Potter Joel Queen describes gathering his own clay in one of a dozen short videos recently released that feature Cherokee artists and elders. In another, Cherokee elder Jerry Wolfe recounts the story of a mouse who, despite its small stature, emerged as a stickball champion. In a third, storyteller Kathi Littlejohn remembers a little girl who saw her perform Cherokee stories and asked her afterward if she was the tooth fairy. “It startled me because I didn’t tell a story about teeth or fairies, but then I realized maybe listening to the stories was like magic to her,” said Littlejohn in the video. “Tooth fairies are magic beings, and I was that for her. I will never forget that.”
The videos were developed as part of a project titled “Media to Preserve Mountain Traditions” and funded with a grant of more than $5,000 from the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area to the Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University working in collaboration with Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual. The videos are being released on the Mountain Heritage Center’s Digital Heritage website. They also will appear on the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area website as well as at Qualla Arts and Crafts. In addition, the Mountain Heritage Center has just opened a new exhibit centered on the history of Qualla Arts and Crafts that will feature the videos and examples of Cherokee crafts. Anna Fariello, associate research professor at WCU’s Hunter Library and director of the craft revival project, collaborated with the center on the exhibit. Both Fariello and Tonya Carroll, outreach coordinator for Qualla Arts and Crafts, lent objects from their personal collections for inclusion in the center’s exhibit.
“We were excited about the opportunity to preserve and share information about Cherokee crafts with a wider audience,” said Scott Philyaw, director of the Mountain Heritage Center. “The videos capture the importance of art in Cherokee culture and how these traditions are still alive and well.”
Carroll coordinated and conducted most of the interviews. The challenge was choosing who to feature, said Carroll, who worked with others at Qualla Arts and Crafts to select tradition bearers who were masters in their field and to showcase a wide range of talent, age, gender and medium. In addition to Queen, Wolfe and Littlejohn, the videos feature Cherokee language instructor Tom Belt, basket maker Geraldine Walkingstick, artist and weaver Karen George, stone carver Fred Wilnoty, bow makers John Ed Walkingstick and Sylvester Crow, maskmaker and storyteller Davy Arch, potter and printmaker Darrin Bark, and beadworker Kim Bottchenbaugh. During the video interviews, they explain how they learned their craft and what it means to be a Cherokee tradition bearer.
“I grew up in the Cherokee community and know in some way or another each person we interviewed,” said Carroll, who holds two degrees from WCU. “I grew up seeing their artwork or art forms inspire so many people in our tribe as well as many visitors who have come looking for legendary craftsmanship. I am grateful and honored to have been able to listen and learn from the artists, and I hope that everyone who watches the interviews feels that way as well. It is important for our identity as Cherokees to continue speaking our language, telling our stories and working with natural materials to express ourselves and create one-of-a-kind artwork.”
Carroll worked with Katherine Bartel, a junior in WCU’s motion picture and television production program who has worked as an artist, and was hired to research, record and edit the video interviews. As Bartel edited the 45- to 90-minute interviews into about five minutes segments, she incorporated footage she had gathered of the artisans at work with family, historical and WCU photos that she had scanned as well as earlier video interviews conducted by David Brewin. She started all but one of the videos with a piece of Walker Calhoun’s traditional flute music that was recorded at the Mountain Heritage Center. For the video about Belt, who teaches Cherokee language at WCU, the video opens with his voice.
“I asked him to speak Cherokee so we could hear what it sounds like, so I used that at the beginning and the end,” said Bartel. “He said that the language is a gift from the creator and speaks to how important it is to pass that gift on, that it wasn’t meant for you alone but for future generations as well.”
Bartel said the project deepened and enriched her knowledge of Cherokee culture and appreciation for the work the artists do. One tradition bearer described how he would wander north, south, east and west in the woods to keep his direction in balance while searching for the right tree, and another would go out during the new moon. She was intrigued with the prints of a wanted poster for Andrew Jackson that Bark was creating. She was moved by the discipline of artists such as George, who finger weaves 250 strands at a time. “The sheer complexity and discipline was pretty impressive,” said Bartel.
George admits in her interview that she knows it would be easier to simply buy the beaded belts and bags that she makes at a store. “But this is handmade,” said George, explaining in the video why she takes the time to create the artwork that she does. “I know it’d be easier just going to the store and buying things, but this is handmade. It’s not something that’s perfect, and this is part of our culture. This is what the Cherokee people have been doing for hundreds, thousands of years. It’s something that doesn’t need to be lost. It’s our culture. We put a part of our soul into it.”
By Teresa Killian Tate