When you spend time in Cherokee and immerse yourself in a world so distinct from your own, you’ll want to bring back more than memories and pictures. Bring home authentic Cherokee handcrafts. As stunning additions to your home and one-of-a-kind gifts, these works capture the spirit of the Cherokee people and land. What’s more, the craftworks that await you in Cherokee now are the equal of any in history. They are not only authentic; they are authentically good.
For this, great thanks go to Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual, Inc., the nation’s oldest and foremost Native American cooperative. With the 1940 opening of neighboring Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the postwar growth of highways and family travel, the outside world came to Cherokee as never before. At this point, modern distractions and mass-produced goods might have swept away tribal traditions. Instead, visionary Cherokee craftspeople and leaders saw that Cherokee crafts – if preserved and promoted – could strengthen tribal values and provide livelihoods while offering unique beauty to the wider world.
Since 1946, Qualla has truly realized this vision. You can see it throughout Qualla’s beautifully redesigned artists’ gallery store, as you feel the warmth and brillliance of the basketry, pottery, weaving, carving, sculpture and other works of art that surround you. These pieces look and feel different than mall and big-box merchandise because they are different. Here, every craftwork you see is handmade by nameable, knowledgeable individuals who blend timeless traditions with individual expression. No two things are alike, yet all form a harmonious whole.
The member artists of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) have learned from their families and community, calling on materials and traditions passed down for many generations. You’ll be treated to an amazing palette of artistry, including international, national and locally acclaimed works representing a variety of practices - many that go back ten thousand years. The arts represented include pottery making, basket weaving, beadworking, silversmithing, tool- and doll- and toy-making, singing, dancing and storytelling.
These master crafters fall into two categories: the Elders, mostly second generation practitioners; and those representing the Next or Third Generation. If we were lucky enough to sit down with this group all at once, you might hear one recalling images of the Medicine Man’s hands warmingover hot coals. Another tells of learning English at the Cherokee Boarding School. Yet another remembers his father’s account of the D-Day landing on Normandy Beach. One still officiates stickball games. All their stories are mesmerizing.
Without question, they are among the very best practitioners – and preservers – of Cherokee culture on the planet. Some are over 90 years old and still working and performing. They are actors, dancers, master wood carvers and basketweavers, and jewelry artisans. Many have been published. Many of their works grace museums across the country, including the Smithsonian, and abroad. Some are willing to travel, and often do, to share their knowledge and artistry with audiences outside the reservation.
You’re invited to rub shoulders with them daily throughout the year. Maybe you’d even like to schedule a custom experience for your group. However you decide to weave their long-standing practices and new interpretations of ancient arts into your visit, please just come. Enjoy. And let the spirit of their work speak to your own.
For a complete list of artists and their individual profiles, please visit http://www.cherokeeheritagetrails.org/artistdir.html
Today, Qualla artists are joined by other outstanding galleries such as the shop at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Joel Queen Gallery, the Seven Clans Art Guild, and LIFT Culture House. At Tribal Grounds, you can enjoy specialty coffee while pondering which craftworks you’ll keep for your home and which you’ll give others as gifts. It’s a beautiful problem you’ll enjoy working out. You can even shop the Qualla online catalog after you get home, in case you’re still kicking yourself for not getting that special something when you had the chance.
The Cherokee Bear Project is an idea that was started in 2005 to showcase the variety of talented artists within the Qualla Boundary. Fifteen beautiful bears, each with its own unique personality, have been completed so far. A total of 25 bears are scheduled to be created, with each one being assigned to a different, selected artist so they can add their own flair to the expansion of downtown Cherokee. Follow the map, and see how many of these friendly bears you can find. But please remember - don’t feed or climb on the bears.
You’ll be glad to know that the foresight that launched Qualla 60 years ago is still hard at work. At Cherokee High School, for example, authentic Cherokee crafts hold pride of place in an outstanding art curriculum. Students typically become familiar with all the major crafts, and proficient in one or more.
Like every generation before them, these young Cherokee craftspeople leave their imprint on evolving tribal traditions. For example, one young Cherokee potter was recently inspired to rediscover the lost secrets that enabled 18th-century Cherokee potters to build and fire 20-gallon cooking vessels. And not long ago, a young stone-carver came into Qualla with sculptures he embellished with surface painting – the first time these two media have been combined in Cherokee art, as far as anyone knows. It may be the start of a new tradition.
Something else that’s new at the Qualla Boundary is the friendly smiles and helpful advice of the Cherokee Friends. This group, many of them high school and college students, welcomes visitors, educates them about the Eastern Band’s culture and history and imparts information to travelers about directions, local attractions and food and lodging options. On rainy days, the Friends visit Tsali Manor and Cherokee Hospital entertaining residents and patients with Cherokee animal dances – and immeasurable joy.
Along with fostering new artisans and reaching out to the surrounding community, the tribe is taking steps to protect and cultivate key natural resources. For instance, tribe members are working with the University of Tennessee and other organizations to reestablish butternut trees. Subject to blight similar to chestnut blight, butternuts are valued as a natural dye source, as wood for Cherokee flutes and carving, and for their tasty nuts, a key ingredient in traditional recipes. A blight-resistant butternut grove has been established in the Cherokee “mother town” of Kituwah, with seedlings available for people to plant around their houses.
Because river cane habitat has shrunk to perhaps two percent of its original area, the tribe encourages landowners to plant cane as ground cover. Along with providing basketry material, planting cane promotes soil conservation and stream restoration as effectively as the more invasive plants used for these purposes, without their ecological problems. The tribe has alsogained permission to sustainably harvest cane along state road right-of-ways.
It all comes full circle. Thanks to actions like these, next time an old Cherokee man becomes ornery - like the man in the ancient Legend of the Flute - the wise woodpecker will still be able to lead him to cane for the healing medicine of river-cane flute music. S-gi-nu-s-de-s-di, May it be so.