By Carol Antman for The Island Connection
In 1813, the brave Cherokee leader Junaluska became a hero. He regretted it forever. Over a hundred Native Americans were recruited by him to join Andrew Jackson’s fight against the Creek Indians. Junaluska swam across the Tallapoosa River, took the Creek’s canoes and helped win the battle. Then he made the fateful move that sealed his people’s future. He saved Andrew Jackson’s life.
“If I had known that Jackson would drive us from our homes, I would have killed him that day…” he later said. By then he’d survived the Trail of Tears, a 2,200 forced march from North Carolina to Oklahoma and two escapes that finally ended when he walked all the way home. His lineage continues near Cherokee, N.C., a 5 hour drive from Charleston, where many geographic places bear his name. His great-great grand daughter-inlaw is Faye Junaluska who perpetuates the Cherokee culture through her work as a weaver, teacher, elected leader and interpreter. Her first language was Sequoyah. Surrounded by beautiful displays at the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual in Cherokee, NC she told me the story of her childhood. She and her siblings learned the Cherokee craft of basket weaving from their grandmother Lydia Squirrel.
“You have to go into the woods, find your tree,” she explained. “It must be a white oak, walnut, blood root or yellow root tree about ten to twelve years old. You have to take the whole tree down, split the trunk, quarter it into sections, split it into strips, scrape it and dye it using the leaves, roots and bark.” It’s hard, frustrating work. “Making baskets with grandma, I threw many across the floor,” she remembered.
Now her blistered, calloused hands work competently. The shelves of the art center contain a multitude of authentic, museum quality creations that provide an antidote to the world of anonymous, disposable souvenirs.
At the Cherokee Museum nearby, I was greeted by the striking appearance of Jerry Wolfe. His long grey braid, cowboy hat, weathered face and beaded bolo necktie attracted me. In 2013 he was named the Cherokee nation’s “Most Beloved Man.”
It was the first time since 1801 that the title had been bestowed. He was recognized by museum archivist Bo Taylor who said, “Jerry embodies everything a beloved man should embody. He’s a veteran, a warrior. Being a veteran carries a lot of weight in our culture. He’s a man who gets out and does–and he does for others. He’s selfless.”
“You might call me an active man,” Jerry demurred. I followed him to the museum’s centerpiece, a life-size statue of a young, muscular warrior in ceremonial dress wearing an antlered helmet and loincloth and holding aloft a burning ember. “That’s me,” Jerry said. His body was cast by the artist decades ago. He stood beside his younger version for a photo, a telescope of history. Interactive displays tell the story of the Cherokees from 12,000 years ago to the present by combining computer generated imagery, special effects, and audio with an extensive artifact collection.
It’s done so well that Van Romans of Walt Disney Imagineering said “The Museum of the Cherokee Indian is revolutionary in its ability to tell stories and should be a model to other museums that are struggling to engage their audience in their message.”
I spent the night at the incongruous Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort where Ahinawake Littledave showed me around the massive 21-story building.
“There are many things to do here,” she said pointing out a state-of-the-art 3,000 seat performance hall being set up for Jay Leno, the miles of gaming tables, clanging slot machines, sedate poker rooms, various table games and ten on-site food and restaurant choices. As a full service resort, the property features a spa, shops, live entertainment and swimming pools. Ms. Littledave touted the various ways that the resort helps the community by using it as a training ground for tribal members aspiring to become managers and the twice yearly profit sharing checks that all Cherokees receive as well as scholarship, educational and health funds. An extensive collection of Cherokee art adorns the building. A rooftop garden spills into seven waterfalls representing the seven clans. Since the casino opened in 1997, “It’s a different way of life,” she noted. The occupancy rate runs about 95 percent, drawing people from all over the Southeast hoping to win big jackpots like the $200,000 winner Ms. Littledave saw or to qualify for the World Poker Tour.
Whether you win jackpots or not, the enrichment from stopping here is invaluable. Despite the tragic and moving history, Cherokee wisdom and humor seem to endure as in this adage: “When the white man discovered this country, Indians were running it. No taxes, no debt, women did all the work. White man thought he could improve on a system like this.” Cherokee, North Carolina has lots of stories to tell.