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  • Reading HistoryCherokee History through a Cherokee Lens
  • Heidi M. Altman (bio) and Thomas N. Belt (bio)

The relationships between language, culture, and thought are dauntingly complex and have been explored primarily in the specialized fields of linguistic anthropology and cognitive linguistics, and then only from time to time as the fashions of academic discourse allow. We propose, however, that a contemplation of such relationships can be productively brought to bear on ethnohistory as well. The field of ethnohistory currently incorporates language, for the most part, only as a part of historical comparisons primarily focused on tracing population movements, discovering names for population centers, or documenting the introduction of various items into particular cultures. By viewing words as simple artifacts of a culture, historians and anthropologists fail to realize the potential that language holds for a deeper understanding of the perspectives and insights on the processes of history that have developed within oral traditions that span many generations and historical periods. Interpretations formed outside the framework of Native language, despite the intent to incorporate Native knowledge, still serve to advance a Western or European perspective on history, which is, in fact, difficult for most practitioners to escape. History in this view still objectifies Native peoples and contextualizes their experience within an alien system. Therefore, we contend that the perspectives that are possible to achieve through understanding Native systems of history allow, at last, a more accurate "ethno" interpretation of the experience of Native peoples undergoing the immensely tumultuous processes of colonization, acculturation, and assimilation or defiance, resistance, and revitalization.

This essay presents portions of ethnolinguistic fieldwork that are drawn from a larger, ongoing project in which we are documenting the [End Page 90] relationships among Cherokee language, worldview, and health. As we develop our ideas and bring to the surface indigenous knowledge about those issues we also find that tangentially related perspectives arise. In terms of the health project, interpreting history from a Cherokee language base is a central factor in constructing culturally appropriate Cherokee models for addressing intergenerational grief and trauma because it affords perspectives on how speakers see the relationships between past trauma, present-day health and social concerns, and the right path forward. Establishing the right path and following it into the future is the Cherokee way of addressing past trauma while still keeping its significance in mind. Educating health-care providers as to Cherokee perspectives on the relationships among individuals, community, and culture through the language is our ultimate goal. However, the development of this indigenous model of history and its continuity with the current moment also provides fresh viewpoints on ethnohistorical methods, and those are the points we wish to make here.

Cherokee Language and Worldview

As we have written elsewhere, the basis of Cherokee worldview is best expressed through the Cherokee concepts tohi and osi.1 Tohi is a Cherokee morpheme that indicates the state in which nature is flowing at its appropriate pace and everything is as it should be. This fundamental concept is used in greetings and responses ("Tohi-gwa-tsv? " "Tohi-gwu."), and in a variety of other instances and constructions that indicate an underlying concern with the notion that things be flowing well in the Cherokee world. Tohi can be glossed variously as "well," "peaceful," "unhurried," and "health." In the Cherokee speakers' view, if the state of tohi becomes disrupted there can be disastrous consequences, and communities that are disrupted in this way can be dangerous or unhealthy places to live.

In addition to and as an adjunct to tohi, the concept of osi describes the proper state of the individual person. Visualized as upright, facing forward, and resting on a single point of balance, osi is also used in greetings and replies ("osi-gwa-tsv? " "osi-gwu."), and in other contexts that indicate that the notion of an individual's state of being is crucial in ensuring that all is flowing well in the larger Cherokee world. Osi is properly understood as referring to the state of neutrality and balance, but it is most often glossed as "good." If individuals are out of balance, they can cause problems in the larger system. [End Page 91]

Taken together these two...


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