Cherokee Thoughts: Honest and Uncensored
  • Cherokee Thoughts: Honest and Uncensored
  • Cherokee Thoughts: Honest and Uncensored

Cherokee Thoughts: Honest and Uncensored

by Robert J. Conley

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Gaming and chiefing. Imposters and freedmen. Distinguished novelist Robert J. Conley examines some of the most interesting facets of the Cherokee world. In 26 essays laced with humor, understatement, even open sarcasm, this popular writer takes on politics, culture, his people’s history, and what it means to be Cherokee.

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Gaming and chiefing. Imposters and freedmen. Distinguished novelist Robert J. Conley examines some of the most interesting facets of the Cherokee world. In 26 essays laced with humor, understatement, even open sarcasm, this popular writer takes on politics, culture, his people’s history, and what it means to be Cherokee.

Readers who think they know Conley will find an abundance of surprises in these pages. He reveals historical information not widely known or written about, such as Cherokee Confederate general Stand Watie’s involvement in the infamous Reconstruction treaty forced upon his people in 1866, and he explains his admiration for such characters as Ned Christie and Henry Starr, whom some might consider criminals. From legendary figures Dragging Canoe and Nancy Ward to popular icons like Will Rogers to contemporary “Cherokee Wannabes”—people seeking ancestral roots whether actual or fanciful—Conley traces the dogged persistence of the Cherokee people in the face of relentless incursions upon their land and culture.

“Cherokees are used to controversy,” observes Conley; “in fact, they enjoy it.” As provocative as it is entertaining, Cherokee Thoughts will intrigue tribal members and anyone with an interest in the Cherokee people.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Whether or not readers are already familiar with Cherokee history and culture, they will be gripped by this collection of lively essays from Conley, award-winning novelist, Oklahoma native and Cherokee Indian. The author weighs in with fresh and invariably personal emphasis on everything from the rise of Indian casinos to less generally appreciated topics and controversies like the history of Cherokee slavery and Cherokee freedmen. Also collected are rich reflections on Cherokee women and the legacy of the matriarchal clan, the (overlooked) breadth of Cherokee literature, renowned bank robber Henry Starr, Cherokee migration to California, Indian humor and much more. Conley roots his discussions in genial, deceptively unadorned prose that continually references real human beings, famous and otherwise, while maintaining a restless engagement with the relationship between politics, history and the use and misuse of language. His penchant for outspokenness may strike some readers as impulsive, but his prose and analyses, effortlessly blending indigenous and local knowledge with the larger Western cultural canon, have undeniable charm and enduring value. (Nov.)

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Cherokee Thoughts

Honest and Uncensored

By Robert J. Conley


Copyright © 2008 Robert J. Conley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8373-2


Indian Casinos

In the last several years, any time I have been asked to speak to any group on any subject involving Indians—on anything from one of my own books to Cherokee history to Will Rogers to anything at all about Indians—when it comes to the question-and-answer period, someone always asks me about casinos. It seems like that is the only topic on anyone's mind anymore when they think about Indians. I don't know why it matters to anyone what I think about casinos, but it seems to matter to a good many people, so let's get it out of the way. What do I think about Indian casinos?

Not too many years ago, most Oklahomans would have thought you were crazy if you said that one day we would have casinos in Oklahoma. Today casinos seem to be on every corner. They are very controversial, but I love Indian casinos. I lose money in them sometimes, but sometimes I win. Oh, not large amounts, but enough to keep me interested. My friend Donnie Birchfield, a Choctaw, usually wins. Sometimes he wins big. Donnie cannot drive past an Indian casino without stopping, especially one he has not visited before. He claims that he's doing a study of them. I guess he really is, but I think the computer that runs his car is programmed to turn into the parking lot of any Indian casino. It sure takes a long time to drive across the state of Oklahoma with Donnie. As a matter of fact, a few years ago I made an automobile trip with Donnie. He was driving, and as we drove through Oklahoma on I40 going west out of Oklahoma City, Donnie stopped at every Indian casino we came across. It took us two days to get out of the state.

