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Interview with Freeman Owle

Owle, Freeman
Gardner, Susan
Date of Interview: 
Trail of Tears; medicinal practices: natural remedies; education; Christianity within American Indian society; Lumbee Indian; Cherokee; racial classification; racial stereotyping; gender politics; prejudice; ethnic cleansing; ecological balance
Freeman Owle, an inspirational teacher, lecturer and accomplished craftsman based on the Qualla Boundary, discusses Cherokee history and culture with UNC Charlotte English professor Susan Gardner in this 1995 interview. Owle stresses his passion for educating nonnative people about Cherokee beliefs and way of life, and his goal to dispel commonly held misconceptions and promote the Native American ethic of living in harmony with the earth. At the same time he describes his efforts to inspire Cherokee children to realize their full potential and his message of caution to the Cherokee people to avoid practices that are harmful to their society. The conversation between Owle and Gardner ranges widely as they reflect on spiritual practice, racial and inter-tribal struggles, government intrusions, natural remedies, gender politics, and Owle’s familial experience during the Trail of Tears.
Native Carolinians and Indian Elders Collection
Interviewer's Notes:
Freeman Owle (born 1946) earned a master's degree in Social Studies in Education at Western Carolina University and taught school for 14 years on the Qualla Boundary reservation in western North Carolina. His formal exposure to carving began in the ninth grade at Cherokee High School, and he first carved wooden bowls which were sold at the Qualla Arts & Crafts Cooperative in the town of Cherokee. His stone-carved items are also sold there. Currently a free-lance, Mr. Owle spends most of his time lecturing throughout the United States on Cherokee history, legends, language and spirituality. He lives in the Birdtown community of the Qualla Boundary reservation with his wife, Marcia, and their daughter, Leslie.[1] In March 1996 he visited the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where he spoke with classes in the English Dept., Women's Studies, and to the staff of the student health center.
Our conversation took place at the Cherokee Heritage Museum and Gallery on Highway 441 North, despite my having left my tapes at Mrs. Swimmer's the day before! Mr. Owle fetched me some more, and we settled down in a conference room, switching on the tape recorder in mid-conversation.

SG: Thank you so much for introducing me to her [Mrs. Swimmer]. I really appreciate it.
FO: I think she's a very valuable asset, the things that she'll be willing to do.
SG: What a story, too! We only skimmed the surface of it because she had to go back to town to pay her bills, too, so we came back, but--
FO: I think she is an original, and I think that would be very, very beneficial to you.
SG: I wonder--I hated to interrupt her, so I didn't always, except when I was asking a specific question--but I gathered that the way she wound up teaching crafts at the elementary school was that originally she was a foster grandparent. In the day care? And then they asked her to do the crafts stuff?
FO: Yes, I think after the schools had been turned over to the tribal government, Mrs. Swimmer was asked to come back in to the schools to teach. I think that was probably the big impact; that the tribe has contracted the schools now, so they are wanting these type of people to come in and teach. It's very good.
SG: Well, when we spoke at [the SEJANAM conference at] Lake Junaluska, you had so many fascinating things to say in your presentation that you gave that morning; that's where I first ran into you. [In June 1995. "SEJANAM" is the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the Native American Ministry of the United Methodist Church.]
FO: That's right.
SG: And I was fascinated by some of the details of your childhood and some of the links--if "links" is the right word? correlations? Whatever--between the Christianity that you have been exposed to but also some traditional ways of doing things. Would you be willing to talk to me about those things?
FO: Yes, I would. I think that a lot is based upon the concept of time. And the Christianity just fitted right in with a people who were monotheistic to begin with. They were very appreciative of the earth and everything that had been created by the Great Spirit. They were very thankful always, every day, for these type things, and Christianity came in a just, sort of an addition to the beliefs of the Cherokee rather than changing anything; it was just adding to. And the Cherokees have a concept of time which is a little different than modern society; they believe that life is, at the moment that you are living, holy; that you make that moment, that very quality moment of life, because that's the only time life is. It's not in the future, yet; the past is already gone; so you find many people here who are very happy. And like DeSoto said, they're "childlike"; happy and childlike people. And therefore you have many people who get along well; their lives are positive; they progress from moment to moment. That doesn't mean that they don't plan for the future; but they just plan to make that moment very meaningful.
SG: That all sounds very convincing, and yet--I'm not convinced? I'm not--not about living in the moment, I find that concept of time extremely attractive, but also--not--really Western European linear at all, whereas the Bible goes from Genesis to Revelation, there's a clear linear progression and the end of time--
FO: Right.
SG: So isn't that contradictory, rather than--?
FO: Well, the Cherokees believe in a circle of life. That is never-ending. And I think Christianity focuses mainly on the beginning and the end of physical life. But--they also believe in an afterlife, which means that theirs is never-ending, also.
SG: [Dubiously] Yeah... I do see that! [Laughs]
FO: So the circle is also infinite--
SG: Yeah. The other thing is, in Genesis when man is given dominion, Adam is given dominion over all "the beasts of the field", animals and so forth--that does not seem to me very Native American at all.
FO: No, it really isn't. Because the Native American believed that everything is cyclic, and that people themselves should protect and respect those creations of the Great Spirit. Rather than the concept of dominion that has been derived by the Europeans--that you're supposed to dominate, and destroy, and utilize to extinction. And that's not at all in the Native American concept. It's to "dominate", it's to control, it's to make sure that it lasts; that there is always enough for everyone many generations ahead. It's to dominate in a positive way not in a negative way.
SG: To care take. I've picked that up from Spotted Turtle, who is a Lumbee elder; he talks in those terms, that we are here to take care of what God has created, not to dissect it, analyze it, destroy it in order to figure out how it works. The way Western science has gone.
FO: To use only what we need, like the Cherokees would go out hunting, they would pray to take the spirit of an animal. And then when they would have permission to do that, they would not kill the first one, or the second one, but only the third one. And that ensures the continuation of a species, rather than the annihilation or extinction of a species. So we only take what we need, and not any more than that. That ensures that the others who will come later will also have something.
SG: When I was speaking with Mrs. Swimmer, she was in fact pretty apocalyptic. She seems to think that we're now in a stage of--the entire world, but she thought it was happening here, too--of deterioration, disintegration, people not looking after each other anymore, being very selfish. She didn't sound very hopeful about the future at all. She is just waiting to be "taken home", as she put it.
