Champions of Cherokee culture flourish back East
CHEROKEE, N.C. – Experts who specialize in Cherokee history, storytelling, dance and artistry are preserving their tribal ways in western North Carolina and Tennessee.
In a dimly lit museum alcove, 24-year-old Jarrett Wildcatt quietly weaves a twine bag three days in the making.
“I don’t really try to sell anything,” he said. “I can’t really make anything fast enough. Like I tell people, I make it when I make it.”
As an artist, storyteller, pottery maker and general ambassador of Cherokee culture, Wildcatt enlightens visitors to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.
From the nearby Wolftown, Wildcatt is an Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians citizen and a member of the cultural-promoting group called “Cherokee Friends,” noted for its expertise in tribal dance, music and hands-on craft workshops.
“I’ve been doing this for about two years,” Wildcatt said of his weaving. “I learned the basic style of twine weaving. From there I just learned different patterns, different colors. I just kind of do my own thing with it really.”
On this day, Wildcatt is using hemp twine. “Besides that we could be using tree bark,” he said. “As long as it’s strong and durable, we can use it.”
Wildcatt has also performed with the “Warriors of AniKituhwa,” a group that brings to life the Cherokee War and Eagle Tail dances.
“Mostly we’re just doing dance educational programs,” Wildcatt said. “We’re not usually setting up our crafts or anything like that. But when I do get the chance, I usually just sit and talk about what I’m doing.”
Draped in historical Native American attire, fellow EBCI citizen Mike Crowe recalls his transition from military life to roles with the 18th century-themed Oconaluftee Indian Village and “Unto These Hills” outdoor drama.
“When I came back to town, I just kind of invested myself in the culture at the village,” Crowe said. “Then, a couple years later, I started working at the drama also. Then I started dancing with the ‘Warriors of AniKituhwa’ a few years later. So I just never looked back.”
Crowe, 36, can trace his family back to the 17th century. Since 2006, he has performed lead roles in the outdoor drama, which tells the eastern Cherokee story from 1780 to the 21st century.
“It’s helped me in my life individually as a person to live the right way like we’re supposed to as Gaduwa people,” Crowe said. “It’s also opened some doors for employment opportunities.”
Like Wildcatt, Crowe is a “Cherokee Friends” member.
“This is a dream job,” he said. “It’s living the culture. We kind of pull from all facets of the culture. We’re pretty multi-faceted individuals ourselves for the most part.”
Crowe now describes himself as an ethno-historian.
“We all have more than one area we work in,” he said. “We offer workshops with pottery and things like that. We do traditional dances with patrons. We also do things like guided tours through the exhibit and into the collections room, which is kind of a unique experience.”
With proven dexterity, Richard Saunooke’s weathered hands create historically accurate Native American dress and crafts.
“I recreate a lot of historical pieces,” the 73-year-old from Cherokee, said. “It’s kind of a ‘living history’ thing. I’ve been doing it over 50 years now.”
Saunooke, an EBCI citizen, is skilled in the art of beadwork, woodwork, leatherwork, quillwork and painting. He creates items ranging from medicine bags to shields.
“Leather is what I do more than anything,” he said. “I even have them come all the way from Oklahoma to get my moccasins.”
Saunooke has demonstrated his craft at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, among other locations.
“You should see the kids when they come up and they can touch the pieces, get it explained to them firsthand and watch how it’s made,” he said.
Saunooke was born and raised in Chicago, but moved to North Carolina in the mid-1980s to live on land owned by his father. While in Chicago, he attended the annual “Feast of the Hunters’ Moon Festival,” a historic re-enactment of 18th century life in West Lafayette, Indiana.
“It’s probably one of the biggest living history-type events in the country,” he said. “They have the fife and drum corps, the soldiers, the canons, the whole thing. I did that 42 years straight.”
The event inspired Saunooke to create his accouterments for the French and Indian War era, which he wore to the festival.
“I was a blanket trader,” Saunooke said. “I’d make whatever and sell it off the blanket.”
For decades he’s researched era-specific artifacts with the goal of perfecting techniques to create them. He uses glass beads, feathers, fur, porcupine quills, hides and bone. Saunooke collects some materials from the wild and barters for others.
“A lot of it’s just studying it,” he said. “I can look at something and figure out how it’s done.”