Friday, December 12, 2008

Wisdom - From the Cherokees

My recent fall eco-escape was to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the land of the Cherokee Indians, this past Oct. It was a last-moment trip without any planning.

Threw my tent, hiking boots and some food in the trunk and drove north to escape 12+ hours of work each day, non-stop chores and managing the schedule of my "busier-than-the-president" teenager.
The Smokemont Campground, surrounded by lush autumn foliage and alongside a beautiful stream, was lavishly unoccupied; it didn't take me long to figure out why. The temperature in the night dropped below zero and I had to wake up to put on a third layer of insulation, gloves and hat, before I cozied up in my subzero sleeping bag, surrounded by the ripple of the flowing water.
I could pack in a beautiful mountain hike, a horse ride, visit a farmstead built by the first settlers and catch the most gorgeous sunset I have ever seen from the prettiest spot on earth.
But the next day was reserved for the Cherokees.

I have been always fascinated by our Native tribes; their stories of persecution and triumph remind me of what our people have gone through various times.

One more parallel that is so sharp between our respective cultures is how we both have kept our heroic traditions alive through storytelling.

In the Cherokee tradition, the chief would tell stories around the evening campfire and the village would gather around him, marvelling and reflecting on the traditions, beauty and wisdom shared by him.
So did we when we lived in the jungles, virtually on horseback, escaping persecution by the Moghuls. When we found refuge in secluded spots and fires were lit to cook the langar, the heroic ballads were sung, keeping our history and spirits alive.

Another similarity is that of the names. The Native Americans have meaningful real-life action-oriented names. Like "Soaring Eagle," "Laughing Maiden," etc.
It was hiking on the mountain trail in this sacred land of the natives a few years ago that I got insight into my purpose, from my name. I realized my name had an action association too and the Gurbani spoke of it.

Har ki katha kahania gurmeet sunaiyaa...
Gurmeet, the beloved of the Guru - tells the stories of the Lord ... it made perfect sense to me. We have got stories to tell - and I would make sure I serve my name-action from now on.
What wisdom was I to derive during this trip?

After soaking in the town of Cherokee and some native handicraft shops, I visited the museum of the Cherokee Indians. The entrance had captured my attention already. The statue of the smokey bear and of Sequoia (the Cherokee genius who invented their syllabary in 1821) were both adorned with a turban. I had seen feathery headwear but never a turban on the natives.
It was a good sign. I would soon find a special message for me, a Sikh.

The museum tells you the history of European injustices upon the Cherokee tribe; the initial befriending and trading, then the annihilation, assimilation and continuous humiliation throughout each phase.

One of the displays showed some of the quotes of the Europeans juxtaposed with those from the Cherokees, side by side, to show the different perspectives of each. This one really struck me hard.

Once, after days of deliberation on the Bible by the mission priests in an attempt to "civilize" and "bring to God" the "savage" natives, the Cherokee Chief Yonaguska spoke:
Upon reading chapters of Matthew, he commented, "Well, it seems to be a good book - strange that the white people are not better, after having had it so long."

Why did it strike me? Perhaps - because I find ourselves guilty of adhering to the same predicament that the Europeans were being accused of - our scriptures are overflowing with truth and nobility; therefore surely, we must be a superior people!

I can't imagine the reaction of the Christian priest who was trying to demean and convert the Cherokees, upon hearing what Chief Yonaguska had to say, but I know one thing for sure. If the Chief found the Bible to be a good book - he would certainly find Guru Granth Sahib outstanding; he would then find it even stranger that the Sikhs, too, fall short of the Sikhi ideals today, despite having had this treasure for hundreds of years.

We need to stop hiding behind the greatness of our Guru, our Scripture, and the sacrifices by our great men and women of the past. It is one thing to derive strength from their greatness, but it is cheating to not embody the greatness in our own lives.

We need to be the living and walking embodiment of the lessons taught to us by our Guru. Until we consciously walk the path, talk is useless ... as the Chief would inevitably point out.
Before we say something about our Guru's greatness to an outsider, the latter should have found out about it through our demeanor, our actions, our service, our ethics, our ways.
This is the wisdom I tasted from the mountains this trip.

This is the message of the Cherokee Nation to ours.
This article also appeared on