Cherokee culture more than skin deep

By Laurel Stowell

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ON STAGE: Cherokees Luke Mason and Mashu White Feather answer questions about their culture.PHOTO/BEVAN CONLEY
ON STAGE: Cherokees Luke Mason and Mashu White Feather answer questions about their culture.PHOTO/BEVAN CONLEY

Cherokee elder Mashu White Feather had to come back to New Zealand to show off his tattoos - but said Maori always outdid him.

He was one of three Native American volunteers in Whanganui on a cultural exchange last week when about 50 people went to their seminar on Friday.

White Feather and fellow Cherokee Luke Mason described their traditional clothing, head-dress and tattoos in detail - but the seminar was not really about appearance. The aim, Two Feathers International organiser Doreen Bennett said, was to share knowledge on health, education and social issues that affect indigenous people worldwide.

The speakers said following their own culture, language and traditions was essential to their wellbeing.

"We're doing our part to share with those who want to know."

Objibwe elder Mary Lyons came with a concern about fetal alcohol syndrome and has fostered several boys with it.

She said in the United States lawyers learned the culture of native people as part of their training.

"The majority of people they're working with are indigenous. If you don't understand your client, you're not doing the best job for them."

Young Cherokee Luke Mason came to his culture when there was not much left of it.

"Whenever we sang and danced together I actually felt it in my body and I know I have come home, even though I had never heard the old language at all," he said.

Some of the songs are so old that the meaning to the words has been lost. Others were banned, so there are not many left.

The feathers in his head-dress all had meaning - the turkey for alertness, the raven for its ability to fly through a storm.

He said native American's did not own land but were part of the land. They did fight each other over territory and take captives.

White Feather comes from the Smoky Mountains in Alabama. He lectures in the United States and Canada and has been to New Zealand many times since 1984.

Answering questions from the audience, he talked about everything he wore or carried - from the porcupine fur and deer's tail head-dress to the deer skin leggings. The wampum belt he wore had the cross side outwards, signifying he came in peace and was telling the truth. He is a Vietnam veteran, and carried a warrior sash.

"A lot of people have a wrong impression of what a warrior is. He not only protects but he takes care of his people."

He said in the old days councils of elders were the judges and the punishment for crime, even a small crime, was death or banishment.

"Our people knew it, and they knew they couldn't get out of it, and we didn't have crime."

He was proudest of all of his new tattoos.

"This is the first time I'm wearing my traditional regalia with my tattoos."

The designs related to the four cardinal directions, the sky vault, the tree of life and to his mountain. He had to wait until the age of 67 to get them, and was blessed to have a nephew who knew them. "I wasn't going to put anything on my body that didn't pertain to my tribe, my people, my clan."

- Wanganui Chronicle

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