In This Episode
Tribes are asking that the Supreme Court keep the promises that it made to them. Because what’s lost when those promises are broken is more than just land.
Rebecca Nagle: [speaks in Cherokee]
Rebecca Nagle: I’m learning how to speak Cherokee. Learning Cherokee is humbling. Recently, one of our Cherokee speakers told me that I speak as well as her granddaughter speaks English. Her granddaughter is five years old. That might sound like an insult, but I totally took it as a compliment. What she meant is, she gets the gist of what I’m saying, even if it’s not correct. But today I’m not in Oklahoma learning Cherokee, I’m in a studio in L.A. working on this podcast. If I was back home, I would be spending most of my time talking with fluent speakers and other second language learners like me. We’d be conjugating verbs, cooking [?], making up stories. We’d tease each other and try [Cherokee words], which is basically the Cherokee equivalent of ‘that’s what she said’. The time I get to spend learning my language is irreplaceable. But after just a couple weeks away, it’s scary how rusty I feel, already. There are a few Cherokee phrases that I want to use in this podcast, so I called John Ross, who you might remember from the last episode. John is a citizen of Cherokee Nation and works in our tribe’s translation department. I often visit with him in Cherokee. On this call, John patiently listens and corrects me like, he always does. [Cherokee words] and that one in English means: Oklahoma says that our Cherokee land is no longer ours.
Rebecca Nagle: [speaks in Cherokee]
John Ross: [speaks in Cherokee].
Rebecca Nagle: My editor was on the phone with us and she asked us what we were saying.
Rebecca Nagle: Oh, I say, uh, [Cherokee] which means like: is that good rest or or stuff?
John Ross: [speaks in Cherokee] That’s good.
Rebecca Nagle: I was surprised I got it right, but the next phrase, I kind of bombed. [speaks in Cherokee] In English that’s supposed to mean like: the US has promised Indian people a lot of different things. [speaks in Cherokee] So like: they broke a lot of the promises. And I don’t know if that’s the right word to use there, like [speaks in Cherokee].
John Ross: [speaks in Cherokee] That’s a wrong, wrong word to use there. [speaks in Cherokee] It’s like: they broke all the treaties. [speaks Cherokee]
Rebecca Nagle: [speaks Cherokee] All right. All right. [speaks in Cherokee]
John Ross: [speaks Cherokee] That’s right.
Rebecca Nagle: I got his corrections and then I tried the whole thing and stumbled through saying: the U.S. has promised Indians a lot of different things, a lot of those promises have been broken. Speakers like John are really patient with me when I just can’t get a word right. I’m grateful because there’s no way I would be able to learn my language without speakers who are willing to teach me. [speaks Cherokee].
John Ross: I’m here to help you.
Rebecca Nagle: I’m learning Cherokee because it’s endangered, and that’s no coincidence, it’s the result of more than a century of U.S. policy. Earlier in this series, we told you the story of allotment: how the U.S. divided up Native territory in Oklahoma and then opened it up to white settlers. The whole process was meant to take our land, but through it, we lost so much more. And over 100 years later, we are still living with the consequences. Today, Cherokee nation is struggling to save our language from going extinct, and we’re fighting to save our water and air from toxic ruin. This episode, I’m going to tell you these stories. These aren’t stories that you’ll recognize from the Murphy case. They weren’t part of any of the briefs or the oral arguments, but they are some of the reasons why this case matters. Right now, we’re asking the Supreme Court to affirm our treaty rights and to uphold the promises that were made to us, because we know what happens when those promises are broken. You’re listening to This Land, a podcast about broken promises, tribal land and murder. This year, the Supreme Court was supposed to decide whether half the land in Oklahoma is Indian country. But in a shocking twist, they postponed their decision until next year. The fate of this land still hangs in the balance. From Crooked Media, I’m your host, Rebecca Nagle, a citizen of Cherokee Nation.
Rebecca Nagle: Before allotment, Cherokee Nation ran its own schools. Our public school system was bilingual and classes were taught in both Cherokee and English.
John Ross: [speaking in Cherokee].
John Ross: When they got here after a Trail of Tears Cherokees built over 100 schools in Cherokee Nation. They became the finest schools west of the Mississippi River.
