No Reservations

This past weekend was in a few words amazing. In many words, it was too great to mention in only one sitting.

It began with a flier I saw on the doors to my residence hall: Cherokee Diversity Trip! Apply Now! I just barely missed the information session (I came stumbling back from a long night of Parkour when I realized…oh, wait, there was something else happening tonight), but I ran to catch the last few minutes and then stayed a few minutes longer to (very gratefully) get filled in on the things I had missed.

That weekend, I wrote my application. I hadn’t made a wondrous first-impression (Parkour is exhausting, and sweat isn’t exactly flattering), but I hoped my words would say enough.

And they did.

Within the week, I’d been selected to go on the trip–and I cannot begin to tell you how excited I was! There were so many reasons to celebrate–and not just the obvious weekend trip to the allegedly beautiful mountains of western North Carolina. I’ve always loved learning about other cultures, and I share a very deep and profound relationship to diversity–all points I outlined in my application. I also have Native American ancestry, according to family lore. However, the tribes I hail from are not Cherokee, yet I believed enough of Native American culture is the same that I would still learn a lot.

Truth is, I was quite mistaken. One of the first things we learned was that there are over 560 federally recognized tribes–and many of them are not as similar as we would be led to believe. Imagine, for a moment, what you think of Native Americans. Perhaps feathered headdresses will come to mind. Or tipis–you think of tipis, don’t you? And tomahawk-throwing, archery, rain dances and thunderbirds–and who can forget that great first meal, that first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims so long ago?

Well, actually, many of those things are elements of western tribes–and the Cherokee, southern as they are, weren’t north enough to be with those early settlers. Yes, many tribes do share some similarities, but they are also quite unique–and many of them are still around today. I was talking about the trip with some of my classmates this afternoon and one of them said flatly he had no idea there were still any Cherokees living today.

Thankfully, I was able to spread what I’ve learned to him–and hopefully I can share a lot more with all of you. Knowledge and information are personally amazing, but unless we share that with others, it means nothing. This weekend we were also given many gifts–of information, awareness, and welcoming–that I can only repay by sharing these experiences and helping to pass along the kindness, the openness, and the compassion they have shown us.

Of course, I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the time between learning I was going on the trip and actually getting there I had the opportunity to attend two leadership workshops presented by CSLEPS, N.C. State’s Center for Student Leadership, Ethics, and Public Service. The first was on ethics and action. I’ve attended many lectures on ethics before, but our presenter was the most amazing of all of them. She was humorous and lighthearted and didn’t just teach us the lofty ideals of ethics–she broke them down for us and made them incredibly concrete. She spoke about where we learn ethics and what guides ethical behavior, but she also showed us that many small things are often overlooked for their ethical importance. Of these, two still stand out as having left an indelible mark upon me.

The first was the importance of learning another person’s name–and in learning it correctly, especially pronouncing it correctly, even if it’s not an easy thing to do. She said our names are the most important things we have, and we should show our respect for others by learning their names. The second was that we should take every opportunity possible to meet someone new or experience something we have never done before. Together, these actions broaden our awareness and this, in turn, helps us become more informed about our world and what transpires within it. At first this might not seem related to ethics, but the connection becomes clear when we realize that our awareness and openness to what’s around us helps us shapes our sense of ethical behavior.

The second workshop was based upon risk taking. Now, of course, this sounds like a dangerous thing to do–but given that I’m almost an expert on risk aversion, learning appropriate methods for taking risks is not only desirable, but also necessary. So much history has been made only by taking risks–such as proposing theories that rewrite our understanding of science (Einstein), challenging the place of race among the nations (King), or demanding freedom from oppression (the Founders of the US). Risks challenge what’s expected–and when the expected is challenged, growth and change occur.

Armed with an enhanced appreciation for ethics and a new strategy for risk-taking, I introduced myself to someone I had seen on campus beforehand–and almost instantly, she and I were talking like old friends. It was amazing–but still only the beginning.

The next night we had our pre-trip meeting. We gathered in one of the program rooms and we discussed the itinerary of the trip and did a few icebreakers to help everyone start to learn everyone’s names. When the meeting was all but over, our trip leader took our student IDs to make copies (for official records and such) and left us to our own. We heard a Cherokee creation story from our co-leader (who is herself Cherokee) and then, in the ensuing awkward silence, someone asked if we could go around with everyone’s names again.

I mustered up my courage and took a risk–I suppose to others it seemed a very innocuous motion, but for me, it took all I could offer to open my mouth and make sounds and form words with them. I said, simply, on other trips I’ve taken like this, we introduced ourselves and then introduce everyone before us. By the time we get around the circle, everyone knows the names of every other person before them. With a little hesitation, they took my idea–and when we made it around the circle, I could name everyone with ease.

I felt accomplished. I had applied what I’d learned and started forging new friendship that, I hoped, would persist long after we returned from the mountains.

On Friday, when we gathered before dawn to head out, the first person I saw was someone I recognized–but not anyone who had been at the pre-trip meeting on Wednesday. I looked at her sideways, knowing her name already–and when I got close enough to be certain, I knew at once she was the friend I made at the risk-taking workshop.

A single risk had paid off tremendously. Throughout the weekend, she and I would become much closer friends–and it’s very possible we might be going on another trip in the spring. I’ll keep you apprised.

I know this post is starting to get a little long, but I must mention the reason I decided to call it “No Reservations” in the first place. Yes, it all ties together with the idea of risk-taking and not holding back, but it goes deeper than that.

The first thing we did after checking into our motel was sit down with the Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Michell Hicks. Over a delicious Italian lunch at Harrah’s Casino, he spoke to us about Cherokee culture–about their values, their politics, even their land. There’s a common misconception that all American Indians live on reservations–but for the Cherokee, this isn’t true. The EBCI lives on the Qualla Boundary (where Cherokee, NC, is), and this is land they actually own, although it’s held in trust by the US government. In the mid 1800s, William Holland Thomas–who was adopted into the Cherokee nation and became their only white chief–bought much of this land and sold it back to the Cherokee, since at that time the Cherokee Indians were not US citizens and therefore could not own the land.

Thomas took a risk, and because of that, he was brought into a community that we, too, were taken into as guests this weekend. This was just the beginning, of course, and over the next few days, I hope to share with you so much more about my trip to Cherokee, NC.

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