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Pamela Tamborino

My Cherokee Grandmother

                  Grandma was brought up a real Baptist lady, but she also knew about Native religion. I came to find out that she claimed she was Baptist (on government forms and  in front of formal White company) but she told friends she practiced the Native religion her mom taught her. What I got was the lesson of what a “real proper lady” should be in this world, but also I can worship in the Cherokee way. Mostly, the commonality of all religions stuck with me.
                  My first lesson on the Four Directions came at an early age while gathering plants for healing. Grandma would point at the directions and explain:  East was linked with the color red, the power of the rising sun; North was linked with the color white, for strength; West was black and the direction of sundown; and, South was yellow for comfort. These colors made up the medicine wheel and the circle of life, rebirth and unity of the Cherokee tribe. This was a lot to take in at such an early age, and she repeated the wheel many times and expanded on its meaning as I grew.
                  By the time  I was a teenager I also knew that Winter (go la) was the Cherokee  connection to the direction of  north which meant cold (u yv tlv); that Spring (gi la go ge) and  East (ka-lv-gv) were linked to new life; that Summer (go-ga) was linked to the word warm (u-ga-no-wa) and meant peace; and Autumn (u-la-go-hv-s-di) was west (wu-de-li-gv) and stood for the cycle of life.
                  She explained to me that all life was a circle. A person is conceived, grows, is born, and cycles through the seasons over and over until the transition of death to another place – a good place. Life never truly ends; it continues in a circle. She said that Cherokee Nation is like this circle: no matter what befalls the Nation, the circle will continue as the Creator intended.
                  So it came to be that I viewed each season with new eyes. As spring came, I saw that Mother Earth renewed everything, and a rebirth took place among her inhabitants. The plants grew, flowers bloomed, seeds dropped, and the Earth was alive. And so it was with each season, not just a time of frost, snow, cold and warmth, but a part of the cycle that my life was running. In my own life it was meant for me to be born, grow, repeat the cycles, mature, grow old and transition into death— all in the Creator’s time.
                  We spent many hours discussing the Bible and the Four Directions and Medicine Wheel. She did not have much schooling, as her parents pulled her from school in the eighth grade to work on their farm, but her wisdom was beyond that of almost anyone I have ever met or known.
                  My knowledge expanded through the years, as children’s building blocks stacked upon each other, and I was taught the ceremonies of our tribe: of birth, the use of the spirit fire, the pureness of tobacco, reverence for life, and the bonding of the members of the tribe through hardship and happiness.
                  I remember crying as my great-great-grandmother told of the “Trail of Tears,” the story that her mother had told her, and of the many along the way that had starved or frozen. At first I could not believe the hardships and broken promises our Nation had faced , along with broken treaties and boarding schools. Yet the ring of truth was heavy in my great-great- grandmother’s solemn words. I learned that wisdom comes with a price.
                  In Lawrence, Kansas, at the University where I work, there is a full earthworks medicine wheel with the four direction marked by granite pillars. Many times, I travel to that wheel and give praise for my blessings and ask help in times of trouble. How do I reconcile this with the practice of Christianity that I also believe in? It is not hard. Each religion shares so many things in common. They share aims of living the way I want others to treat me; the love of Mother Earth; the belief in the great Creator; the oneness of all things, and their place in the circle of life—all of this flows in my beliefs smoothly and easily. One form of worship honors my mother and her ancestors , and the other honors my father and his ancestors . Both honor life and the spirit and gifts received through the circle of my life.