Rebecca Nagle: Cherokee students had a higher literacy rate than their white neighbors. But in 1898, in the lead up to Oklahoma statehood, Congress passed the Curtis Act and abolished tribal schools.
John Ross: [speaks Cherokee] They closed all our schools and when those were closed, we just lost that. [speaks Cherokee]
Rebecca Nagle: The government came in and took control. Overnight, the very schools our tribe had built went from teaching the Cherokee language to punishing the students who dared to speak it. Cherokee was John’s first language. When he started school, he didn’t speak English.
John Ross: [speaks Cherokee] What I remember is you had to be able to speak English. When I first started, the teachers would tell you something and you didn’t know. And there were several of us in a classroom that was the same way. We didn’t speak English.
Rebecca Nagle: Oklahoma’s public schools started pushing English-only education in the early 1900s, but well into the 1970s, public school teachers punished Native kids for speaking their language.
John Ross: [speaks Cherokee] And if you didn’t know how to spell, they give you a paddling. And if you didn’t know how to spell, depending on how many you missed, that’s how many licks you got. That’s how we were treated. You knew, we didn’t know how to speak English so everyone one of us, we’d just be, you know, we were silent, didn’t say nothing.
Rebecca Nagle: Parents who were punished for speaking Cherokee didn’t want their kids to go through the same thing, so they spoke English at home. Today, the youngest fluent Cherokee speaker is 38.
John Ross: [speaks Cherokee] A lot of Cherokee speakers still left, but I never realized that would be like this. You know, we’ve lost a lot of them.
Rebecca Nagle: Today, there are an estimated 2,000 Cherokee speakers in Oklahoma. Most are John’s age, over 60.
John Ross: [speaks Cherokee] Four to five speakers that we lose in a month, you know, that’s the ones I know, just, you know, the ones I know from being a young man and some kinfolks. So four or five a month that we lose.
Rebecca Nagle: Unless we do something about it and soon, Cherokee will no longer be spoken after the year 2050, by anyone.
John Ross: [speaks Cherokee] We’re going to lose everything. If we don’t have our Cherokee, we’ll lose everything.
Rebecca Nagle: If we lose our language, we lose our culture, our identity. We lose what it means to be Cherokee.
John Ross: [speaks Cherokee] Like the medicine man, when he goes out to gather medicines, he’ll pray in Cherokee, and when he ministers the medicine, he’s got a song in Cherokee that he sings.
Rebecca Nagle: If you can’t speak Cherokee, you can’t practice Cherokee medicine.
John Ross: [speaks Cherokee] That’s what they used to say: if you don’t know the language, the medicines will not work. My great grandpa also was a medicine man on my mom’s side, and he knew a lot of, you know, his, his writings in Cherokee and, you know, it’s, that’s what he used. You got to have Cherokee to do the medicine work. And if we don’t have that, we’re going to lose our culture and medicine and everything that we know because everything comes from our language.
Rebecca Nagle: It’s hard to describe how different Cherokee is from English. I took Spanish when I was in school and learning Spanish was mostly learning the Spanish word for the English thing I wanted to say. I could take the map of English that I had in my brain and replace pieces of it with Spanish. Cherokee doesn’t work that way. To learn Cherokee, I’m building a completely new map. Most Cherokee words you just can’t say in English. I asked John to give me an example of a word that doesn’t translate, but instead of giving me just a word, John told me the difference between Cherokee and English is his entire worldview.
John Ross: I feel I really can’t express in, in English how I want to say things like I can in Cherokee. That’s just the way I feel. It, I don’t know how sometimes, you know, you just, you just don’t say anything. You can’t express yourself. And that’s, that’s the hardest part for me, because sometimes I’ll be thinking in Cherokee: how do I say that, how do I say that? [speaks Cherokee]
Rebecca Nagle: I can’t imagine what it feels like for speakers like John: to be born into a Cherokee world, and then as you grow old, fewer and fewer people understand you. It must be so lonely. Our elders hold our knowledge. They hold our culture and they hold it in a language that young people don’t understand. So we can’t pass it on. No one wants to believe that one day we’re going to lose our language. I can’t believe it. But undeniably, that’s the direction it’s going. We have one generation to reverse a century of U.S. policy.
