From Chilhowee to Tahlequah: Students prepare for week of service with Native Americans

May 14, 2002

Hailing from a state that derives its name from an old Cherokee village hasn't made them scholars of Native American ways.

Neither has attending classes in the shadow of a mountain range named "Chilhowee" or grabbing a bite to eat at a sandwich shop off Old Tuckaleechee Pike.

"I think I've been fairly aware of the Native American presence in this country, but I don't think I've always had a good understanding of their importance and historical significance," said Sonja Hanchar, a Maryville College freshman from Clarksville, Tenn.

Hanchar and a group of Maryville College students have spent the spring semester studying Native American history, culture, accomplishments and modern-day challenges. On Friday, May 17, she and 14 students and two staff members will board vans headed for Tahlequah, Okla., and a week of volunteering with the Cherokee Nation.

The Cherokee Nation is the federally recognized government of the Cherokee people and thereby has sovereign status. Tahlequah is the capital of the Cherokee Nation, but the jurisdictional service area includes all of eight counties and portions of six in northeastern Oklahoma.

"I think it will be a neat learning experience," Hanchar said of the trip. "I think it will be neat to see how similar - and how different - we may be from the Native Americans.

"The focus of the trip will be service, but I'm interested in finding out about their traditions - and finding out how traditional they are," she continued.

Hanchar and her peers involved in the project are Bonner Scholars finishing their first year at the College. Funded by the Bonner Foundation of Princeton, N.J., the Bonner Scholars program provides four-year community service scholarships and is designed to heighten the overall education a Scholar receives by asking students to engage in ongoing service work and helping them develop the tools and the knowledge necessary to make that work meaningful and lasting. To receive the scholarship, students must commit to many hours of volunteering both during the school year and throughout the summer.

"The Bonner Foundation wanted freshmen to have a culminating, end-of-the-year experience," explained Jennifer Pierce, the College's associate for service, mission and outreach and one of the staff members participating in the trip. "This group has never done a service project together, so this will be a good bonding experience."

Pierce and the College's Bonner Scholars program coordinator, Jennifer West, wrote a proposal to the Bonner Foundation for the trip to Tahlequah.

"The trip was Jennifer West's idea," Pierce said. "I think she was motivated and inspired by [my husband] Danny's and my having lived in Oklahoma, and she has Cherokee ancestry herself. Plus, being so close to Cherokee, N.C. - we didn't know if students were aware of the history of our area that isn't directly related to their own history."

This semester, students have spent many Monday nights together, sharing research on Native American historical figures, traditions, spirituality, music, games, literature, governance and medicine. In preparation for trip, students have discussed modern-day problems and challenges facing the Native Americans, as well. They intensely studied the politics and truths behind the Trail of Tears.

The first leg of the group's trip will stop in Chattanooga at Ross's Landing, which is named for John Ross (principal chief of the Cherokee Nation) and from where Cherokee parties were forced onto boats on the Tennessee River and sent west in 1838. The student group will then head west toward Memphis, then Arkansas, then Oklahoma.

"We debated quite a bit about following the actual Trail of Tears, but that route would have taken us three days," Pierce said, explaining that the group would have had to sacrifice time out of an already full schedule.

From May 18 until May 24, the group will be staying at Lutherhoma, a Lutheran church camp, on the outskirts of Tahlequah. In exchange for a reduced fee for lodging, students and staff members will reconstruct a canteen at the camp. While in Tahlequah and volunteering with the Cherokee Nation, the students will be renovating a food pantry, cooking and serving meals to elderly people in the community and repairing homes.

"Our contact at the Cherokee Nation told me that she wants to see these Bonner Scholars become role models for the young people in Tahlequah," Pierce said, explaining that a spirit of service among the youth in the Cherokee Nation could positively impact all generations.

Today, many young and older Native Americans struggle with societal and medical problems such as poverty, diabetes, alcoholism, gang violence and discrimination. Throughout the preparation for the trip, Pierce said she has encouraged students to put away preconceived stereotypes and consider Native Americans' struggle for equality when issues of civil rights and racial equality come up.

And she has encouraged them to embrace the differences in culture.

"I think students are looking forward to being immersed in another culture," she said. "One student requested that we have a traditional dinner while we're there … I think they're also looking forward to traveling - many have not seen that part of the country before - and I think they're looking forward to serving others. Being in the [Bonner] program for a year now, they have that heart to serve."

En route to Tahlequah and during their stay, students will read books related to the Cherokee tribe and Native American ways. In addition to their reading, they will keep journals, write reports and lead group reflections on what they have seen, heard, completed or experienced during a particular day.

Hanchar said she expects the trip to broaden her perspective on the United States and the government's policies toward Native Americans. She said she also expects to be made keenly aware of the conveniences and privileges she has been afforded as a "white person."

"The weekly meetings that we've had to prepare for this trip have been very valuable," she said. "Everyone has been involved in the learning, and it's encouraged us to open our eyes.

"I think we'll take a lot from this trip."