Burke Lemons of Chapel Hill, N.C. or Cherokee lineage brought a taste of his Native American culture to L.F. Addington Middle School students in Wise of Friday. Photo by Stephen Igo.
WISE — Haunting melodies of a cane flute and the beat of a deer-hide drum echoed through the hallways of L.F. Addington Middle School on Friday, echoes spanning centuries deep into the history of North America.
Delivering a glimpse into Native American cultures to the fifth- and sixth-graders at L.F. Addington in Wise, and later in the day to students in Norton and at Powell Valley Primary School in Big Stone Gap, was the happy task of Emerson Begay of Kingsport and Burke Lemons of Chapel Hill, N.C.
Begay is a full-blooded Navajo who grew up on the Navajo Reservation spanning Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, and Lemons is of Cherokee lineage. Together, the pair provided a taste of native cultures that have all but been erased from the North American continent except for the Begays and Lemons of their tribes.
"I go to schools, just travel all over to share our culture. I perform overseas, too," said Begay while preparing to enthrall — and the kids at L.F. Addington did, indeed, become spellbound from the moment the stage curtain opened — all who saw and heard Friday's tutorial in ancient tribal ways.
"Some kids think we're gone. They think we don't exist any more. Or they think all Native Americans live in teepees like in the movies," Begay said. "I want to show them, we're like everybody else, just with different belief systems and cultural histories."
There are more than 500 recognized tribes across North America, he said, and who knows how many more were permanently eradicated after 15th- and 16th-century Europeans began to move to the "New World."
North, Central and South America were hardly new to the original settlers of the continents of the Western Hemisphere, who arrived at least 10,000 if not tens of thousands of years before Europeans even had an inkling they existed.
After Columbus "discovered" land masses in 1492 that had actually been discovered many times and much longer before — including most likely by Chinese, Norse and Polynesian seafarers, and possibly others that may have included ancient European seal hunters following the northern ice sheet that blanketed the North Atlantic — the ensuing and well-documented clash of cultures doomed entrenched native cultures of the Americas.
The fifth- and sixth-graders at L.F. Addington have been studying such matters, which is why sixth-grade social studies and science teacher Deborah Roberts reached out to Begay. And it was a school custodian — Dee Dee Crabtree — who suggested Begay as a potential teaching aid to Roberts.
"It's going to be great. We study the (Native American) cultures. It's one of our SOLs (Virginia Standards of Learning requirements)," Roberts said. "That's why we're looking forward to Mr. Begay's visit. What he can share has a lot to do with a lot of my core subjects. I'm just really excited having (Begay and Lemons) here. And the kids are all excited, too."
Since making his home in Kingsport, Begay has become well known across the region as a traditional dancer, musician and artist, also known for completing a large mural in Piney Flats to honor veterans. He is also well known all over the world and in high demand to perform native dances and music, so it was quite a coup for Roberts and the Wise County school division to secure his insights and artistry for a day.
"This is my first time with (Begay) and it's an honor," said Lemons, who shares Cherokee ancestry in his family tree. "I don't do a lot of talking. I'll leave that up to (Begay), so I dance traditional dances. I feel like I carry my family on my back, representing the culture we have."
Begay and Lemons wore colorful native clothes they made themselves, with additions from others of their tribes.
"Some (of his tribal costume) came from my brother. Some from my mother. And some from others of the Navajo," Begay said. "The majority, though, we make ourselves. I'm often asked, 'How much is it worth?' And I always say, 'It is priceless.' There is no price you can place on your own culture."
One of the lessons Begay hoped to impart to students was the curiosity to want to learn more about the cultures and heritage of their own ancestors.
"For me, I just want them to be aware of whatever culture they come from. Whatever their ancestry, to learn where you come from, and learn the languages, too, if they are different from English," he said. "I am Navajo and I know my tribe, and I speak and read the language. Even with Navajo, our young people don't learn all these things as they should, and so it can be lost and I would not want that to happen."
Begay had two uncles who were members of the fabled "Code Talkers" of World War II. The U.S. Marines figured out a way to radio messages that even if they were intercepted by the Japanese — and it was a good bet they would be — enemy forces couldn't figure out what was being said. And that way? Let Navajo Marines do the talking.
"I have read (in Navajo language) some of those messages like my uncles would send. And there were things like, 'The horse is ill, the eyes are infected, and ants are running around,' and I was like, 'What the heck does that all mean?' Well, of course, you have to know the code to know what it means."
But the Japanese couldn't even get that far, because they were utterly unfamiliar with the Navajo language. Assimilated, willingly or not, into what had become a new nation, the Code Talkers saved untold lives of what had become their fellow Americans in World War II, and helped speed along the defeat of tyranny while doing so.
Right away Begay let Wise County students know that modern day Native Americans aren't Hollywood stereotypes decked out in war bonnets and war paint, just another kind of people with a special culture, language and cherished legacy all their own.
"We have iPods too," he said as the students grinned and laughed. "We like to play 'Call of Duty' and all of that other stuff, too."