Founders Hall stands at the front entrance of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
All Maj. Robert E. Ricks wanted to do was update his ROTC battalion's motto, but he wound up kick-starting a new chapter of Cherokee history.
Since his appointment as head of UTC's Military Science department in December 2012, Ricks made it his mission to better reflect Chattanooga's role in Cherokee history by revising the battalion's call-and-response.
But after conversations with the Cherokee Nation, Ricks and his reserve officers are ready to build a cultural bridge with the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation through a special internship program this spring. The Eastern Band is one of the remaining federally recognized Cherokee tribes, and the only one still located in its traditional homelands.
"The Cherokee people, by and large, are nearly invisible in modern times," Ricks said. "But they're such a part of American history, in so many people's lineage. Essentially, the Eastern Band Cherokees were the ones left behind from the Trail of Tears."
Ricks had to navigate a sensitive history: The land on which UTC is built was the site of a Trail of Tears holding camp 175 years ago. And UTC's former identity as the "Moccasins" and mascot Chief Moccanooga, a stereotyped Native American who mimicked war dances and sprinkled "spirit dust," generated mounting criticism. It was only in 1996 that all references to Native American culture were removed from the university's athletic program and replaced with a "Mockingbird" icon.
"We want to be careful about speaking to an antipathy," said Lew Harding, post commander of American Legion Post 143 of Cherokee, N.C. "We want to be inclusive with this new motto so as not to cause any tension."
The Mocs Battalion will update its motto from "It Shall Be Done," a nod to Confederate action in the distant Battle of Gettysburg. It will move to a call-and-response of "Guardians of the Lands/Lead by Example," based on the legacy of Cherokee war chief Dragging Canoe, who established Chickamauga and 11 other towns in the Chattanooga area during the 18th century.
Ricks calls the new motto "relevant" and says he respects the unanimous approval of the Cherokee tribe.
But this ROTC program is not just about correcting the portrayal of the Cherokee past, or even just honoring it -- the more both sides talked, the more they became interested in a scholastic partnership.
This May, UTC hopes to change the future for the 12,500 Eastern Band residents and the 288,000 citizens of federally recognized Cherokee tribes by sending 24 students from virtually every major -- tentatively including business, nursing and communications -- to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. In return for service tailored to their majors, students will leave with a greater cultural understanding and potentially up to three credit hours.
The internship name will pay tribute to Army Pfc. Charles George, a Cherokee who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery in the Korean War. A grenade was thrown at his company in the trenches in 1952 and George threw himself on top, absorbing the entire blast. The 20-year-old native of Cherokee, N.C., remained silent despite the pain so not as to give away his company's position before his death.
UTC's students aim to connect the gap history left behind for the tribe:
• English and communications majors are on tap to preserve the Cherokee language. Most fluent speakers are more than 50 years old and a number die every year.
• UTC's nursing majors aim to improve tribe members' health by teaming with a nearby hospital. Cherokees and other Native Americans suffer from some of the highest diabetes rates in the world.
• Ricks' ROTC cadets, who have adopted a legacy and appreciation for the historic people, are collaborating with the Cherokee ROTC and JROTC high school programs to provide leadership and civil duty to its young members, often torn between two worlds of ancestry and the modern age.
"The tribe has been very receptive to it," Harding said. "Everyone I've talked to over here is on board."
Harding said he wants this program eventually to resemble one at UT in Knoxville that provides eight scholarships to Cherokee students every year.
Ricks, who is used to working with a galvanized crew of Army trainees, is still sketching out the process of sending UTC students for their May 2-24 service in Cherokee, N.C.
"You can't just send a vegan nursing major over with an MRE [military meal] and expect them to go to work," Ricks said. "We're working out how the students will be lodged and fed."
"It may come from a Boys and Girls Club or a local motel, but we'll figure it out," Harding added. "Either way, we know that it will be comfortable, chaperoned and safe."
Ricks said that in time, this internship could mean all the difference for the young scholars of Cherokee Nation. Only 13 percent of Native Americans earn college degrees, compared to 30 percent for the rest of the United States, according to the U.S. census.
The number seven is sacred and common within Cherokee culture -- a seven-pointed star symbol, seven clans of Cherokee and seven annual ceremonies. Cherokee natives think of ancestors and descendants seven generations before and ahead of the present.
"Hopefully, this program will work toward putting more Native American students on this campus in large numbers," he said. "Even if that means seven generations from now."
Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592.
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