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Cherokee Chamber Singers bring their message to Charlotte: ‘We’re still here’

Jan 21, 2020

By Lawrence Toppman, The Charlotte Observer 

If you visit Cherokee, N.C., you can see Indians as museum exhibits, denizens of a reconstructed village, perhaps croupiers in a casino resort or hawkers of "authentic" crafts at roadside stores.

But do you really see them? Do you get to know them as human beings with a history lasting thousands of years, marked by episodes most Americans prefer to forget? To do that, visit a concert hall 166 miles east of tribal headquarters on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1. You'll hear William Brittelle's "We're Still Here," a 25-minute piece performed by the Cherokee Chamber Singers and Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.

The all-American program at Belk Theater also offers Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" and Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring," the first by the son of a patrician Philadelphia family and the second by the son of Lithuanian Jews. (What could be more American than that blending?) It will be led by another immigrant, British-born conductor Christopher Warren-Green.

Brittelle is a melting pot all by himself: He was raised in a conservative Christian family in Newton and lives now as an agnostic Buddhist in Brooklyn. But the heart of "We're Still Here," the words that summon the past, survey the present and peer into the future, all come from Cherokees: High school students who supplied reflections, commentary and poetry for the 2018 premiere in Raleigh by the N.C. Symphony.

"I was surprised by how passionate the kids were to begin with, and they're considerably more so now that they've (become) cultural ambassadors," said Michael Yannette, director of the chamber singers. "They all felt, 'I knew before what our history was, but now I really know.'"

CHEROKEE HISTORY

The last 200 years of that history have seldom been pretty. An 1828 gold rush on Cherokee lands in north Georgia led eventually to forced relocation of the tribe in the late 1830s. (That event, known as the Trail of Tears, was just one of many forced relocations of native Americans across the 19th century.)

And, said Yannette, "Boarding schools stole children from their parents, taught them to speak English and forbade them to follow religious and cultural practices. This happened to the grandparents or great-grandparents of people around today, and I don't think most of them know what life was really like then. They may know the food that was grown or the ceremonial dances. But they don't know how generations of people were stripped of who they were."

Yet "Si Otsedoha," to give "We're Still Here" its Cherokee title, ends with the anticipation that the ancient language will be preserved and native Americans will live in the 21st century without forgetting their past. His singers certainly do: When they performed at the National Museum of the American Indian in 2017, they paired a Shoshone love song with "Wait for It" from "Hamilton." (Yannette said, "These kids are crazy about musical theater.")

'WE'RE STILL HERE'

Yannette is not a native American himself; he comes of Italian descent and grew up in West Palm Beach, Fla. But he began to learn about the Cherokee Nation six years ago, when he took a job teaching music and musical theater at Cherokee High School.

He didn't know Brittelle had already begun work on the piece that would become "Si Otsedoha." (Say "She Ot-SEH-do-ha.") The Cherokee Preservation Foundation had given Brittelle a grant, and he'd been interviewing Cherokees. He and Yannette met at the end of the latter's first year, before the Chamber Singers existed. As the chorus grew, Brittelle decided to set their words. (At least one of the original creators will sing with the CSO this month.)

The piece has four sections. First comes a short text of darker historical moments, underscored by Brittelle's music. Then "Phoenix Rising," sung partly in Cherokee and partly in English, expresses hope for the future. The third part, Kyra Sneed's poem "When Money Becomes Religion," offers a warning about greed. "Walls of Glass" blends many musical genres (a Brittelle specialty) and lets the kids have a final say.

Yannette explained that section's title this way: "Eason Esquivel (one of the student creators) told Bill, 'It's kind of weird living here. People come with expectations of what we'll be like, and we foster that, because we're a tourist destination. In the shops, we carry things that will sell. People think they have an idea of what native life is all about, but it's not accurate.' "

The Chamber Singers have ranged in age from 15 to 22, have performed the piece with full orchestras and scaled-down groups, and have tweaked lines in the work as events happen: The original version spoke about Indian protests against the Keystone Pipeline in North Dakota, but that pipeline has since opened (and has leaked 13,700 barrels of oil in two major spills.)

The one thing about "Si Otsedoha" that never changes is the message.

"I have been a teacher for 33 years and have never been part of something with the impact of this work," Yannette said. "The audience reaction has been overwhelmingly positive; I thought people might be disturbed by it in Raleigh, but it had universal acceptance. They were open to what these kids had to say: 'We're still here, and we're always going to be.'"

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