Indians have always been gamblers. Being Cherokee, of course, I know more about the Cherokees. The Cherokees were passionate gamblers in the early days, and they remain passionate gamblers. Cherokees gambled on the outcome of various games, but one of the most popular in the early days was the game known widely as chunkey, but that's a Creek name. The Cherokees call it gatayusti. It was played with a throwing stick (a spear) and a stone disk. The player would get a running start, roll the stone disk, and then fling the stick after it. Ideally, when the stone stopped rolling, the stick would land and touch the stone. There were points given for how close the stick got to the stone. Cherokees would wager huge amounts on the outcome of the game: baskets, pots, clothing, blankets, weapons, horses.

Ethnologist James Mooney recorded a tale around 1900 about this game in Myths of the Cherokee. Roughly paraphrased, it goes something like this.

A long time ago, a boy lived with his mother outside of town. He never went out and did not see anyone, because his body was covered with sores, ugly spots. He was ashamed to be seen. At last his mother told him that his father was Thunder. Thunder came down to earth from time to time in the form of a man, and when he did, he had his fun. She also told him that Thunder was the greatest of all doctors and could cure his spots. After that, she could only say that Thunder lived to the west. The boy was determined to find him, so his mother prepared him some new clothes and some trail food and sent him on his way.

He traveled far and long, and everywhere he found people, he asked them about the whereabouts of Thunder. All anyone would say was "to the west." He must have traveled across the country, clear to what is now California. He at last came to a house occupied by a man who was known as Brass. Brass lived alone with his wife in a small house. Outside the house was a gatayusti playing field. Brass was a passionate gatayusti player and gambler. He was, in fact, the inventor of the game. Brass was made of brass, and he was a shape shifter.

When the boy stopped to ask about Thunder, Brass said, "He just lives over the next hill. I hear him rumbling around all the time." The boy thanked him and started to go on his way, but Brass stopped him and insisted that he play the game with him. The boy said he had nothing to bet. Brass said, cruelly, "We could play for your pretty spots." The boy ignored the crude remark and excused himself, saying that he had to get on over to see Thunder. Reluctantly, Brass let him go after the boy promised that he would stop by on his way back home to play with him.

Word of the boy's approach had reached Thunder, and he knew that the boy claimed to be his son. "Any boy would want to be the son of Thunder," Thunder said, so he devised some tests for the boy. When the boy finally arrived, Thunder showed him a seat and told him to sit down. It was a chair covered by a blanket, but underneath the blanket, the chair was actually constructed of honey locust, with the long sharp thorns all sticking up. The boy sat down and was comfortable. Thunder asked the boy why he had come.

"I have these sores all over my body, and my mother told me to find you."

"I can fix those," Thunder said, and he told his wife to set a huge pot of water on the fire to boil. When the water had started boiling, Thunder threw in some roots. Then he picked up the boy and put him in the boiling water. He let him boil for a long time, but the boy was all right. Then Thunder told his wife to take the pot, boy and all, and throw it into the river. Thunder's wife did as she was told. When the pot with the still boiling water in it hit the river, it created an eddy. A service tree and a calico bush were growing on the bank nearby. A great cloud of steam arose and made streaks and blotches on their bark. They were the spots that had come off of the boy. When he came out of the water, he was clean.

Thunder's wife had helped the boy, and they were walking back to the house. She had taken a liking to him by this time, and she told him that there was one more test. She told him how to deal with it. When they got back to the house, Thunder said that his son needed new clothes. He gave the boy a new suit of buckskin and a belt. The boy put them on. Then Thunder opened up a box and told the boy to pick out a necklace and bracelets for himself. The boy opened the lid and found that the box was filled with writhing snakes. Remembering what Thunder's wife had told him, he plunged his hand all the way to the bottom of the box through all the snakes and grabbed hold of one. He drew out a rattlesnake, which he wrapped around his neck for a necklace. He reached in again, four more times, and each time he brought out a copperhead. These he wrapped around his wrists and ankles.

Thunder gave the boy a war club. There was one last test. "Now you have to play a ball game with your brothers," he said. The boy knew that he would have to fight for his life, and it would be one against two. The Thunder boys showed up ready to play. Both were older and stronger than the boy, but he played against them, and thunder rolled and lightning flashed with every stroke. They were the thunders, but the boy was Lightning. When Lightning grew tired, he aimed a blow at the honey locust tree in the playing field, as Thunder's wife had told him to do, and the blow was a flash of lightning. The tree was Thunder's favorite tree, and Thunder did not want to see it hurt. He quickly called an end to the game.