FO: Yes. I think that she probably has a reason for that, because our society and our world have become a very impersonal world. We can communicate with televisions, and those things which do not have spirits or souls, and if we don't like what people are telling us, we can just cut them off. We still have contact with the whole world. A very superficial type contact or existence. Go to the supermarket and buy a container of milk, and it's in plastic, and [there are those people who are beyond that ?], but there's a cow somewhere, has given that gift to us. And people don't realize that. It's a very superficial existence. But if they would really think about it, it all gets back down to the rivers, and to the forests, to the animals, to the human beings which share the earth with them. And they should always remember that we're all a very important part, or link of the chain. Anything that is forgotten, and done away with, it would be a very synthetic society. Which is becoming true.
SG: I thought some of what she was saying was epitomized when she was talking about the [Blue Ridge] Parkway building--I think it was a bridge someplace--very near her home, and that was traditionally where she got the clay for her pots. And now she buys from Asheville.
FO: Exactly.
SG: And that seemed to sum up so very much.
FO: And over by the national park, they built a road dead over the top of it and she can no longer go to the place where her people had gone for thousands of years. Get the clay to make her pots. So she has to buy it from 50 miles away.
SG: She said full of gravel and stuff; she has to sift it as well. Well, I think it highly ironic that so many people in my culture are looking to you guys for salvation. And we are also the agents of so much that has made that extremely difficult. It strikes me again as what--it's like what we would do, when we want something we appropriate it, we annex it, we don't even say "thank you", we just get it somehow! And I was wondering what you think of all that--the white shamanism, white people looking to Indian people for answers now that we've messed everything up--
FO: I think that probably it's like two people taking a different path. And all of a sudden this individual group of people find themselves in darkness, and they look back to the other group, which they thought so different, the group that was taking such an abnormal path, that they wouldn't take themselves. And yet when they get into the quicksand in their own type of journey, they look back at the other group to see where they're going and what progress they're making. And I think to look back and to see what can be learned is good. But to try to be another people is not so good. And you have the New Age, and the crystals, and many times when I go out to talk, I find it very hard sort of to engage in this, because they think I'm a New Age pretending to be a Native American. And people are turned off by that. And so I tell them, I'm just basically a middle-aged Cherokee, and people will accept that. But I think the ideas, and the ideologies, and the ways of life of the Native Americans, I think in a lot of things are very wise. But to use them only to benefit--self-gain, and commercialism--and to deceive others about one's identity is not good. They, too, are going on the wrong path, and they will end up in darkness; and many other people will follow them, and not know where they are.
SG: There's a group in Charlotte who are notorious for that. They go to the schools. They don't even know that Rosa Winfree [Indian Education Specialist, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Schools] is there, through whom they should coordinate anything representing Indians in the public schools. And they are in fact Black and white! I shouldn't be laughing, because it's appalling; they've gotten on TV, on the radio... But what a twist of the screw that people think you're not Indian, and you're just a New Age--
FO: That's exactly right. You can look back, and those people who truly are, have a place, they have a history; they have a language; they have an identity, and they can tell you about their past, and who they were, and where they came from, and were willing to do that even when it was not a very popular thing to be a Native American. So proud of their own identity that they would do it in the face of degradation, say "Yes, I'm Native American"--in the 1930s, when they had to eat in the back of the restaurant; say "Yes", in Bryson City [Tennessee], "I'm Cherokee", and you would have to go to the back entrance, or were not allowed to be there at all. Or they were afraid to go to the town. But all of a sudden there are many, many people who are-- most everywhere you go to lecture, they'll come to you and say, "My great-great-grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee, but we can't prove it." And in a way I'm sure that there are some of those people who are real, and then the other way I think there are many of those who are not. It's only a popular thing to be. Take the teachings of the Native American--don't take their pride, and their identity, don't destroy the earth; learn from what they have picked up over the thousands and thousands of years, and the world will have a chance to survive.
SG: I bought one of Russell Thornton's books yesterday, and was reading it last night--about Cherokee demographics/population history--and he has several pages devoted to the grandmother phenomenon. And what intrigues me there is that many of my students say that, and how could I judge, they could well be a mixture of people.
FO: That's right.
SG: But that it is safely removed three generations, and that there's no thought of giving something to whatever tribe it is-- usually Cherokee--of making oneself useful, of learning their world view, it's kind of European medieval heraldry gone crazy. We Anglo Americans have to somehow verify ourselves, and where else can we go but to the Indians, really? So--it's trendy if they're safely removed; it's not so marvelous if you grow up in an Indian ghetto in the city, or something.
FO: That is very true. I think that--I've lost my train of thought--but I really believe that the Cherokee people have struggled a great deal, and there are many of them out there that do have that identity. I think that being Native American is a way of life. Government finally decided that, like Dalmatians, or poodles--we'd have a pedigree. And that we--our blood could be sifted through and measured to see how much Native American we really are. I truly know of no DNA tests, or anything like that, that can really "measure" "the blood" of the Native American. I think the blood of a Native American is measured in his heart. It's in the way you live, it's in the way you perceive, it's in the way that his history has gone, the way he has behaved through that history. And the way he presents himself even in the world of today, still hanging on to the culture, and that belief, and identity. It's a very deep thought. But you can't carry a pedigree, and should not. If you're a Native American, you are Native American.
SG: Would you tell me more about your free lance work, and your work as a historian? What the expectations of you are, and what you actually do, as opposed to what people might want you to do?
FO: I was a--I am a very--I feel like a good teacher. In the Cherokee Elementary school, I taught there for 14 years. And then all of a sudden one day I decided not to do that anymore. I felt like that the beliefs and the culture of the Cherokee needed to be wider spread. So I left the school. Many parents were upset with me, but I felt like that I could teach other people as well. And teach those people who needed to learn who the Cherokee really were. Those people who believed that the Cherokees get Federal checks every month; those people who believed that the government gave us this land; and those people who believed that Cherokee children cannot learn, that they are some sort of a second-rate class of human beings incapable of learning. To teach them that we are human beings, that we can learn, that the Cherokee children do go to college, they do excel, they do have an IQ range just like any other race in the nation. High and low. And then the society which are sometimes good, sometimes bad. That we, too, are people living within a community with our culture and our values; that we are not like the bear of those caves in the Smokies that everyone comes to see--
SG: There's one right across the street. [Referring to a caged bear in one of the many tourist traps.]
