SAN DIEGO─"I think a lot of people are losing touch with their roots. The world has become so distracting with money and personal success. Success looks like a big house, a few cars, and all the money you can hope for. That's happiness to some people, whereas in the past all happiness was just getting along with each other," said Yona Welch.
Welch is a Cherokee spiritual leader in San Diego, and has been holding sweat lodge ceremonies for the San Diego Native American community for the past 20 years. Welch spoke at the event, "Untold Soul Stories of Native Americans," which was held at Scripps Cottage on Monday, Nov.26 at San Diego State University to support the National American Indian Heritage Month.
The event is held to inspire respect for tradition and to help people remember their culture. Poetry, art, and traditional memorabilia were shared. Welch also recounted stories passed down through his people as well as stories from his own life.
Having grown up in North Carolina, in an area where his traditional culture was still practiced, Welch said that he didn't need to speak English until he was 10, as much of his town still spoke the Cherokee language.
Welch shared memories of sitting on his Grandfather's front porch, with the only light being from the stars and a couple of kerosene lamps, while his family shared stories.
Setting the tone of what it was like for many Native Americans growing up in those times, Welch recalled that when he was young, his Grandfather had once said to his family, "One day the white man's world is going to dominate, and someone amongst us needs to go out and live in that world and learn how to survive in that world so that he can come back and teach our people, so that we can keep our own ways alive."
With a traditional shamanic drum and rattle in hand, Welch shared an old story from his people. He mentioned that they don't know exactly how old some of the songs and stories are, as they've been passed down from generation to generation.
In the story, the chief had sent out three brothers to find a place for their people to live. On the fourth day, they came across a lush valley. When they got there, they found that there were others who had also found the valley. It had been a hard winter for everyone. "Humanness took over in a moment of not knowing what to do. Indecisiveness led to greed, and they began to fight, and a war broke out. They were fighting for this land for the life of their people," said Welch.
The older brother was killed in a fight for the land, and the two younger brothers ran back to their tribe. When they told them what had happened, the elder said that they needed to go and show respect to the brother who had died.
The whole tribe left to go to the valley, and as they got closer, they could smell a stench. The whole valley was dead, with bodies everywhere from the war. The chief turned to his people and told them that they needed to honor these people.
Welch quoted the ancient chief by saying, "We have to remember that it is valuable to us to be alive. That's what happened here, no one came here with honor. Everyone came with good intentions, but nobody came with honor. They came with desire in their hearts. They came with greed to possess this thing that no one man can possess."
Welch mentioned that he had tried running away from his heritage as a teenager, due to racism and bullying in school.
But he said that as he got older, he started to understand his Grandfather's words. "It's easy for people to lose touch with their roots. You can ask some people what's their heritage and they can't tell you. They're not rooted," said Welch. "Not like that strong tree that's rooted in the earth that's going to bear the same fruit from the past. Similar to apple trees, they just do that year after year – it's a tradition, and just like humans, it's important to know what your roots are so you know what fruit to bear."