John Bullet Standingdeer, a member of the Warriors of AniKituhwa of Cherokee, N.C., has more than 40 years of experience as a Native American dancer. In this video, he describes the cultural importance of the ceremonial Eagle Dance, performed by the Warriors of AniKituhwa, and the social Beaver Dance, performed by the Raven Rock Dancers.
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Historically, the Cherokee peoples lived throughout the southern Appalachian Mountains in large towns and small villages. Their vast territory spread across parts of what are now the eight states of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. Archaeologists have found evidence that the Cherokee lived in this territory for at least 13,000 years.
In the 1800s, the United States government began a policy of forcing the Native peoples of the eastern United States to move to Oklahoma, where they would be given lands. Some Cherokee moved voluntarily, but most did not want to go. The majority of the tribe was forced to emigrate in 1838 and 1839, and today there are two separate Cherokee nations in Oklahoma. Some of the Cherokee managed to hide in the Appalachian Mountains. Later, a friend of the Cherokee named Will Thomas bought land for them in North Carolina (at that time no Native people were allowed to own land). Today that land is owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee and is known as the Qualla Boundary. The boundary encompasses 57,000 acres, and about 8,000 of the estimated 11,000 Eastern Band Cherokee live there. It is located next to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
As in most Native cultures, dance was an important part of Cherokee traditions, both ceremonial and social. However, in the early 1800s, many Cherokees adopted the customs and lifestyles of their Euro-American neighbors. It was their hope that they would be allowed to remain in their homelands if they acted as much like their new neighbors as possible. This meant that some Cherokee people gave up many of their traditions. When the tribe was split up during the Trail of Tears, the forced removal west, the Cherokees who remained in North Carolina were a small group, and once again, they lost many traditions, or at least they kept those traditions very private and secret. During the long period in which Cherokee children were taken from their parents and forced to attend American boarding schools, they were not permitted to speak their Cherokee language or dance any Cherokee dances, so only a few elders of the tribe remembered the language and traditional dances. In the 1990s, the Eastern Band of Cherokee finally won the right to teach what they wanted to in their own school, and a great effort began to bring back the Cherokee language and traditions. The Warriors of AniKituhwa and the Raven Rock Dancers are an important part of this effort.
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