The Scarlet & Black

The Student News Site of Grinnell College

The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Alt-Breaking (fry) bread in the Cherokee Nation

If my Alternative Break trip to the Cherokee Nation capital of Tahlequah, Oklahoma taught me one thing, it is that I have, for years, misjudged fry bread. According to the staff of our worksite, fry bread is made differently according to every family’s recipe, as passed down through the generations. This makes sense, because recipes and foods seem to be the traditions that many groups pass down most carefully. As the smiling cook at our worksite eagerly tore the foil off of the pan of fry bread that he had made especially for us to try, however, his creations did not match the image in my mind. Rather than disc with a hole in the middle, sprinkled with powdered sugar—my own recipe—the cook’s bread looked more like a malformed dinner role that had been tossed in a fryer. I said to myself, “That is fried bread, not fry bread.”

Perhaps I was wrong to think that my recipe for fry bread was the definitive one. It turns out that I had many naïve, preconceived notions that would be debunked on Alt. Break. While driving to Tahlequah, I was expecting to meet socioeconomically depressed, alcoholism- and unemployment-plagued people who receive poor quality education and federal services, and who were otherwise very marginalized members of U.S. society. Quite wrong. Despite its history of sordid treatment by the U.S. government, the modern Cherokee Nation appeared to be flourishing culturally. The Nation has even been historically better off than its surrounding communities—with impressive education and social services (helped perhaps by hydrocarbon development and, more recently, casinos).

I have two reflections to share:

Firstly, I am pleased to report that this Alt. Break trip epitomized the purpose of this column. The column is inspired every other week by the way students grow their understanding of the world beyond Grinnell’s bubble through unstructured conversations over meals (hence the title). As people bring together their unique backgrounds and insights, they open themselves to a process of collective learning—indeed, collective knowledge production, by synthesis.
This is precisely how my eleven companions and I learned about the Cherokee Nation. With little prior knowledge and no laptops or internet research to fall back upon, we were forced to use as resources ourselves and our own experiences working and traveling around in the Cherokee Nation. Our knowledge of the Cherokee Nation is predicated upon the total sum of what each person literally “brought to the table”. We gathered snippets of information by talking to the teachers we were assisting, reading the local newspaper, reading museum information placards and generally observing our surroundings. And at the end of each day, we would dump our collected knowledge onto the dinner table for each other’s scrutiny, and sift through our findings until long after our stomachs were full.

Secondly, I find the issue of Cherokee language fascinating. Every person I met expressed their Cherokee heritage with great enthusiasm, as a point of pride. A speaker at the new Chief’s inauguration made the crowd go wild when he recognized, after a list of dignitaries, the Cherokee Nation as the “most important people” there. Tribal membership is increasing daily, as more people find connections in their heritage to the Dawes Roll, the original federal listing of the members of the “Five Civilized Tribes” who received land grants in the Indian Territory.

Yet few people translate this enthusiasm into knowledge of “Ja-la-gi”. Many of the people I met did not know even the syllabic alphabet, or basic phrases such as “It’s raining”—phrases that my group learned in just a two-hour Cherokee Language class. I, for one, could not understand how one could claim to be an active member of a community without making the effort to speak its language; knowing the concepts through which we articulate our world seemed to me to be inseparable from any complete understanding of a group’s history.

Upon reflection, however, this linguistic loss makes a sad sort of sense. For one, the federal government attempted, historically, to eradicate Cherokee. And economically speaking, why spend resources teaching a child a language that will not directly help them to integrate into the broader market? For adult non-legacy-speakers the chances are worse still—how to find time and energy, in a busy life?

All of this to say: it is sad that minority languages are weak, even where political support is high. Yet the battle is not mine to fight.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover
Donate to The Scarlet & Black
Our Goal

Comments (0)

All The Scarlet & Black Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *