By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
We are blessed to live in some of the most beautiful land in the world. Next to our people, it is our most valuable and cherished resource. The Qualla Boundary consists of our 56,000 acres of real estate, held in federal trust for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Long before there was a “federal”, many Cherokee people made their home here in what is now known as the western North Carolina mountains.
Cherokee relationship and respect for the land, water, and air are legendary. It has been a spiritual affair for our people. Our stories and legends are filled with references to plants and animals, and the powers of the wind, water, and soil. We have loved the lands provided by the Creator since anyone can remember and before there were documents of history.
If you speak with an elder, you will hear that love come out in the stories of their childhoods. Our grandmothers and grandfathers lived in a time when it was important to preserve, taking from the land only what was needed for survival. We were not people of excess. Good living was having enough to eat, a warm, dry place to sleep, and a safe place to raise a family. There was joy in personal relationship with family and community.
For good and bad, times change. European influence and “civilization” brought cultural changes that caused many to stop loving the land and start lusting after the products of the land. Over time, we have lost much of the reverence we had for the land, water, wind, and, for that matter, the Creator. We no longer just take what we need. We take what we want, regardless of the long-term consequences to our environment or to those in our family and community. Ignoring the warning of our ancestors, and our elders, we continue to live with a mentality of excess. We take from a stream until it runs dry, then we begin hunting for a new stream. We abuse the land until it is unproductive, then we begin hunting for more land. We contaminate our air until we cannot breathe, then we hunt for fresh air. The natural resources that we have enjoyed for so long are showing the signs of our neglect.
Several years ago, the Junaluska Youth Council started a recycling drive to get us, as a government and community, to focus on renewable resources and conservation. They provided recycling materials and held education forums. They distributed literature to train us up on how to help the environment. They made a valiant effort to move us to think before we used and responsibly reused.
They got through to some of us.
Some offices still have the blue recycling trash cans left over from that drive. But, most of us don’t pay any attention to them. If you examine many of those bins, you will find non-recyclable and recyclables thrown in together. In fact, inside the Council House, there are trash bins with a top that has holes with different markings for “trash” and “recyclables” that have no dividers in them. No matter which hole you throw your trash in, it goes into the same bag. The EBCI Sanitation Department still carries the bulk of the load when it comes to recycling efforts on the Boundary, separating what they can at the collection centers.
Over the years, we have witnessed oil and gas spills from old leaking gas station tanks, sewage spills from overflows, and degradation from erosion and neglect. There are old buildings and signs that rust and rot into the ground, taking away from the beautiful of our land and damaging our ability to generate life-sustaining revenue for people, present and future.
We cannot talk love of environment and not show it. Our actions speak louder than our words. It is up to each of us to make this a better place to live. We must honor the wisdom and sacrifices of our elders. Saying we honor them and then not heeding their wisdom is, in fact, dishonor. We are deceiving them and ourselves. The Cherokee people, against the odds and suffering great adversity, held on to this great land we call the Qualla Boundary. We have not just survived. We have thrived. We are a great people and a strong economic power. We will continue to be so if we will only remember the teachings of our ancestors, and return to our love of land, water, and wind.