Then Lightning told his father about his encounter with Brass and how he had promised Brass that he would return to play him a game. Thunder knew Brass. "He'll cheat," he said, "but I'll show you how to win." Thunder produced a gourd with a hole in one end. Out of the hole dangled a string of beads. "This string of beads has no end," Thunder said. "You can bet these. Even when you win, though, he will try to cheat you. He is hard to beat, but this time he will lose every game. At last he will bet his life, but before you can collect, he will run away. When that happens, call your brothers."

Lightning went back to the home of Brass and showed him the gourd. He drew out the string of beads until it encircled the playing field and bet that. They played the game, and Lightning won. Brass wanted to play again, and again, and again. At last he had nothing left to bet. "I'll bet you my wife," he said. The boy accepted the bet and won the next game. Then Brass bet his life. The boy won again. "Just let me go inside and tell my wife what has happened," Brass said. Lightning agreed. Brass went into the house, but the house had a back door, and he ran out again. Lightning called out for his brothers, who came along bringing their pet, the Horned Green Beetle, and the four boys with the Beetle ran after Brass.

They came across an old woman making pottery beside the road. "Have you seen Brass?" they asked. She said she had not. Just then the Great Beetle flew high up into the sky and came diving back down fast. He struck the old woman on the forehead, and it rang like brass. Brass sprang up in his right shape and ran. Some of the brass had rubbed off on the Beetle. They chased Brass again, but he was awfully fast. They lost sight of him. Then they came across an old man sitting beside the road carving a stone pipe. They asked him if he had seen Brass, and he said no, but the Beetle again made a dive and struck the old man on the forehead, and again when he hit, it made a sound like striking brass. The old man turned into Brass and again ran. This time he ran to the edge of the world to the great water, and the boys caught up with him. They tied his arms and legs with grapevine and ran a long pole through his chest and pinned him to the ocean floor. They put two crows on the end of the pole to guard it, and they called the place Kogayi, meaning Crow Place.

Brass was not dead though. Sometimes the beavers, who are friends of Brass, come round to gnaw at the grapevines, but they make the pole shake, and that alerts the crows, who cry out, "Ka! Ka!," and frighten the beavers away. Brass will stay there until the end of the world, because he cannot die.

This is just about my favorite of all the old Cherokee tales. Cherokees gambled on other games, too—on the stickball game (it's mentioned in the story above), on footraces, and on less athletic games as well. Perhaps that's why I like the casinos. Gambling is in the Cherokee blood. Who knows?

So let's get back to the casinos. As I said before, they are very controversial. When they first started springing up, I heard people say, "The Mafia will get involved." I said, "Maybe, but so what? Why shouldn't Indians get some of that Mafia money?" I think there are people who just don't want to see Indians make any money. All their lives they've heard that Indians are poor, and they want to keep it that way. These misguided people are just being traditional, I suppose. But the casinos did spring up, and they are still springing up all around the country.

It all started in 1987 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Indian tribes had the right to operate casinos on Indian land. Right away, the federal government got into the act. Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) in 1988, requiring Indian tribes to enter into compacts with the state governments before they can operate casinos. Ordinarily states have no jurisdiction on Indian land, so it seems to me that IGRA is a major infringement on tribal governments. But we have it, so we have to live with it.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, no one in Oklahoma ever expected to see casinos, Indian or otherwise, inside the limits of this state. In a state built on graft and corruption (if you don't believe me, read Angie Debo's And Still the Waters Run), there are still "good" people who don't like having these palaces of sin among us. Today there are at least ninety-eight Indian casinos in the state of Oklahoma. The Cherokee Nation alone has ten. The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma has one. The largest casino in the state, called RiverWind, is located in Norman and is run by the Chickasaw Nation.