John Ross: [speaks Cherokee] Cherokees lost a lot of things, not only to the land allotted, but they also lost some of the things that they used to do.
Rebecca Nagle: Usually when people think of what Native Americans lost, they think of land. But that’s just what white people gained. What we lost is so much more. And now we’re in danger of losing something else crucial to our survival.
Brandy Wheeler: And so for me, this is home and I don’t want to leave it. But I also want to be able to breathe and I also want to be able to drink clean water.
Rebecca Nagle: I’ll tell you that story next. Like many small Cherokee communities, the one where Pam Kingfisher lives is built around a creek.
Pam Kingfisher: Spring Creek is just beloved by everyone. It still has deep blue holes and it’s just as cold as it can be. It is spring fed. I live just over the hill, but we all swim in it. You know, people have raised their families and all of our kids on Spring Creek. So it really means a lot to everyone.
Rebecca Nagle: Last summer, Pam, a citizen of Cherokee Nation, got some alarming news: Simmons Foods, a poultry farming business, was threatening Spring Creek.
Pam Kingfisher: And they had put out a notice that they had heard they were going to be six houses built right on Spring Creek, right on the creek, on the flat land in the farm just below the Oaks Mission.
Rebecca Nagle: She’s talking about chicken houses, six industrial chicken houses.
Pam Kingfisher: You know, we’ve all lived with chicken farmers, so that’s been a part of our scenery for a long time. And now their houses are 60 by 600 and they’ll hold 50,000 chickens and it’s just a whole new world.
Rebecca Nagle: 50,000 chickens per house, meaning 300,000 chickens right on the creek. Pam and other residents started organizing to stop the chicken houses from being built.
Pam Kingfisher: And so I started a Facebook page that night and started populating it and telling people what was going on.
Rebecca Nagle: Pam lives in a small community called Teresita, but she soon found out that Spring Creek wasn’t the only place facing an influx of chicken houses. Simmons Foods is headquartered in northwestern Arkansas, a 45 minute drive from where Pam lives. Simmons just put a big new processing plant near Gentry, right over the state line. The birds can only travel about an hour by truck, from where they’re raised to the slaughterhouses. So now Simmons is putting as many chicken houses as it can along the highway that leads to Gentry: highway 412. It’s smack dab in the middle of Cherokee Nation. We reached out to Simmons to see if they had a response to the complaints we heard from residents, that the chicken houses were harming their quality of life and the environment. Simmons PR Director, sent us back a three page PDF published by the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Program titled ‘Nuisance Myths and Poultry Farming’. Interestingly, the PDF didn’t cite any research or sources for its information. Under myth #2, poultry farms smell, the report claims that modern houses don’t. I’m no scientist, but I’ve been around modern chicken houses in northeast Oklahoma and the stench is horrid. Brandy Wheeler lives near Highway 412 in Leach, Oklahoma.
Brandy Wheeler: We didn’t grow up like this. I didn’t grow up like this. And it’s, it’s devastating.
Rebecca Nagle: Today, when you drive around Leach, chicken houses are going up on every free piece of land. Brandy, a citizen of Cherokee nation, has lived here all her life. One of her favorite memories from childhood is the smell of honeysuckle in the spring.
Brandy Wheeler: Oh, my gosh. I always love that smell. It’s just it smells like life and beauty and new, you know. You know, everything’s blooming.
Rebecca Nagle: But now when she drives around her hometown, all she smells is chicken manure.
Brandy Wheeler: And now you’ve got to close your vents and roll up your windows and hold your breath. So it’s, it’s sad.
Rebecca Nagle: My producer, Gabriel, and I met Brandy in front of the local elementary school. We hopped in her SUV to get the lay of the land.
Brandy Wheeler: We can count right here what’s in a square mile. So get your calculator out and you can just keep adding.
Rebecca Nagle: We pass a cluster of houses.
Rebecca Nagle: So there’s six right there.
Rebecca Nagle: Then we turn left off the main highway.
Brandy Wheeler: We’re going to go on this road. This is 560 road. This right here is a predominantly Native American—so there’s another six right here. Then there’s, these are the, some more of the newer houses. There’s six more right here. And this is all within a mile. There’s another six down there, the red ones—those set up a little bit farther off but you can see it’s King . . .
