'A Future of the Same Nature as Our Past' | Elmhurst College


'A Future of the Same Nature as Our Past'


Elmhurst College President’s Holiday Dinner
S. Alan Ray
Presented in absentia by Angela Ray
December 7, 2008

Let me tell you a Cherokee story. It is about anitsutsa—The Boys.
The old people tell us that when the world was new, there were seven boys who used to spend all their time down by the townhouse playing the gatayû'stï game. This game . . . is played by rolling a stone wheel along the ground and sliding a curved stick after it to strike it. Their mothers scolded them, but it didn't do any good. One day the mothers collected some gatayû'stï stones and boiled them in the pot with the corn for dinner.

When the boys came home their mothers dipped out the stones and said, "Since you like the gatayû'stï better than working, take the stones now for your dinner."

The boys were very angry, and went down to the townhouse [that is, the community lodge], saying, "Since our mothers treat us this way, let's go where we will never trouble them anymore." They began a dance . . . and went round and round the townhouse, praying to the spirits to help them. At last their mothers were afraid something was wrong and went out to look for them. They saw the boys still dancing around the townhouse, and as they watched they noticed that their feet were off the ground, and that with every round they rose higher and higher in the air. They ran to get their children, but it was too late, for by then, they were already above the roof of the townhouse--all but one, whose mother managed to pull him down with the gatayû'stï pole, but he struck the ground with such force that he sank into it and the earth closed over him.

The other six circled higher and higher until they went up to the sky, where we see them now as the Pleiades, which the Cherokee call Ani'tsutsä (The Boys).

The people grieved long after them, but the mother whose boy had gone into the ground came every morning and every evening to cry over the spot until the earth was damp with her tears. At last a little green shoot sprouted up and grew day by day until it became the tall tree that we call now the pine, and the pine is of the same nature as the stars and holds in itself the same bright light.

This bittersweet fable is, on its surface, a story about obligation and the consequences of failing to do what one is supposed to do. In Cherokee society, the family comes first. The mother is the head of the household and the clan she belongs to becomes the clan of her children. Individual actions, for good or ill, occur within the framework of collective duties—to one’s parents, one’s children, one’s community.  When those duties are breached, balance must be restored—it is not enough for the individual to say “I’m sorry.” He or she, and traditionally his or her clan, owe recompense to the person wronged and the family to whom they belong. Otherwise, the world is out of balance and even worse things will transpire for the Cherokee, the aniyunwiya, or “principal people.”

In our story, the mothers put the world out of balance. In response to their boys’ obsessive playing at the stone-wheel game, they serve them stones for dinner. This is a breach of their parental duty and it is profound in its consequences. One is reminded of a similar judgment on poor parenting found in the Gospel of Luke: “And which father among you, if his child will ask for a fish, will hand him a snake instead?"  (Luke 11: 11).  The Boys are simply doing what children everywhere do: play. Serving hungry children stone soup, even if they have been disobedient, is unquestionably a mean thing to do. But the mothers are not alone in their fault. The Boys are also guilty, for they owe a duty of work to their community and a duty of obedience to their mothers, which they failed to observe. But while the Boys generate moral imbalance through their actions, the deeds of the mothers are the more destabilizing, for they are, after all, parents, and charged with showing better judgment and greater self-restraint.

The rest of the Cherokee story shows the universe righting, correcting itself in the face of these flawed choices. The six Boys become the untroubled and “never troubling” stars in the Pleiades, beautiful to behold and timeless. One Boy, the focal point of the drama, is brought crashing to earth, so hard that he is there consumed and lost to his family, his people, forever.  His mother’s regret, expressed in her tears, brings into existence the pine tree, beautiful like the stars and of the same nature as the stars—human—but equally inaccessible to the love and concern of those left behind. Balance is restored, but at what a price.

Allow me to interpret this story for our lives here, at Elmhurst College, in so different a world than that of an ancient Cherokee town.

Like the Cherokee, we experience ourselves as part of something larger, something that has a claim on us, a hold on our consciences and actions. Though we are no biological family, tribe or clan, we are a community: a type of human association characterized by a “unity of will” rather than the self-interest of individuals. We are, in the terms of German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies, a Gemeinschaft not a Gesellschaft—a community not a society. We are not “at” Elmhurst College, we are “of” Elmhurst College. Yes, we voluntarily associate with it, but it has no less a claim on us, on our hearts, on our loyalties, for that.  When our employers say they can spot an Elmhurst College graduate—and they do say this—what are they saying except they can spot the signs, the external indications, of what we all feel inside when we reflect on our affiliation with this place, its priorities, its history. Perhaps we are a tribe after all.

