Teaching 'the human people' Whether they are an actual tribe is debated.
GRASSY, Mo. -- Eleven miles west of Marble Hill, off of Route H, is the 50-acre homeland of the AhNiYvWiYa (Ah-ni-yu-wi-ya) tribe of American Indians.
Their name translates to English as "the human people," and that theirs is a peaceful, humane community is not in doubt. They practice and speak an ancient language and uphold centuries-old traditions. Tribal members say they want little more of the outside world than to be left in peace and granted 501c(3) status as a not-for-profit group.
"We had to hide for many years because Missouri passed a law that no Indians could live in the state. And even today we're still cautious," said chief Paul White Eagle. He refered to a law passed in the 19th century.
Two Sundays ago, as he does most others, White Eagle led 12 members of the tribe in a language lesson.
With his long black hair tied back with a red bandanna and a camouflage jacket worn jauntily, the 69-year-old led the class in exercises. "Oh-si-yo," he said in a lilting voice, a greeting that roughly translates to, "how are you."
The class is still learning the fundamentals, but in later weeks they will make a trip to Wal-Mart, where only AhNiYvWiYa will be used while shopping for produce and appliances.
"People are going to look at us like we're crazy," joked White Eagle. The ancestral language, he said, is the ultimate in straight talk.
"When we ask, "Ne-hi-na?" that means, "How are you?" but the "na" part means it's just casual. You're saying, 'Just the basics, I don't want your whole medical history,'" he said. "We're very open and honest when we speak our own language."
Tribe members, numbering about 200, come from all over the area, with some commuting as much as 90 minutes to attend Sunday classes.
White Eagle says AhNiYvWiYa is the Cherokee language spoken the way his ancestors spoke it before many of the words were Anglicized.
"They have nothing now except pow-wow and stomp dance. They've lost everything," White Eagle said of the Cherokee.
White Eagle is writing a comprehensive dictionary of the language, which has 86 symbols. He is a fierce defender of its purity.
"We refuse to let the language change. We refuse to let the white man change it, and most importantly, we refuse to let the Cherokee change it," he said.
Tribe members seem committed to learning. They say being able to speak AhNiYvWiYa puts them in closer touch with their ancestors.
Stephen Wind Walker wears a backward hat that reads, "Native Pride." Asked for his age he says, "32 winters," using the traditional timekeeping method.
He was raised in Georgia and has some native blood on his mother's side but says he wasn't told much about his heritage growing up.
"A lot of native peoples used to shun it because they were living in a racist society, so after generations the traditions get lost," he said.
Meeting White Eagle 10 years ago answered a lot of questions he had about himself and his Indian heritage, he said.
"You always know it's there like you've got a calling. You feel something pulling on you even if you don't know what it is. That was my ancestors keeping an eye on me, telling me to come back to who I really am."
Five years ago, he became the adopted son of White Eagle. He is now building a cabin on the Grassy property and plans to raise his 5-year-old son there with "the old ways."
"I want that for him. This land will always be here, the property is ours. All we'll ever owe on it is our insurance money," he said.
AhNiYvWiYa tribal members like Wind Walker are enthusiastic about their culture. Some observers, though, have questioned the legitimacy of this heritage and the truthfulness of the stories they tell the world and each other.
"It's sad. I feel like a lot of the people down there have been defrauded by Paul," said Glinda Ladd Seabaugh, owner of the Cherokee Trails shop on Broadway in Cape Girardeau. She has meticulously traced her own native ancestry back to the 18th century and says she doubts White Eagle's native bloodlines.
"He tells them a lot of things about what it means to be, what they call AhNiYvWiYa, and it's just not accurate. They believe him because they don't know any better," said Seabaugh.
Most of the AhNiYvWiYa do not look native at all. Blue eyes and fair features are not uncommon among their ranks. Talk to them and most claim only a grandparent or even a great-grandparent of any Cherokee stock.
So are they really Indian?
It's an uncomfortable question that gets to the heart of ethnicity and identity in the 21st century. In a melting pot world, who gets to decide who the "real" members of any group should be?
"We do not look at a quantum of blood," said White Eagle of his tribal requirements.
"Most people will not be able to find documentation, so we ask people to trace any family history they can. Through our spiritual ceremonies, they will be shown. What we ask of people is that they're willing to learn language and want to be part of our true culture," White Eagle said.
He also says it's wrong to believe all native people should have dark skin and Asiatic features.
"Our tribe was very different from many other tribes. We did not come across the Bering Strait. So many people have an idea that all natives should have an Asian type of appearance. In fact they varied as much in appearance and makeup as people from the nations of Europe," he said.
According to their history, the AhNiYvWiYa broke off from the Cherokee shortly after crossing the Mississippi River during the 1839 forced march to Oklahoma known as the Trail of Tears.
Each night while the freezing, bedraggled marchers camped in Cape Girardeau County, one of "the human people" would slip off and escape to join the others in the Southeast Missouri swampland near Crowley's Ridge.
They believe this separation from the Cherokee was prophesied by their ancestors. This select few made up the Anikutani Clan, a group of priests who doggedly stuck to traditional ways of doing things.
They also say that their people lived "underground" for 150 years in this area for fear of persecution. They met at night in the secluded swamplands to hold traditional dances, celebrations and government functions. When day broke they melted back into society.
"Those who could escape did so and went underground really until the early 1990s," White Eagle said.
Seabaugh, whose native ancestors lived and farmed in that area up until 1940, calls this version of history a fantasy.
"There's just no facts to it," she said.
Her own ancestors lived in the Dexter/Essex, Mo., area until 1940. They are listed in the Guion Miller Roll Book, a sort of census of Northern Cherokee peoples taken in 1909. Though Cherokee were living there, she said they did not break off from the Trail of Tears and did not hold night ceremonies.
"If you make claims like that, you have to be able to document it, and he doesn't have any documentation," she said.
Dr. Frank Nickell, director of the Center for Regional History at Southeast Missouri State University, said he does not know whether the AhNiYvWiYa story is true but has seen nothing verifying it in his research.
Part of the surge of native groups in recent years, he said, is a cultural phenomenon.
Point of pride
The attitude in America toward having native heritage changed in the late 1960s as environmentalism came more into vogue. The popularity accelerated even more in the 1970s when the history of the Trail of Tears began to be taught in schools.
Whereas previously Indians were ashamed to admit their ancestry, today it's often a point of pride. "It used to not be popular to be Indian. It used to be very bad if you had Indian blood in your system," he said. "Think of Injun Joe in Tom Sawyer. He was a person who was sort of the dregs of society, not a noble character at all. That was the image."
Now, Nickell says, for many people it is attractive to have suffering and endurance in their family history.
"In the past in the United States, you became a hero by hitting a home run in the last of the ninth or throwing the winning touchdown pass," he said. "But I think as our society ages, we move more and more toward that endurance, people saying, 'Look at what I've overcome.' That's becoming our idea of heroic."
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