Rebecca Nagle: We come to an overpass over Highway 412. We’re high enough, we can see for miles and in every direction are brand new chicken houses. The smell is overwhelming. The stench is harsh chemicals mixed with fowl at the same time. By this point in the tour, I’ve lost count of how many houses we had passed. But Brandy knows:.
Brandy Wheeler: Forty two houses within less than a mile. Those are industrial sized houses. How much litter is that and what are they going to do with it? And where is it going to go?
Rebecca Nagle: When Brandy says litter, what she means is chicken s___, and calculating the amount of chicken poop being dumped in Cherokee nation is where this math gets even more alarming. Over 200 new chicken houses have gone up in northeastern Oklahoma in the past two years. The chicken houses in Cherokee Nation now produce over 140,000 tons of chicken poop a year. And that’s just the amount farmers are reporting to the state. And it’s not entirely clear yet what impact all that litter has on the health of residents.
Brandy Wheeler: Whenever they’re cleaning those houses out, you can literally see—it looks like smoke coming out, but it’s the dust. It’ll take your breath away.
Rebecca Nagle: The chicken poop doesn’t stay in the houses. To get rid of it, the farmers spread it out over fields as fertilizer, putting even more of it into the air. Some days the smell is so bad, the local elementary school has to cancel recess.
Pam Kingfisher: So the little kids at Leach can’t go out on certain days, but that’s because all their neighbors are spreading litter.
Rebecca Nagle: The stink is unforgettable.
Pam Kingfisher: I don’t know how to describe the, you know, that smell factor and perfume and all that, but it’s a real high ammonia smell and harsh on the nose.
Rebecca Nagle: According to the EPA, ammonia from animal waste can cause respiratory problems and even lung disease. So residents are worried about health problems, including Brandy’s family.
Brandy Wheeler: My husband coughs like crazy. My grandma is 85 years old and because of it, it’s really caused a lot of problems for her.
Rebecca Nagle: But the EPA hasn’t figured out how to regulate air pollution from chicken farms. Basically, scientists know chicken poop is toxic to breathe, but they haven’t even figured out how much litter industrial farms are putting into the air, let alone what amount is harmful to residents. In one rural county in Maryland, chickens outnumber people 100 to 1. One study showed that rates of asthma there are nearly twice the state average. Another study showed elevated rates of lung cancer. The chicken poop is getting into the water, too.
Pam Kingfisher: So we really are concerned about runoff.
Rebecca Nagle: It comes from the chicken farms and it’s causing algae blooms in local streams and rivers. If you’ve lived in this part of Oklahoma for a while, you’ve seen the rivers and creeks get greener every year. I’ve heard people call it Mountain Dew water. Animal poop is used as fertilizer because it’s high in nitrates and phosphates. But when those same nutrients end up in waterways in high amounts, it causes the algae to grow out of control. This sets off a chain of events that includes fish and other marine life dying, and produces that green, murky water. It doesn’t just mean we can’t use the water for fishing or swimming. It also means we can’t use the water for religious ceremonies either.
Pam Kingfisher: That is how we pray. They don’t understand. We’re not just going down to picnic. We’re going to water. We’re going to pray. That is a ceremony, an ancient ceremony: going to water. And that water must be clean.
Rebecca Nagle: But it’s not. Not anymore. And that’s a problem because creeks are a central part of Cherokee communities.
Brandy Wheeler: There’s nobody that does not go to a creek. We don’t use rivers or lakes, so we are, we’re creek people. We like to be able to fish. We like crawdads. We like watercress, wild onions. These are native for us. And nobody wants to swim in a creek that has chicken litter running off in it.
Rebecca Nagle: Chicken houses are threatening our way of life. So Cherokee residents around Leach and other towns are organizing in an attempt to defend their water and air.
Brandy Wheeler: I showed up to one of the first meetings and it was in Peggs and there were probably only a handful of people. The next meeting we had, I packed it. I drove down every dirt road from here all the way in Concord up towards Locust and I—that church did not have a place to sit.
Rebecca Nagle: Residents want the state to tell farmers how to safely dispose of all that chicken poop. They also want the state to set a minimum distance that has to be between a chicken house and a home church or school, because right now chicken houses are going up across the street from people’s homes. Imagine putting your kid to bed or eating dinner and smelling that unavoidable stench. Things are so grim, some people are moving away.