But history has now been invoked. And I cannot let it go. When the Boys of the Cherokee mothers rose up into the night sky, transforming themselves into new beings, they became things of memory—bright, exquisite, distinct beings, still living beings, but no longer the beloved children of the grieving mothers, no longer part of their or their tribe’s future, save in story. They were transubstantiated into memories, occasions of storytelling, mnemonic devices—even as I am using them now to tell this story.

Thus, while on its surface, the Cherokee tale of the Boys is a grim story of obligation and retributive—one could even say distributive—justice, at a deeper level the story speaks to continuity and desire—the intense desire of those in the present to bring the past forward, to bind and fuse our past—mistake-filled and imperfect as it is—with the present, to make the stars of the past live and shine in the here and now.

Our history as a College is filled with such stars. We routinely tell the story of the arrival of Director Krantz and his 14 boys, his own anitsutsa, at the Elmhurst railroad station in 1871; of the lightning fast presidency of H. Richard Niebuhr and the transformative power of his brother, Reinhold, over American society and religion during the last century—if the Cherokee anitsutsa are the Pleiades, the Niebuhrs are the stars of Gemini, Castor and Pollux, illuminating our present with their story. Each generation has added new lights.

Like the Cherokee Boys, the hold of the stars of our College on us and our community is predicated, paradoxically, on their absence from our daily life.  Our past, like that of every community, lives among us in memory, stimulated by signs both above and below, the stars and the pines, sky and earth, that remind us that we belong—we belong in space, like the pine, to an enormous network of living connections, natural and social, and we belong in time, like the stars, to a deep and vital heritage that calls constantly for interpretation and application to the present. Like the Boys circling the townhouse in midair, we clan-members of Elmhurst College live suspended in a network of belonging in space and time, called by our mission to maintain a precise and delicate continuity with our past.

The Cherokee tale of the Boys holds yet another lesson. It is about how we make meaning of our lives while accepting responsibility for what has come before, expecting no rosy future in which all that has been lost will be restored. There is no “Spielberg” moment in Cherokee stories. The Boys are not returned to the arms of their mothers, stones are not replaced by nutritious fare. And yet there are the stars, in their uncanny beauty and mnemonic power.  And there is the pine, conceived by a mother’s strong arms and determination, born of her tears, the sign of incongruous life in coldest winter.

Like the Cherokee fable, our College’s story is an honest tale of human striving, of gambles made, and sometimes of errors committed, roads not taken, opportunities lost. But it is also a story of risks taken and rewards gained, roads chosen are broadened and made straight, and opportunities seized and exploited.  And therein lies the strength of our achievement: the attainment of balance.

For like the Cherokee of our story, we stewards of the College constantly seek balance in this world. Neither too much theory in our education nor too much practical skills training; neither neglecting our mission’s origins in the United Church of Christ, nor pursuing a parochial religious mission. We do not seek too few students in pursuit of close-knit learning communities, nor too many, in pursuit of enhancing our financial bottom line. Neither stagnation, nor too much change will do for our future.

We seek a future, which like the pine, is “of the same nature” as the eternal stars of our past, but is capable of abiding, even flourishing, through difficult winters and warm summers, a future that is “evergreen,” thanks to the tears of our service and sacrifice.

And this work is indeed ours—it is a collective effort, to which all are called, in their distinctive ways, by virtue of their belonging to this College, this Gemeinschaft of human endeavor. As I have said on previous occasions, the Cherokee have a term for this contributing-labor-by-virtue-of-belonging:  it is gadugi, and means “all working together.”

Gadugi refers expansively to Cherokees helping one another live a healthful and productive social life, through politically vital forms of government, industry and culture. I have suggested the term as a good one for what we aspire to do here at Elmhurst College. The expression derives, however, from gadu or bread; so gadugi originally means “making bread together,” and refers to community members contributing the various ingredients that go into tepary bean bread, a staple of traditional Cherokee social events. Gadugi, in short, is literally and metaphorically the opposite of making stone soup.

As I look around this room and reflect on why we are gathered here, I see friends who have kept our College in balance, who know what it is to be a good parent, who have contributed labor to our collective life, whose light recalls and inspires our dearest hopes, and whose vitality sustains those hopes in all seasons.  Jeannette and Bryant Cureton, Marcia Day and your children and grandchildren, you shine for us and inspire us.  We thank you for sharing the great work we have been given, for the confidence you have placed in us by allowing us to educate those dearest to you, for your wisdom, determination, and generosity.  We thank you for your advice, clear-eyed and honest, and for keeping faith in us and with us. 

Most of all, we thank you for what you have done and continue to do keep our College in balance, for your gift of belonging, of service, and of trust. In brief, thank you for giving us bread, not stones, when we came in at the end of the day, hungry for supper.

* * *

The story of the Anitsutsa (The Boys) is taken from the website of the Cherokee Nation (www.cherokee.org), last visited November 29, 2008.

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