FO: Yes. The bears also have feelings; the bears also have family; the bears also care about the earth and take better care of it than most people do. The Cherokees are not like something to be caged and come to look at. They're like a group of people whom many things can be learned from. And the level that individuals look at us should be changed. We should be on their level; not being looked at from above, looked down upon, as a negative example. I can understand that when the Cherokees were a threat to the development of the United States. The Cherokees are no longer a threat, so we should not be classed as negative examples. Savages. "Injuns." That type of thing.
SG: But I've run into just the opposite, also; some of my academic Cherokee friends have mentioned that they're criticized for being too adaptable, too "civilized"; you know, ever since the so-called Five Civilized Tribes, I mean what other group in this country has made such a massive adaptation? And yet even that wasn't good enough!
FO: That's true. The only reason the Cherokees were not annihilated and steamrolled like the other tribes--many of them were, in the Eastern United States--was because they were strong enough to withstand the bombardment of cultural shock and change. And many of their values and much of their culture remained even after the conquest. And so they did have to adapt. In fact those people who were removed on the Trail of Tears were more European, as being--carrying their Bibles, being able to read and write, in their own language, and being able to have their own newspaper. Whereas many of those who removed them could not read nor write. It was really an irony, the Cherokees were very civilized. And that brings back to whatever the word "civilized" means [both laugh ruefully], as to who is defining the word. The Cherokees felt they were civilized; they probably felt the other people were not. After the conquest, I imagine you have to take the definition of your conquerors.
SG: Well, that's how it's gone, certainly. They write the history.
FO: And their books are thicker, the State-adopted text has maybe one sentence in it about the Cherokees. "The Cherokees of North Carolina, a group of people who live in western North Carolina"--
SG: In the past tense.
FO: That's right. And the Cherokees had lived and still live here and have lived here for four or five thousand years or longer; the country is only 270--discovery, 500--and yet the book is still so thick. There's so little about the people that lived here for so long.
SG: Would you tell me more--since you're able, now, since you're not part of the public school system--to spread the word as you see fit, what kinds of groups ask you to talk? What organizations?
FO: I talk to groups all the way from kindergarten level in schools, public schools, Cherokee schools, to universities, all throughout the Southeast. From the University of Northern Kentucky all the way to Pinellas Park, Florida. And I think people are real receptive; those people are educated, those people who are open-minded, are willing to listen. And that's another reason why I have so much of an inclination to do what I'm doing now; it's because the minds are open, they're listening more than they ever have before. When I first started, I had people come up to me and say such things as, "Can those little Indian children really learn?" At first it made me angry, but after thinking about it I realized at least they were now asking the question. Before they had made up their minds they could not.
SG: That's a very generous interpretation.
FO: And those folks were from the deep South: Charleston, South Carolina. Where at one point in time, seven Cherokee chiefs went under a flag of peace to try to work out a treaty, but were murdered.[2] That means that some progress has been made. That means that we have not solved the problem. But at least he was willing to hear what I had to say. So I said, "Yes. I have sixth graders that I don't hesitate to put up against any other children in the nation." And I told him besides, "Here I stand before you with a master's degree, and I have excelled in the teaching field. And I'm a Cherokee." And his mouth flew open, and he walked away very quietly. But I think his question had been answered. Whether he arrives at the right conclusion or not, he has heard it. And that's why I'm out there. And I'm also out there to instigate political change within the system. Many people here in Cherokee don't even know why I do it. But I am educating other people on the outside. So soon when people come to Cherokee, they'll be more educated about the Cherokee and their expectations will be different. And the Cherokee government has had input from me also. It's probably never being recognized, but I talk to the surrounding counties and told them that we didn't want the gambling on the reservation. They would send out people to promote it; I would go behind them and tell them my story, which was the truth. And now our tribal government has been reinstated and given to the people. All those older folks were taken out, who were well-seated. They knew what the people wanted. And now we have a group of council members and a chief who really know that there are 10,000 people out there depending on them. And if they don't work it right, then we'll vote them out also, since an advocate, an activist can make sure that at least the people have a voice. I'll never get any credit for that, because I can't. It's very quiet when people listen to me. To give credit, then you become--more like you're receiving something in return; they put you aside. If you're in it for personal gain you're no longer trusted, and put aside.
SG: Yeah. Yours sounds more like what I've read of what Indian ways of doing things--
FO: Yes, quite.
SG: Very much so; by virtue of character and influence rather than personal gain, as you put it.
FO: I have people here on Boundary coming to me very quietly and telling me things that need to be told, and investigated, and I stir it in the right direction. To the right people. And they've gained my trust. So we can work things out without anyone else even knowing about it. Things happen, by working together. Things can change. The apathy disappears.
SG: That, I should think, is really important, because I can see why people would have no reason to trust political systems such as they've encountered amongst us. The consequence can be apathy, all these social difficulties, alcoholism, the teenage pregnancy we talked about when I was here last, can you give me an example of some kind of change that you think you had a hand in bringing about?
FO: I think the very first change that I had a hand in bringing about was going back to the school as a teacher. Telling the students, "Yes, you can be a teacher if you want; here I stand before you, I'm just a little kid off of Birdtown, I'm the Owle child, and your parents know me. I grew up with them. I was the one with only one pair of pants. I was the one who was just like they were. And now I'm no better than you, but I can teach you, you can do anything in life that you want to do. And today we have lawyers, we have doctors, coming off the reservation. And they are coming back to work with their people. Rather than going away. They're able to come back here and find jobs and positions, and to also improve, and to also be an example. Yes, you can become a doctor, because you're outstanding; you can become a lawyer, because "Here I am, a Lambert who grew up on Goose Creek, who is now the tribal lawyer." Yes, that was one change that came about. Another change is I think that people before did not want to talk about political situations, but everywhere I go now, people freely come to me and tell me what they believe about the political situation on the reservation. Where we're heading and what they really would like to see. Whereas before, it was never mentioned; it was apathy. And there was a lot of complaining; but now they realize they can do something about it. Through their vote, they can change things. They can stand up in front of the council and say what they believe.
SG: I think from your political process one thing that has emerged in the Charlotte papers is, of course, that you now have a female chief, and I was talking to Mrs. Swimmer about that yesterday. She said she saw that the first priority for her [Joyce Dugan] was that she has such an enormous mess to clean up. While there are others right out there too, needing attention, but she thought this might absorb, perhaps, so much energy that it would take awhile for the new things to happen. [N.B. Chief Jonathan "Ed" Taylor was impeached in 1995, and Joyce Dugan elected.]