Pam Kingfisher: Probably 10 people that I met in July at our first meetings, have their land up for sale or it already sold. So people are leaving if they can.
Rebecca Nagle: But Pam Kingfisher is standing her ground.
Pam Kingfisher: The agencies need to understand, and Simmons and these farmers need to understand, that most of us aren’t going anywhere. I’m going to die and be buried right there on that land, and I’m not going to stop. Do I like to lobby? No, but I’ve been asked and I’m going to take that podium and make sure that the kids that come to our meetings, the kids at Leach school and at Oak School, have someone speaking up.
Rebecca Nagle: For Pam and Brandi, their connection to the land runs deeper than real estate. It’s more than just an investment. It’s more than even just a home. It’s part of their identity. The land holds the history of their tribe and the history of their families.
Brandy Wheeler: The land I grew up on is the land my kids are growing up on, and it’s the land my dad grew up on, it’s the land my grandpa and grandmother worked so hard for. My great grandmother used to live right down there by Leach school. So, a 100 years? Aint that amazing? And I just, it’s it makes me sad because I would never want to leave that.
Rebecca Nagle: Sovereignty is the foundation for Native rights. It’s a basic concept, the right to govern ourselves on our land. Without it, we don’t have the power to protect our water, our air, our language and ultimately our way of life.
John Ross: [speaks Cherokee] Every tribe has sovereignty, and we have sovereignty and this is not given to us. It’s within us.
Rebecca Nagle: We’re used to thinking about the history of the United States as a story of progress, that our country has continued to strive closer and closer to its founding promise: justice and liberty for all. But that narrative is hard to square with Native history. My tribe had more land, more rights and more autonomy in 1890 than it does today.
John Ross: [speaking Cherokee] In the treaties, we’ve lost a lot. Because once you agree on a treaty, that’s not you rights, you’ve already had those rights. It’s taken away rights. So we’ve lost a lot of rights that we had before.
Rebecca Nagle: And now in 2019, all the tribes are asking the Supreme Court to do, is respect our rights.
[speaking Cherokee] In the treaties, those territories are still ours. And, you know, that’s, that’s basically what we were, you know, asking the federal, the Supreme Court to honor their treaties and they’re our rights. [speaks Cherokee] Sometimes, when we go to Supreme Court, we don’t get what we expect and, you know, they, they don’t rule for us. But there’s no other choice that we have. We have to go there and just, we hope for the best.
Rebecca Nagle: We won’t know the outcome of Carpenter v. Murphy until next term, possibly a whole year from now. But while we’re waiting to hear what happens in this case, there is another one working its way through the federal court system, one with even bigger stakes. It’s part of an orchestrated effort to dismantle a law called the Indian Child Welfare Act.
[speaker] They’re going after our children. You know, and if they can take our children, what can’t they take?
Rebecca Nagle: The people leading this attack was nothing less than to dismantle all of federal Indian law. You might be asking: who are they and why are they coming for tribes? Next time on this land?
Rebecca Nagle: This episode, I want to give a special thanks for our Cherokee listeners. [speaks Cherokee] This land is written and hosted by me, Rebecca Nagle, citizen of Cherokee Nation. From Crooked Media, Mukta Mohan and Tanya Somanader are the executive producers. From Neonhum Media, Gabrielle Lewis is our producer, Katherine Saint Louis is our editor, and Jonathan Hirsch and Vikram Patel are the executive producers. Sound design and mixing by Vanessa Lowe. Natalie Rinn is our researcher. Laura Bullard is our fact checker. Our theme song is composed by Jarod Tate, citizen of Chickasaw Nation. Additional music from Blue Dot Sessions. Podcast art by Keli Gonzalez, citizen of Cherokee Nation. Additional production support from Fire Thief Productions, including Nathan Young, citizen of Delaware Tribe of Indians and Cherokee Nation, Jeremy Charles, citizen of Cherokee Nation, Shane Brown, citizen of Cherokee Nation and Melissa Lukenbaugh. Special thanks to Graham Lee Brewer, Citizen of Cherokee Nation, and Cara Hart. And thanks to John Ross, citizen of Cherokee Nation for translation.