SUISUN CITY — More than 250 people made their way to Rush Ranch Sunday for the Northern California Cherokee Community Picnic.
The event, sponsored by the Cherokee Nation, Cherokee Society of the Greater Bay Area and the Cherokees of Northern Central Valley, attracted guests from Northern California as well as Bill John Baker, Cherokee principal chief, who traveled from Oklahoma.
He wasn’t the only one traveling from the Midwest. Tommy Wildcat, a Native American cultural promoter, flutist, historical storyteller and lecturer, was there for the second consecutive year. He also lives in Oklahoma and performed at the picnic.
The event fits in perfectly with his goal of hearing from Cherokee citizens and helping them stay in touch with their heritage. He’s traveled the world and made several television appearances promoting the Cherokee culture.
The center of Cherokee heritage is in Oklahoma, he said. During the Dust Bowl many fled to California and became assimilated to California ways.
He said it’s his job to bring that heritage to them.
“There are a lot of connections to Oklahoma,” he said.
Julia Coates, a member of the Cherokee tribunal council, made the trip from Los Angeles. Her book, “Trail of Tears” was released in January.
“The publisher let me write it from the Cherokee perspective,” she said. “The Cherokee nation is at the center of the story. The United States is at the periphery. It’s the reverse of how most books are written (about it).”
Coates said she spend about two decades researching the story, which centers on the nearly 125,000 Native Americans who were forced from their land in the 1830s. Working on behalf of white settlers who wanted to grow cotton on the Indians’ land, the govern forced them to leave their homes and walk thousands of miles to special designated “Indian territory” across the Mississippi River.
Historians have estimated more than 5,000 Cherokees died as a result of the journey.
About one-third of the Cherokee population lives within Oklahoma, Coates said. She is one of two tribunal council members who represent the Cherokees who live outside the tribe’s 14-county jurisdictional area in northeast Oklahoma.
To be considered a citizens of the Cherokee nation, one needs a direct Indian ancestor listed on the Dawes Rolls, which were created with the dissolution of the reservation system in the 1890s.
Next weekend, Coates will be in the Sacramento area teaching the Cherokee Nation History Course, which is 40 hours of comprehensive study done over two weekends. She’s taught the free course for 14 years. More than 10,000 people have taken the class, Coates said.
Picnic attendees were also encouraged to get a photo identification card at the event. Dave Smith sat down to fill out his identification form.
His sister, Kate Machi, was going to do the same. Machi, also from San Francisco, is writing a screenplay about the Cherokee nation, as a way of paying forward the scholarship money she received for being a Native American.
Her mother was born in Oklahoma City and wasn’t quite sure of her heritage, Machi said.
“She was dark-skinned,” Machi said of her mother. “She thought she might be African-American. “ (Her mother grew up without her father, Machi said.)
Machi’s paternal grandfather kept the fact he was part of the Cherokee nation secret until his daughter, Machi’s mother, discovered a yellowed newspaper clipping with a family obituary. After that he began to share his stories, Machi said.
A few years ago, Machi traveled back to Tahlequah, Okla., the site of the Cherokee Nation headquarters, and fell in love with it.
Knowing her Cherokee heritage has given her a sense of peace.
“It’s wonderful to know I’m related to the first Americans,” Machi said. “Spiritually, it makes so much sense to me. ”
More information on the Cherokee Nation can be found at www.cherokee.org.
Reach Amy Maginnis-Honey at 427-6957 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/amaginnisdr.