Editor’s Note: This article is part of the multi-part series “Exiled to Indian Country” about the exile of Native Americans.
Chief Joe Bunch loves to hear “Amazing Grace” sung in his native Cherokee language.
“It’s beautiful. It’s gorgeous,” he said with emotion. “It’s tremendous.”
As chief of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, Bunch refers to the language as Keetoowah. That’s the name given to his people by the Creator, he said, and it refers to mountain dwellers or the place in the Great Smoky Mountains where the name was bestowed.
Cherokee, he said, is a name the Choctaw used when describing his people to white trappers and traders.
About half the members of the United Keetoowah Band speak Cherokee, Bunch said, especially those who live in rural areas. He said it thrills him to hear preschoolers speak the language.
Bunch is in his first term as chief but has spent more than 35 years in tribal service for the Cherokee Nation and for his own band, which is also headquartered in Tahlequah.
The Cherokee, who became known as the Old Settlers, left the Lower Towns of North Carolina and Georgia in 1817, Bunch said. The Lower Towns were those built along rivers in the southern portion of the ancestral homelands.
“The elders saw that the federal government couldn’t provide protection, so they decided to move to Arkansas,” Bunch said.
His ancestors lived on land in northern Arkansas, Bunch said, but it was not to last.
“We were overrun by the explorers, the non-Indian societies, and the federal government couldn’t keep them out, so in 1828, we swapped it out for land in Indian territory,” he said.
As many as 6,000 Old Settlers made the move to Oklahoma, he said, and about 12,000 Cherokee came about 10 years later on the Trail of Tears.
The Keetoowah received federal recognition in 1950, and the band is now about 14,000 strong. A one-fourth blood quantum is required for tribal membership.
Bunch said the Keetoowah band, along with the Cherokee Nation and the Eastern Cherokee based in North Carolina, host annual tri-council meetings “to talk about the national issues that affect us.”
Serving as chief “is a tremendous job,” Bunch said.
“Our council members have district meetings, and there are community activities, birthday parties, hog fries. and at church, you see a lot of the tribal members.”
Bunch, who is 64, said he grew up in a home with no electricity or running water near the small Oklahoma town of Wauhillau, which is the Cherokee word for Eagle.
He said he loves everything about his culture, from the music, to the stomp dances, to the basketry, to stickball games, much of which is showcased at the John Hair Cultural Museum in Tahlequah.
“To see young people and elders and children smiling and laughing and having a good time is tremendous,” he said.