Seniors in Concord get a glimpse of Cherokee Nation 

Kimmy Coombs (center) holds onto Birches€™ resident Connie Strome as Ray Vaillancourt of the Cherokee Nation leads a parade of dancers on Monday.

Kimmy Coombs (center) holds onto Birches€™ resident Connie Strome as Ray Vaillancourt of the Cherokee Nation leads a parade of dancers on Monday. GEOFF FORESTER/ Monitor staff

Kimmy Coombs  gave a presentation to the residents of the Birches of Concord, where she works, on Monday.

Kimmy Coombs gave a presentation to the residents of the Birches of Concord, where she works, on Monday.

Kimmy Coombs holds onto Ray Vaillancourt of the Cherokee Nation as they lead the residents€™ parade dance at the Birches of Concord on Monday.

Kimmy Coombs holds onto Ray Vaillancourt of the Cherokee Nation as they lead the residents€™ parade dance at the Birches of Concord on Monday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

By RAY DUCKLER

Monitor staff

Published: 10-10-2023 5:32 PM

Kimmy Coombs is a nurse at the Birches assisted living community in Concord, yet she felt the need to introduce herself Monday to the seniors she sees each day.

As a full-blooded member of the Cherokee nation, Coombs told her audience about the history of her tribe, including where it was forced to move, how many members it had when it received independence from the United States government, and when members were granted the right to vote and the right to work.

And with that extraordinary past, filled with rich ancestry and customs combined with government roadblocks and oppression, Coombs explained that her life these days is quite ordinary. Cherokee people are engineers and doctors. They own their own businesses. They read stories to their children. Her grandfather worked on the Alaskan Pipeline.

“We joke about sending smoke signals,” Coombs said in a telephone interview following her slide show. “We’re just people using the microwave to make hot water for tea.”

Coombs lives in Penacook, an area itself rich in Native American history. She’s a native of Southern California, who moved to the Granite State 11 years ago and has worked at the Birches for eight months. She comforts seniors and says hugs sometimes work better than meds.

Coombs followed a literal One-Man Band on the entertainment schedule at the Birches, anxious to teach history on Indigenous People’s Day. It still doubles as Columbus Day in parts of the country. Coombs declined to speak about the explorer, instead focusing on her own history.

She spoke about the past and blended in the present, on a day that honors the contributions and legacy of American Indians (Coombs said that term was fine). Her heritage puts an emphasis on treating elders with respect, which is why she’s so good at her job.

“We walk among you, we share our values with you,” Coombs said during her presentation. “We highly value our elders and ancestors because it’s the elders who have struggled through so many things in life to give us everything we have today.”

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Before Coombs unveiled her cherished Friendship Dance, coaxing audience members to join hands and move through the facility as one, she gave a history lesson to explain her roots. She spoke with pride.

“There are 574 federally recognized tribes,” Coombs said. “The Cherokee Nation has more than 460,000 Tribal Citizens. We’ve now surpassed the Navajo Nation, so we are the largest Tribe in the United States.”

She used a map to describe the Trail of Tears, a historical term that surfaced 200 years ago and refers to the Cherokee Nation’s banishment from its ancestral home in North Carolina and Georgia. They walked to Oklahoma, with many placed in stockades during this time.

In all, 16,000 Cherokees were allowed to carry whatever they could hold. The Trail lasted a full year.

“It was a harsh winter,” Coombs said. “We lost 4,000 members of our Tribe.”

Eventually, they were able to regain a splinter of what had been taken from them.

“The good news happened in 1839, September 6. We signed our treaty to become a sovereign nation with the United States, and we still continue to be a sovereign nation to this day.”

Coombs said that of the 460,000 Cherokee across the country, 100,000 to 140,000 live on tribal lands in Oklahoma. More than 300,000 live all over the world.

“Places like Japan and Germany,” Coombs said. “They move away and they work, but they’re still citizens.”

She addressed the issue of what’s acceptable to call her and her people. “Indians,” is acceptable, Coombs said, so is “Native Americans.”

She gave insight into the harm it causes when someone claims to belong to a particular tribe but has no Native American heritage. Graduating high school seniors applying to colleges sometimes do it, Coombs said, increasing their chances to be accepted or receive a scholarship.

Others simply lie just to appear different.

“They do it because they want people to feel sorry for them,” Coombs said. “Or it may just be the cool factor.”

Her presentation Monday brought her life to life. She worked hard to keep the group together, about 25 residents, some in wheelchairs, others suffering from dementia.

Scott McCullough, a member of the Nation, flew in from Kansas to join the loosely linked chain. The line snaked down hallways, into dining rooms, and back again.

Coombs shook two rattlers, the ch-ch-ch sound creating a rhythm that lasted through the 10-minute process. A process that represented peace and human connections.

Edwin Nicholson, a resident, was paying attention. He was clueless about Native American history and customs entering the lecture. Now he’s not.

“It meant a lot to me,” Nicholson said. “It’s been so watered down over the years that the truth isn’t even known. Did we know that Indians still exist?”