FO: Mrs. Swimmer I think is very wise, because the chief was telling us, "Be patient." There is a--it's like a hurricane has hit, there's such a terrible mess. She does have to clean up; it will take awhile to do that before she can even start serving the people. But for the last eight years, when the people have not been served, so a lot of it won't hurt to wait another few weeks. They have been abused; their power has been abused; the money has been misused, and their programs were almost done away with in a lot of cases; they were ignored. And now there's a hope that things will be better. They take awhile to clean it up, but Joyce, Chief Dugan, will be there working with the people. She's a very caring individual, and very responsible. And she's very educated. And this is a breakthrough, because Schermerhorn came to the Cherokees in 1838: an educated person. Had them sign a treaty, and they were removed. So they have not trusted educated people for a long, long time.[3] But finally they realize some of their own can become educated more and more, and education is not such a bad thing. For eight years we had politicians stand up and preach education is a priority, but they didn't have any themselves in a lot of cases. So that was a negative example, saying one thing and being something else. But Joyce can stand behind education, and she is educated; her walk matches her talk. So things'll be better.
SG: Mrs. Swimmer said, for example, that all those years--35 years that she worked at Oconaluftee--and she said just not to believe the brochures that said proceeds would go to scholarships and so on; she said she'd never heard of one resulting from there. [N.B. I was remembering badly! She said not one "full-blood."]
FO: I think-- I went through, to be honest with you, on a scholarship from the Historical Association.
SG: Did you?
FO: That's my first four years of college were paid for by the Historical. And when I finished, when I graduated with my first BS degree, I went to pay back the loan, and they told me to keep it. But I had succeeded, I had graduated and I didn't have to pay it back. And that meant a great deal to me. But she is right; the majority of funds do not go to the reservation. The majority of funds go to hospitals and other places off the reservation, other hospitals in the area, and what they do is good, but I think that they probably could give more back to the people who are earning the money. And I think first thing they could probably do is to increase the salaries of those people who work up there.
SG: Yes, I gathered that working conditions were awful--
FO: They're very low--
SG: In the time she was there--
FO: Yes, they have not paid them anywhere near--they say, "Well, the work is easy; they just have to sit there and demonstrate." That doesn't--the work of a surgeon is easy because he just has to cut the person open and he doesn't sweat very much. But these people are sharing their culture. It's not how much physical work they do; it's how much they share. And to share the Cherokee culture, they're the only ones who can do it. So it's a very specialized job, and deserves a little bit more pay than the minimum wage.
SG: How will Oconaluftee continue? She was mentioning also that the people who were working there when she started--I think only two or three, including her, are alive now.
FO: True.
SG: And so--you also are an artist. To what extent are these being passed on--I don't know, I feel so ambivalent about the whole place. I hate the idea of anybody being on display--do you see these as dying arts, or arts that will continue?
FO: I really feel like a lot of them will continue. The younger people, especially today, they're beginning to pick up those art forms, and excel even beyond those elders. We have an artist out here in the museum today, Paul Hornbuckle, whose work is above and beyond anything I've ever seen in woodwork. He's a young guy who listened to the older people, came out with his own style; he's a genius. Beautiful. And we hope there'll be more and more people like him, in pottery and beadwork; there seem to be. They're teaching it in school now. And it's a thing that's coming back. It's a thing that's not dying. And so I think it will be hard even for that village to find people to fill their demonstrating; it's because these people are becoming good! Making more money selling their own things than they can just sitting up there, making three or four or five dollars an hour, whatever they pay now.
SG: It sounds, from things you've let drop, that you encountered your share of prejudice when growing up.
FO: Oh yes. From both sides, in a lot of cases. You see, I'm not a full blood, so--and I'm not a purebred Caucasian, so I was never truly accepted by either side. I'd go to Bryson City shopping, I was an Indian; and come back to Fall Festival here and certain factions look down at you and say you're a unca, which means a mixed blood, or white. And so it's hard growing up in the middle of all that. There are prejudices on both sides. And I think a lot of it is the fault of the US government, that they insisted on pedigrees. My great-grandfather was on the Trail of Tears; he was a full blood Cherokee. And the Scotch-Irish people who were coming in were intermarrying with those Cherokees, and I'm a direct product of that. And the government sends down a pedigree, and so you have a hierarchy which is enforced by them, and therefore you will always have division, even after the victory of cleaning out the Council, getting rid of the chief. Then you know the first thing people want to do is to start in on the blood degree. And raise it, and eliminate people. Therefore, through the process of raising it, they infuriate other people, and therefore create another division. And therefore lose the cohesiveness that they had to get rid of the chief, and the Council. So they're breaking up again, because they're dividing themselves, among themselves. I don't ever expect a real degree of success among the people here as far as unity, because they'll always fight among themselves. Because of the hierarchy that's been created.
SG: Irony seems to be the leitmotif of what we're talking about! Those aren't your indigenous categories for people. They are as close to South Africa as I can think of. Working on the basis of paper work, and so-called physical evidence that may be quite meaningless anyway.
FO: That's true. It's very dangerous, and the government has always, even from the Removal, divided and conquered. So they divide, and eventually will conquer. And I think that within 500 years the Cherokees will be no more.
SG: 500 years and the Cherokees will be no more, well, I've been asking that of Lumbee people, too; they make it shorter, 50 to a hundred for them. And it's such a staggering thought--what will be?
FO: The legends, a few books, a land that is probably a little more beautiful than the rest because it had been taken care of a little bit longer, a land where the homes are not built on top of every mountain range, and beauty still remains; a land where the spirits of the ancestors still remain, and the songs of nature can still be heard. A land that once was.
SG: But that sounds very romantic. I've no criticism of romanticism, really--what I meant was that even on the reservation, let alone as soon as you get off, you're in another world altogether: a capitalist world, an exploiting world, a world saturated with media owned by powerful interests, whose interests do not coincide with those of traditional peoples in the least--so if in 500 years--so you envisage a population with Cherokee values, or with some degree of Cherokee values?
