By Roseanne McKee
Republished with permission of the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise
Cherokee elder Winnie Guess Perdue grew up memorizing poetry, and although she would not characterize her speech at the Bartlesville Area History Museum on Friday as lyrical, there were moments when it was.
“Our lives come together like beads on a loom — ordinary people … coming together to make the tapestry of our lives,” Perdue said. “I’m a little girl from Muskogee, Okla. How did all this happen. My life happened, and it will never happen again because it’s all changed.”
She considers herself an ordinary person who has been afforded the chance to do extraordinary things.
Coming from the Cherokee tribe, a matriarchal society, her clan affiliation was determined by who her mother was. Perhaps this influenced her to reach beyond traditional gender roles.
There are seven clans in the Cherokee tribe. Perdue is a member of the Paint Clan, she said.
When asked the clan’s meaning, Perdue said, ”[p]aint is a color — creative,”
Growing up, she wanted to do everything the boys did — only better. This mindset led her to take it upon herself to learn several Cherokee dances that had been previously reserved for men only.
Perdue identifies with her tribe’s strength.
“See, there is a resolve with Indian people there is a tenacious courage,” she said.
Perdue channeled this courage into learning the traditionally male-only ceremonial dancing. She mastered the eagle dance and the hoop dance among others. She is recognized as one of the earliest female fancy dancers.
“The fancy dances are exhibition dances, different from the eagle dancing,” she said.
“They’re plains ceremonial dances … the dances go back into time immemorial. Backing up and twirling was my signature move,” she said.
“Every dance has its own song. You have to learn all those songs and when the drum stops, you have to stop. If you don’t, you’re ostracized,” Perdue said.
Perdue said the eagle dance, which is spiritual in nature.
“The eagle dance is in a circle as the eagle is in flight — depicting when we’re getting messages from Creator. … It depicts our prayers. … Eagle dances are usually done with two dancers in two circles,” she said.
“There’s somehow a spiritual current that runs through this and we needed it to survive. It goes without saying. Trials come to all of us, and life is not feathers and fun … the eagle dance helps us get through it.”
Perdue spoke of the harshness of the Trail of Tears that the Cherokee tribe had traveled.
“Most were told they had to gather, and they couldn’t bring worldly possessions. Every family got about $45 worth of goods, muskets and a bag. When they were gathering people, they were in internment camps. There were five Cherokee routes, some across water. Transportation was provided but supplies, food and wood were not provided,” she said.
Despite this harsh journey, upon being resettled in Oklahoma territory, most of her family decided they needed to adapt.
She had one uncle named Willy who decided to run away, at the age of 16 or 17, the night his parents died before the Indian Agent arrived. “He never spoke English,” she said.
“The rest of the family was educated and realized they needed to become a part of what the United States was becoming. Most people don’t realize that our leaders graduated from Princeton in the 1840s. … The Cherokee tribe is like a machine that just continues to have successes,” Perdue said.