Cherokee Wolves Share Native Traditions and Culture

Joan Jackson
By Joan Jackson December 15, 2010 16:05

“When I was a little girl my mother would not allow me to tell anyone I was Cherokee because people would look down on you,” says red-headed, blue-eyed Millie Batchelor.

“But,” she adds, “I’ve been proud of it all my life.”

Six years ago, Millie gathered with an enthusiastic group of friends to form the “Tsa la gi a ni waya” or  “Cherokee Wolves,” dedicated to sharing the Cherokee culture with folks in the Mother Lode. Traditionally, the wolf is honored as a sacred teacher.

Launched in June 2004 with a presentation at Columbia State Historic Park, the Wolves teach about the social structure, food, clothing, music, language, education and history of their people. They have spoken regularly at schools throughout the area and at clubs, churches and care homes.

“Last year we reached 1,500 people,” says Millie, 74.  “This year we will reach more.”

Dona King (left), Mary Saccucci and Sylver Schaller sing "Cherokee Morning Song" to Meadow View Manor residents

The Wolves are part of the Tuolumne Band of Cherokee Indians, a registered nonprofit that in 10 years has grown to 89 members. Some are full-blood Cherokee while others carry just a “smidge” of Cherokee blood; proof of blood heritage is not required.

“Even if you just have one drop, you are Cherokee,” notes Millie, whose great-grandmother was full-blood Cherokee.

When making presentations, each of the six Wolves speaks about an aspect of Cherokee life. Millie is the announcer and storyteller. Cozette Carson, 58, president of the Tuolumne Band, describes the tribe’s social structures.

“There are seven Cherokee clans,” Cozette explains. “Our council houses have seven sides and seven kinds of wood burn in the center fire.”

Women often have leadership roles in the Cherokee Nation, she says. They head the clans and often serve as chiefs. When a man marries, he becomes part of his wife’s clan. When they have children, the woman’s brother has a major role in raising them.

“I also tell people about the history … about the Trail of Tears,” says Cozette.

Many who have Cherokee ancestors have trouble tracing their blood lines, not only because of the horrific Trail of Tears march that tore Cherokee Indians from their homelands in 1838, but because Native American ancestry was often considered shameful and left off of birth rolls. “Everyone was ‘white,’” Cozette says wryly.

“We were called heathens and uneducated,” she adds. “This was not true.”

Ray Saccucci nods in agreement. “The Cherokee was the first tribe to have a written language,” he says.

In 1821, a Cherokee silversmith named Sequoyah developed a language syllabary of 86 characters. The Cherokee Nation adopted the syllabary in 1825 and their literacy rates soon surpassed those of the European-Americans. The Tuolumne Band is working to preserve its language and sponsors Cherokee language classes.

Ray, 75, and his wife, Mary, are both part of the Tuolumne Band Council of Elders. As a Cherokee Wolf, Mary teaches about modes of dress and jewelry. She is also the group’s spiritual advisor, sending out prayers each day “to take away all negativity, and for those who are sick.”

Dona King, 83, delights in teaching about foods and herbs. “The Cherokee women made everything. The ladies learned to feed their families with no stores and no cars,” she says.

When the Cherokee Wolves visit long-term care homes, King finds that residents “come awake” when she talks about hominy’s role in Native American diet. One elderly woman in a recent audience started from a brief doze to exclaim excitedly, “My mother used to make that!”

Schoolchildren and seniors alike are enthusiastic when they have the opportunity to grind corn, hold a talking stick, touch the tools, baskets and clothing or hear the stories and history. Angels Camp resident Sylver Schaller, another of the Wolves, often talks about weapons and tools, bringing a helmet from explorer Hernando de Soto’s time, in the 1500s. Dona laughs as she recalls the time Schaller put the helmet on an elderly care home resident “and the man just sat up and grew muscles.”

Throughout all of their teachings, the Cherokee Wolves weave a message of respect and love for the earth.

“Our creator gifted us with a great Mother Earth, the animals that walk the land, the birds in the sky, the fish in the water, the plants, our air and all good things,” explains Millie. “We must care for these now. Those that came before us, the ones now and the ones that come after us – we are all its protectors.”

To schedule a free presentation, call Millie Batchelor at (209) 532-1902. Learn more online at tuolumnecherokees.com. The Tuolumne Band meets from 2-4pm on the fourth Sunday of each month at the Tuolumne County Library, 480 Greenley Rd., Sonora, and welcomes visitors.

© 2010 Friends and Neighbors

Joan Jackson
By Joan Jackson December 15, 2010 16:05