FO: As far as the Cherokees' culture is concerned, I'm hoping that it will be like taking a great sea of white, and dropping one tiny little drop of red ink into it. But those values and those beliefs will spread throughout; maybe leave just a little tiny shimmer of pink or two. But everyone will be able to share from those good things that the Cherokees possessed and loved. Because like the priest people, the ancient ones, they too blended into the Cherokee society. And occasionally you see beautiful dark skin with blue eyes, or beautiful dark skin like in Robbinsville with red hair. A trace of the priest people, of the ancient ones, and the things they left behind.[4] People are constantly changing. Nations gain strength when they die, and we feel like, well, the Romans, the United States, and places like that. They live forever, they go on forever, but I think the Native American peoples have survived even beyond some of the accomplishments and during the time of Egypt, and Rome. They were here, in this valley, and lasted even up to the beginning of the United States, and maybe through it. This type of things we don't think about, but--Bryson City boasts of being a big city, that was founded in the late 1800s; Keetoowah could boast of being a city that was founded four or five thousand years ago.[5] And only died after 1838. That is never mentioned in the history books you'll run across. But the graves are still there in the fields, and the culture is still there, also.
SG: Do you by chance write poetry?
FO: No.
SG: You ought to, I think! [Laughs] Everything you say is so beautiful. That's helpful, that's very, very interesting. Tell me, do you know what became of your great-grandfather's family, then, once they were "resettled"--that's such a stupid word--"displaced"--"force-marched"?
FO: Yes, they were force-marched to the Mississippi, and my--I'll just call him grandfather, was asked to count the Cherokees as they crossed the river, and he said he would. Then he told the soldiers they were all there, and he told his wife to hide on the other side. She hid in a big canebrake; he told them that they were all there, and went back, and said, "Let me check again, and make sure everybody's away from the river." He goes back, and jumps into the Mississippi, and they shoot in the water, and they think he's dead, but he's breathing through a reed, and after they leave, he swims back across the wide Mississippi, and after a year he finally rounds up his family and comes to Cherokee. The Oconaluftee Cherokee are still remaining, and he has to settle here. And that's where--the same valley that he settled in when he came back. My family is still there. They will probably be there for another hundred years. [Perhaps we returned?]
SG: You said some very moving things about your father at Lake Junaluska. Could you tell me a bit more about him? And growing up with him?
FO: Yes. A very wise man. A very loving and caring man; a man who was very close to nature and loved to be outside. Became a firefighter, and retired as a firefighter. Taught us many things about the forest, the earth, about God. And the way we should live our lives. And mainly that we should be happy. And that we should be outside. And I learned that, growing up, as a teenager, I felt like I knew everything. Going off to college, I felt like I was learning meiosis and mitosis, and I truly knew everything. But on graduation, returning and seeing him in the field and working, I returned with a different perception of him. A very wise man; he knew a great deal more than I had ever known or I probably would. He learned a great deal when I went off to Gardner Webb College.
SG: Did you speak Cherokee at home?
FO: We spoke some. My father wouldn't teach us because he was beaten at school, because he used it. And most of the Cherokee we spoke was not learned at the school, from other students. Which was not always the best words to learn, because it was not the best words. But then again, as I got older, we began to pick up the conversational Cherokee, and then when I went back to teach school, the elementary had a Cherokee teacher who I would sit down and listen to Mrs. [Marie] Junaluska everyday. And I learned most of my Cherokee there, after I was out of college, teaching.
SG: Did your mother learn?
FO: She knew some. But she didn't know as much as my father did. So they always spoke English at home.
SG: Where had he gone to school?
FO: He attended the boarding school here in Cherokee.
SG: I've been hearing a bit about it; it doesn't exist now?
FO: No, it was done away with. The boarding school was based on a P-R-A-T-T, Pratt--
SG: Oh, from Carlisle?
FO: System. Right.
SG: Oh God, yeah.
FO: Yes--
SG: "Kill the Indian to save the child"?
FO: Right. Cut their hair, take away anything that was Indian-like, and teach them all the trades, and all of the military, and therefore hopefully they would become Caucasians. After many years they realized it didn't work. They still were dark-skinned, and still had a lot of their culture left, so they decided they wouldn't do that anymore; they were no longer a threat, so let's teach their language back to them, make them more of a historical-type presentation; I don't know, it's like an exhibit to be proud of. All of a sudden you really admire them, those once savages who have been reformed. They learned good things-- about how to make bread, and how to wash clothes--how to build--it was not all a loss, but I think they went about it the wrong way. They should have let them still possess their Indianness. Still teach them how to build. Teach them how to bake bread, as a Native American. They could have done that. Without the put-down; without the overbearing supremacy that they--that loomed over them as individuals.
SG: I'm surprised anybody emerged sane from the experience.
FO: The Cherokees were a group that were defeated, and after 1838 the Georgia Cherokees, the Tennessee Cherokees, South Carolina Cherokees, were--they came to this area where the Oconaluftee Cherokees were still living; they were never touched. And they were in such a state of devastation, they lay up on the ground, in the rain, not trying to redeem themselves. They had no hygiene. Everything was lost. Their motherland, their culture, their beliefs, until Younaguska came to say, "Listen, don't mess it up--we can be a strong people again, stay away from the white man's firewater and work hard, we will survive."[6]
SG: [The conversation had changed to editing.] Not with you, at all, but I'm thinking maybe some of the older people, I get really fragmentary stuff. And were I ever to use some of it, write a story about it, I--to respect their dignity, I'd have to clean it up, but I don't want to too much.
FO: Right, exactly right.
SG: So that's why I make these totally unmediated transcripts--
FO: I think that's very wise.
SG: And then I want anybody who consents to have them used, I want them to look at how I then "translated", but if they don't like it, then I won't use it. So that's really--but nobody talks perfectly anyway! I mean, we edit in any event, you and I could edit each other, but still... I think it's important to have the unmediated version--
FO: That's the original, the train of thought that was going on at the time.
SG: Yeah. I really want to be as non-intrusive an editor as I can, so. we'll see. This will be months and months from now.
FO: You know, I mentioned Yonagouska, in telling the Cherokees to get up, and be proud, and they did. And Yonagouska was the man who in the wagon train coming through, Yonagouska raised the son, a baby they'd given him, who was sick and probably was going to die; they gave him to the Indians. His name was Will Thomas.
SG: Oh yes, yes!