Casinos have been controversial from the beginning. First of all, Indian casinos are controversial for the same reasons that any casino is controversial. There are plenty of people who just believe that gambling is wrong. It is sinful. Or it is a wasteful addiction that ruins lives and breaks up families. Perhaps it does, but then so do many other things. Drinking alcohol for instance. But the do-gooders (non-Indians and some Cherokees) seem to focus their attacks more on the Indian casinos than on non-Indian casinos. Why is that? Perhaps the country had gotten used to having a few sinful spots (Las Vegas, Reno, and so forth) and learned to live with that as long as their own neighborhoods were safe from wickedness. Let the sinners all gather in those dens of iniquity and leave the rest of us alone. But in areas where there are Indian tribes, casinos can suddenly spring up in one's own backyard. Run for cover!

Some of the other complaints about Indian casinos are that the Indian tribes' non-Indian partners are actually making more money than are the tribes. That may be true in some cases, but even so, the tribe is still making more money than it did before, and the tribe entered into an agreement with those partners with open eyes. It has also been said that small groups of people of dubious Indian identity have somehow managed to receive federal recognition as Indian tribes only to operate casinos. If that is so, then the do-gooders should be zeroing in on the Bureau of Indian Affairs for having given those groups that distinction. There have been allegations of fraud and corruption. If this is so, then the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is to blame for allowing it to go on, as it has federal criminal jurisdiction over the Indian casinos. Why is it not doing its job?

Some people say that they don't like to see Indians, who are already impoverished, losing their money in casinos. If they're already impoverished, they don't have much to lose, and they might actually win. But I believe that there are far more white people (and blacks, Mexicans, Asians, and so forth) playing in the Indian casinos than Indians. And the Indian tribes are making money—most of them for the first time ever! Where Indian tribes have been impoverished for centuries, they are now building their own health clinics and schools. Many "casino tribes" are making per capita payments to their tribal members. Tribal members are driving BMWs. Their houses now have electricity and running water. What in the world can be wrong with that?

In the final analysis, nothing bad or negative can be said about Indian casinos that cannot be said about all the other casinos in this country. So let's attack them all, or let's leave them all alone. Why single out certain casinos only because they are partly owned by Indian tribes? Why, unless you are anti-Indian?

I have also heard people say that the Indian casinos are not going to last. One of these days the government is going to put a stop to them. But consider this. Most of the casinos, if not all of them, are paying huge amounts of money into their respective state treasuries. Have you ever heard of a state voluntarily giving up a huge portion of its revenue? I think, for the first time in history, the state governments are going to become the strongest supporters of tribal sovereignty, for no other reason than that they want to hang on to that money. And even if the casinos really are not going to last, the tribes will be better off for having operated them for as long as they can.

According to recent statistics, there are about 360 Indian casinos in the United States being operated by about 220 tribes. (There are 562 federally recognized Indian tribes in the country, so obviously not all tribes have elected to run casinos.) "The largest casino in the United States, Foxwoods Casino, is owned by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe and located in Ledyard, Connecticut." Tribal casinos in 2002 took in around $3.8 billion.

Cherokee Nation Enterprises, which operates the Cherokee Nation's casinos at the request of Principal Chief Chad Smith, prepared a report on where the Cherokee casino money goes. According to that report, published as a supplement to the April 2007 issue of the Cherokee Phoenix, Cherokee Nation casinos in 2006 made $353 million. Operating costs were $148.7 million (41 percent). Payroll accounts for $101 million (30 percent). The state of Oklahoma received payments totaling $16.3 million (5 percent), leaving a profit of $87 million (25 percent). One hundred percent of the profit, according to the report, "is used to either create more jobs for Cherokees or to provide services for Cherokees.... The Cherokee Nation employs more than 6,500 people, compared with 3,000 just four years ago."

The really significant figures in the report are, first of all, the number of people employed and the amount of the payroll, and the payroll figure is the casinos' payroll, not the total Cherokee Nation payroll. And this is in an area that was described as recently as the 1970s as an economically depressed area. The second really significant figure is, of course, the $16.3 million going to the state of Oklahoma. This is money for which the state doesn't have to do a damn thing, and it can use that money any way it wants to use it.


Excerpted from Cherokee Thoughts by Robert J. Conley. Copyright © 2008 Robert J. Conley. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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