In the white man’s world I am known as Timothy Cox- a mixed breed. But I am of the Cherokee Tribe. My mother saw to that. My people call themselves Ani-Yun’ wiya, which means we are the leading people, or THE people. My great, great, great grandfather was Atakullakulla, Chief of the Great People. My great, great grandfather was Tsi’yu-gunsini, or Chief Dragging Canoe. He led the noble rebellion against the white man. But what most white men don’t know about my people is that we trace our lineage not by our fathers, but by our mothers. This is one of many things that white man has wiped out of our culture. Tsi’yu-gunsini once said, “The white man…is not satisfied with the land beyond the mountains, or the land beside the Watauga, or the land along the Nolichucky. Now he wants still more. And what we do not give him, he will take away until our whole Nation is gone from this earth.”

I grew up on the res (reservation) in North Carolina. I remember the ceremonies and museums, the show that the people would put on for tourists. As a child I was always fascinated by the dances, the costumes. But it was strange, and confusing, to see the people dress and act so different than how I knew them when a show wasn’t going on. John Badger delivered the mail every day to the little trailer me and mom lived in, but on the weekends, when the tourists would come, he dressed up like the Tribal Chief, and would dance around and make funny sounds. They even had a different name for him- Chief Sitting Bull. Wasn’t the real Sitting Bull of the Lakota Sioux tribe? Many, many years of questions thrown out to the wind.

As I grew into a young man, my understanding of my true cultural identity grew, as did my frustration with the false cultural identity that was so often imposed on me. I am an Indian– I’ve known that since I could even formulate conscious thoughts. But the real culture coursed through my daily life, through my veins, while the imposed over-culture became like a side-show spectacle. I would often stand and watch the shows on the weekends, and then go inside to the museum at the reservation cultural center where mom worked. I would stand for hours looking at all the arrowheads and pottery, and painted images of village life. I imagined what life was like for my ancestors. It was an escape from the monotony of life and the poverty of being fatherless. It’s hard to grow up with such a confused idea of what being Indian means and not feel angry about it. Mom would so often talk about “the ways of our people”, and yet I felt like the only grasp I had of that existed in glass cases in the reservation’s museum- untouchable. Mom said that all those artifacts that belonged to our ancestors are sacred, and it was really against our religion to collect them from their resting places anyway. I knew I came from a lineage of great warriors. Mom told me about that too- just enough to encourage my pride, but not enough to undergird my anger. It was my teenage years, and searching on my own, that led me to understand what my great, great grandfather stood for. And I so desperately wanted to identify with that. Those artifacts underneath glass cases- they didn’t belong to those tourists. They belonged to my people. Some of them, I believed, belonged to my direct ancestors, and should have rightfully been with my family. So it shouldn’t be hard to understand why, one late evening, in my naïve and angry youth, I broke into the museum and stole several artifacts. I took them to a hiding place in a small cave in the woods, and would wait anxiously all week until I could go and hold them, feel them in my palm, run my fingers along their edges. This weekend ritual continued for weeks, until winter came. After a particularly bad storm washed out many of the roads on the res, I headed up to check on my precious artifacts, only to discover that heavy rains had picked them up and washed them down, where they tumbled along with other debris, and most of them were broken into pieces. These beautifully preserved ancestral pieces that I had so worshipped were reduced to broken and humble pieces of history because of my naivety and youthful rebellion.  It is one of my biggest regrets.

A.K. Shaw


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