FO: So they started putting land in Thomas' name, and eventually established what's called the Qualla Indian Boundary.[7] You see the large signs that say "Cherokee Indian Reservation," I think those should be taken down, because it was never "reserved" for the Cherokee. It's like the government gave us back the land. The Cherokees bought back the land, through hard work. So "The Qualla Indian Boundary" is correct. Yonagouska died and is buried somewhere on Soco Valley, in Wolftown. And my mother said her father knew exactly where his grave was. Her father was Joseph Bradley, and Joseph Bradley helped them to cover the grave with leaves and dirt, so that when they were moved out, they didn't want it to be a spectacle. And many people speculate that they found Yonagouska's grave now. But according to what Joseph Bradley and those people said, they have not. They're looking in the wrong places.
SG: Well, good! It's sort of like Crazy Horse's burial--
FO: That's right, it's still hidden. They found a few graves that they began to say, "Well, this is really him." But according to ( ) and Joseph Bradley who was related to the ( ), no, not yet. Probably not ever.
SG: I hope not. I was surprised when we were talking last time I was here, that it seemed that the links with the Western Cherokee are nowhere near as strong as I had supposed.
FO: They're really not, because--it would be good if they were--the Western Cherokee perceive themselves as being--and this is a point at variance--they perceive themselves as being the Cherokee Nation. They believe that, in many cases, that the Eastern Band of Cherokees do not even exist. That they are the "real people" out there, and these folks out here are not--not really Cherokees. And so--it's sort of erroneous, because this is where originally these people, where they--these people were the only ones who were left in the nation. Now I guess, depending on whether you would say the nation is a geographical location, or the majority of people who were removed, what is a nation? It probably would be the people, though the Cherokees in the east and the west need to come together, for that's all the nation really is. It's all the people put together, regardless of where they're geographically located. There are many factions in the west, like the society of Kituwah, the Society of the Golden Circle, and there's a lot of division there, among themselves, simply because the government started that. At the very beginning. Those who were treaty signers, those who did not sign the treaties, they're another group, and they're still not getting along the way they should. And never will. They divided through the Civil War, they divided--after they arrived out there, Elias Boudinot, John Ridge and many of the other people were killed from dissatisfaction. Fortunately, out here, those divisions don't exist. 'Cause these people all remain, and so therefore we don't have these divisions.[8]
SG: Is there anything comparable, here, to what I've been picking up when I speak to really old Lumbee people? They refer to the Red Men's Lodges, or Siouan Lodges, which were secret societies, male only, and there are a few people alive, again like Spotted Turtle, who actually were members of it as--the chosen ones, when they were about, to enter the lodge and learn about it[9]--they don't really exist anymore, but there's thought now--Vail's thinking of revitalizing them. [Vail Carter, an enrolled Lumbee and founder of the Am. Indian Heritage Council of Charlotte, Inc., originated the project interviewing Native Carolinian elders; SG and her students work with him.] He thinks Lumbee men need a place, that is a space of theirs, and that would be devoted to maintaining the culture. Have you had anything like that up here?
FO: I think probably we've had attempts to do sweat lodges and this type of thing; I think what one has to be very careful of is after the great--the passage of time, that we just don't go out and pick up something that appears to us as the way things were. That is a pollution of beliefs, possibly, and it could be pollution of, say, bringing Sioux into Cherokee belief systems, and ceremonies, and it would be better not to bring it back at all, if you didn't bring it back realistically, and true and real. The Sioux probably don't appreciate their methods and their ceremonies being used by others. You have to be careful not to pollute.[10]
SG: What were some of the values that you were raised in? That you think were distinctively Indian?
FO: Never kill anything unless you plan to eat it. Never kill a dove. Never cut down a tree unless you plan to use it. The bean bread, the chestnut breads, the corn, beans and the squash, the Indian corn, the methods of farming, and being able to go out and watch the corn grow, and not just plant it anywhere. Appreciating the animals and the life of the spirit that is within them. Things that they gave us. Actually knowing the cow that gives us the milk to raise my brothers and sisters; by name. Not just taking things for granted, that we have as much as we need, and we will use as much as we want to use, and waste the rest, because there's always plenty around. The concept of time. Don't rush anything too quickly, because it destroys the quality. And life is very, very valuable, and so therefore each individual is a special creation, and therefore will never be left alone and hanging out by himself. Or herself. Unity. I think that's been very helpful to me in my growing up, is to realize my humbleness to the whole group of living things; I have to realize my importance within a whole group of many things.
SG: To what extent can you impart these things to your daughter, a generation later? Growing up somewhat differently, I suppose--
FO: I've been fortunate that I've been able to stay with her every day of her life so far. I don't have to go out and work what society says is a job; my job is at home; when I go to work, she goes with me. When I plant the corn in the fields, she also plants; when I walk through the woods, she's always there; we've covered many trails, many miles. She knows the animals as well as I do. And I'm fortunate, because I, like a real Native American, remain close to home. I think she will excel; already is. And can appreciate when to be happy in life, which is the most important. So it's been good. But you have to suffer, and you have to give up certain things like headaches at the end of the day from working a long day, frustration with the restrictions--I don't know, not being able to step outside the building to really look at the sky, or the monarch fly over in the fall of the year, not being able to get out and watch the leaves float down the river because you're teaching school, not to be able to feel when the wind blows in your face and your hair because you're inside, in the air-conditioning... Those things you have to give up.
SG: I've been curious about another population near here. I had a graduate student last year who was identified as African American, and looked white, and whose mother was in fact from Saponi people in Virginia. So she got interested in people with varying heritages such as she had. And she interviewed some what I guess we could call Black-Red people near here [in Canton, NC], but not on the reservation. Some of them had grown up here, but then they married out; they married Black. And what I was picking up, although they didn't say it directly, and she was too polite to ask them, was that they wouldn't be very welcome on the reservation. Is that true?
FO: To answer that is probably--in the past it has been very true. When the government--my father, when he was growing up, grew up alongside Black people in Birdtown; they had big farms up on Goose Creek. Apple orchards, and all of a sudden, I think about 1920s, sometime, the Federal government came down and took their land away. And removed them, from the reservation. So the Federal government said, It's not a good thing that these people be here. They should not be here, they have no right to be. So they took everything they owned. And many of those people were African American/Native American mixes. And they still come to visit their relatives on the reservation, here and there. Many of them just sort of faded away and lost all contact, because the Government's says, You don't associate with these people. You cannot be who you are. So go away. So they did. And the Old South also reanimated that. So now they live away. But there are probably a great number of them.
