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NC Symphony celebrates Cherokee culture

November 8, 2018

NC Symphony celebrates Cherokee heritage through a music partnership.

Through the generations, the Cherokee Indians have endured stereotypes, racism and an erosion of their culture.

The North Carolina Symphony is celebrating the Cherokees’ heritage.

In October, the symphony hosted a series of concerts across the state featuring teenage musicians from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

One song, inspired by the youngest voices of this ancient people, celebrates that the tribe still stands.

“Si Otsedoha.”

“We are still here.”

Acecia Lambert was among 16 high school students from Cherokee Central Schools who shared the stage with the NC Symphony for concerts from the mountains to the coast.

“For the longest time, I was afraid of my culture,” Lambert, 16, said.

The students have a voice.

“Everything that we felt inside, we transposed into music and turned into something beautiful,” said Ella Montelongo, 17.

Montelongo is among the students who composed a questionnaire for their peers: What is the beauty, and the burden, of being Cherokee?

“No sugarcoating, no beating around the bush,” she said. “We wanted it to be like, this is how it’s been for years.”

“Some people disregard us,” she continued. “Some people forget about us. Most people in America think that we’re not even alive anymore.”

Chorus director Michael Yannette says the words from those kids struck a deep chord.

“One of the profound things was how many kids wrote, ‘We want people to know we’re still here,’” he said.

The symphony hired composer Bill Brittelle to write a 25-minute piece.

Martin Sher, the NC Symphony’s vice president and general manager, said students’ words were set to music.

“This is their story unfiltered, unchanged,” he said.

Untold numbers of the students’ ancestors were forced out of mountains two centuries ago in the Trail of Tears.

“Even in textbooks now, there’s barely anything about the Trail of Tears or anything about the history,” Montelongo said. “That’s really scary to me because that could die off. We could lose our language, our traditional dances, our culture.”

The town of Cherokee can have a touristy glare about it, with Native American souvenirs for sale. The Cherokee students don’t want their culture to be caricatured.

It’s a message they hope reverberates in their music.

“I know this experience has brought us all closer because we all feel this peace,” Lambert said. “Like, this peace is living and breathing through all of us.

The NC Symphony plans to continue to working with the Eastern Band of the Cherokees and might host another series of concerts with their young musicians.

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