SG: And their kids live elsewhere, and I think identify as Black. They live in Charlotte, have professional jobs--
FO: Right. The Colemans, the Harrisons, some of the families my father grew up with.
SG: These people were named Thompson and Geter. Their last names.
FO: Those people were never treated fairly, and no one ever felt it was important enough to know what they went through. It was basically a Trail of Tears also. They lost everything they had. Nobody cared.
SG: And we get fed up when we hear about "ethnic cleansing" in Europe! I mean, our government is an expert at ethnic cleansing! That I just find so hypocritical. This is a totally unrelated question, somewhat unrelated, but I see I didn't ask it, and I'm somewhat curious about it--natural remedies.
FO: Yes. There still exist quite a few. Mrs. Swimmer would probably have been a good one to have asked that--
SG: I did! And she actually wasn't!
FO: She was not?
SG: Well, maybe she wasn't--
FO: She didn't like to share, right--
SG: Very forthcoming in those circumstances. She said she was the youngest, too, and she said that she could remember people using them but she could not remember exactly what they were made from.
FO: Yes. I can give you just a very few. The bark of the wild cherry--
SG: For coughs?
FO: Tea for colds, right. Cough. And the bark of the willow, possibly as tea for rheumatism. Ah, the spicewood tea was also used for cleansing of the blood, and also flu symptoms. It's a wonderful tasting tea, also.
SG: Which one was that?
FO: The spicewood. Wonderful. And also, it was also used for everyday tea, and seasoning of meats, wild meat. I can get some of that for you if you ever want it.
SG: I should love some.
FO: Folks make tea out of it, they steep it, and it's common, ordinary tea. I'm trying to think of some of the others. They also use poke root, which you have to be very good with that, because it's poisonous--small amounts of it, and also I don't know what they use poke root for. But they also use the bark of the white oak--the inner bark of the white oak--which is very acidic. They used to have the "black drink", in the old days, to make people purify their system through regurgitation, purging, and it was also used for diarrhea. Very small amounts. So strength would be important there. That's about all I know.[11]
SG: It's a lot more than she was willing to confide, anyway! It just seems to me that all mountain people do know about some of these things--
FO: Yes, that's Appalachian Cherokee, they sort of shared back and forth.
SG: I cannot read my own handwriting. I'm not sure what I meant, anyway. [pause] When I started this project with Lumbee people, I think I was exceptionally--I know I was exceptionally naive! I was trusting that oral tradition would somehow have come down, virtually untouched, even though they don't speak a native language anymore, and are Christian, and lead a lifestyle almost indistinguishable from people around them, and so forth-- As soon as I would say, "Do you remember any stories you heard when you were growing up?" they would remember a great-grandmother who was telling something, and I would think, "Ah hah! This is so clearly from some Native peoples of eastern Virginia!" or something-- Well, of course, this has never happened. And often the story that they know--they sound to me like European fairy tales gotten out of books. They'll give me the plot. One delightful older woman, nearly 90, was a first-grade schoolteacher for donkey's years.[12] And her aunt and uncle had a store that actually I think had a kind of traveling library in it, too. So she used to go and love to listen to them tell stories. But they sounded very western European to me, and I was just wondering if the situation is any different here.
FO: Yes, I think it is. We always heard the story of the possum, having lost his tail from dragging too much--
SG: That sounds like a teaching tale--
FO: Right. The story of the Little People, and if you ever see one, you should never tell anybody, something terrible may happen to you. The explanations of the really weird things that would happen were caused by the Little People. Things would disappear, and all of a sudden they'd return again; the Little People did that. And it was ok. And also a lot of stories about, like, Spear Finger, I always heard that. It was a very scary thing, to keep you out of the woods. Aunt Molly didn't want you to run off into the forest, which could go endlessly up here. He knew about Spear Finger, that would stick an awl through your heart, your liver, and take it out, and then you would die, without even growing up. Spear Finger could change himself into grandmother, or your mother, or your sister. If anyone asked, like you thought that you knew, you should not run off with strangers in other words. You may think you knew, but it could be Spear Finger. So you stayed close to home. These are all teaching tools. Many stories of the owl--they could come screeching toward your window, or be bringing a message of death to the family, and you should ready yourself and be good to your brothers and your sisters, so when death came, be prepared for it. These are stories, they were told in the form of stories, and you abide by them.
SG: Although I didn't find much about stories per se, some people have shared about beliefs, like a pregnant woman should never go into a peach orchard; that apparently was extremely--firm.
FO: That's true. Neither should she be involved in the processing of foods, or preparation of foods, or storing, or else they would sour. And spoil. Being a matrilineal society, I think they still possessed those things that I think basically ( ) as being unclean--
SG: Did they? Or just so powerful you're wise to be careful?
FO: That's right. That's true. And the women have a very special lodge that they go to now, in childbirth. Not that they were being ousted, because it was a bad thing, or an unclean thing. Because it was a very special thing, and only they, and their midwife, were allowed there. Those things are prevalent still today.
SG: Contemporary Lumbee society, like any contemporary society, I guess, is relatively patriarchal, yet I found that the more I mingle with them--I heard myself actually introducing one Lumbee recently at a pow-wow in Greensboro, and I said, "This is so- and-so, and he is Rosa's brother, and Jennifer's father, and Ruth's husband!" That is how they would make the connection![13] Mrs. Swimmer also talked in some detail about the political disenfranchisement of Cherokee women. And she was referring--I don't know if this is still the case, I should have asked her--if a woman marries out, she's no longer a Cherokee; if a man does, he is?
FO: True.
SG: Why?
FO: It's a patriarchal society.
SG: But that's not you guys, as I understand it. Was it seen as some kind of expedient to--
FO: Appalachian people came in and took control; the property and the house always went to the oldest son. Women were not given anything. They remarried, they left. And that has changed in the last--40 years. But up to that point it always was true. You're going to live in the society, you have to do things the way they tell you to do. But now the women divide the property among their--with their brothers.
SG: So it is somewhat improving?
FO: Yes.
SG: I'm glad to hear that.
FO: The men always had to move out before. They got married to another woman, they moved to their house. But the women are getting a fair shake now. And if they marry out, they're still Cherokee. And the men come here to live with them.
SG: I've taken so much of your time; is there anything else you'd like to say at this time?
FO: Well, I thank you for listening. I do appreciate it. Things really are looking up with the Cherokee. We got a new council, we got a new chief. And if gambling does come you will have wisdom to control it, or to get rid of it if necessary. I've thought that for many years. I think the way things have turned out will be acceptable to me, because at least what happens will be an honest effort, and not a selfish indulgence.
SG: Well, thank you so much. It was my pleasure to listen; I always talk too much!


1 What most people regard as the "Eastern Cherokee reservation" is properly referred to as the Qualla Boundary, or, as many Cherokees themselves simply call it, "the Boundary." The history of these 56,500 acres held in federal trust for the Cherokees is extremely complicated, a consequence of the 1838 Removal of Cherokees to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Some of those who refused to go and hid out in the mountains, separated themselves from the Cherokee Nation, accepted North Carolina state sovereignty over their villages, and delegated a special power of attorney to the white trader Will Thomas. Thomas convinced the NC General Assembly to incorporate the NC Cherokees into a state corporation, of which he was corporate president and trustee. In this capacity, he bought more land for the Eastern Band, but since non-whites could not own land in North Carolina, it was deeded to himself. After the Civil War, the federal government began to investigate the legal situation, and the Eastern Cherokees then invited the US Government to become the trustee; "their" land took on reservation status. The Qualla Boundary is the largest tract of the reservation, which also includes the outlying villages of Snowbird, Tomotla, and a 3,200 Acre (Thomas) Tract. Birdtown Community is the most heavily populated on the reservation.
2 Mr. Owle could be referring to any one of a number of appalling occasions, but I believe he is referring to an incident beginning in 1758 and ending tragically with ultimate Cherokee defeat in 1761. "[In] November, 1758, a party of influential chiefs, having first ordered back a war party just about to set out from the western towns against the Carolina settlements, came down to Charleston and succeeded in arranging the difficulty upon a friendly basis." (Mooney 42) In May of 1759 Gov. Lyttleton demanded the "surrender for execution of every Indian who had killed a white man in the recent skirmishes" and the commander of Fort Loudon demanded the surrender of 24 other chiefs. War was declared in November 1759. A second delegation of 32 men, led by war chief Oconostota, further attempted to make peace, but all were made hostage and confined to a room large enough for only six soldiers at Fort Prince George. Oconostota and two others were eventually freed; smallpox broke out in the Cherokee towns; but by February 1760 Oconostota laid siege to Fort Prince George. His forces killed the commander, Lt. Coytmore, whereupon the soldiers "immediately broke into the room where the hostages were confined, every one being a chief of prominence in the tribe, and butchered them to the last man" (43).
3 Rev. J.F. Schermerhorn, in 1835, was appointed commissioner by President Andrew Jackson to arrange a treaty for Cherokee removal with "the Ridge party," headed by Major John Ridge, "a prominent subchief, [who] despairing of further successful resistance, was prepared to negotiate... [T]he Cherokee were to cede their whole eastern territory and remove to the West in consideration of the sum of $3,250,000 with some additional acreage in the West and a small sum for depradations committed upon them by the whites" (Mooney 121). The Ross party [John Ross was Principal Chief], which was against Removal, opposed this, but "The Schermerhorn compact with the Ridge party, with the consideration changed to $4,500,000, was thereby completed and signed on March 14, 1835, but with the express stipulation that it should receive the approval of the Cherokee nation in full council assembled before being considered of any binding force" (121-22). An Eastern Cherokee perspective further elaborates: "Deceit had to be used since all parties knew that Chief Ross and the vast majority of Cherokees were openly opposed to forced removal. The plan was to incapacitate Ross while Schermerhorn enticed Major Ridge and other council members to sign the treaty" (French & Hornbuckle 21-2). While Chief Ross was in Washington, D.C., Ridge and 19 others signed the Treaty of New Echota which agreed to removal.
4 "There is a dim but persistent tradition of a strange white race preceding the Cherokee, some of the stories even going so far as to locate their former settlements and to identify them as the authors of ancient works found in the country" (Mooney 22).
5 Kituwah was the principal Cherokee "mother town."
6 Regional Chief Younaguska of the Appalachian Cherokees, through his adopted son Will Thomas, managed the exclusion of his people from Removal. 7 See endnote above. French & Hornbuckle give a somewhat less romanticized account of Thomas (21-3); see also Mooney's discussion of the trader who "had been closely identified with the mountain Cherokee and possessed their full confidence," 157 ff.
8 The Kee-Too-Wah were conservative Cherokees opposing a Confederate alliance in the Civil War. The society was associated with the maintenance or revitalization of traditional spiritual beliefs, values and practices; however, two abolitionist Baptist missionaries were very influential in it. Several traditionalist groups have adopted this name.
9 "Probably the first documented social organization of the Indian community in the town of Pembroke is the Pocahontas Lodge. The Lodge, seemingly tailored on the structure of the Masonic Lodges, was part of a larger group of secret fraternal organizations known as the Red Men's Lodge operating throughout Indian country in Robeson county. Its membership appears to have been all Indian and its activity was surrounded in secrecy, even until today.... No one seems to be able to ascertain when the [Pocahantas] Lodge began or any of its affiliates. It continues to be a mystery" (Barton et al., 18)
10 CF Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki): "[M]y Lakota friends are great missionaries--Lakotas are teaching everybody how to do Lakota sweat lodges, and singing Lakota, and be good Lakotas--Lakotas are a stitch, I love 'em! God, I love 'em! But every now and then a Native community will go through Lakota-ism, and eventually emerge looking for their own traditions. And I think that's sometimes a necessary step because people have been distanced so far from being Indian, they have to take steps back; they may even go in the wrong direction. But they are walking. The fact that they are walking is very important" (Gardner 18).
11 The "black drink" was ritually consumed during the Cherokee New Year Festival. "Old clothing, furniture and the like were ceremonially burned in a large communal bonfire followed by the extinguishing of the 'sacred fire' in the town house. Next, homes, the town house and the village square were all swept clean...and a new fire was lit for the new year. All personal, tribal, village and clan transgressions were forgiven, and refugees could return home from neutral villages, which everyone purified himself by drinking the 'black drink' (which induced vomiting) and bathing in the nearest stream. These activities lasted about a week" (French & Hornbuckle 9).
12 See interview with Jessie Belle Smith Maynor.
13 See French & Hornbuckle, 5-14, for traditional tribal/clan organization and gender roles.