Western Carolina University presented its Mountain Heritage Awards for 2007 on Saturday (Sept. 29) to the “dean” of Western North Carolina fiddlers and to a traditional dance group that is re-creating the ancient dances of the Cherokee in performances throughout the United States and overseas.
The Mountain Heritage Award for an individual was presented to bluegrass fiddler Arvil Freeman and the award for organizations was given to the dance troupe Warriors of AniKituhwa during festivities at the university’s 33rd annual Mountain Heritage Day.
The presentations were made by Scott Philyaw, director of the Mountain Heritage Center and chairman of Mountain Heritage Day.
A native of Madison County, Freeman began playing the fiddle at an early age and was first taught by his older brother, the late Gordon Freeman. As a 14-year-old, Arvil Freeman was invited to perform on a tour of the Midwest by Bascom Lamar Lunsford, founder of Asheville’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, but a health problem ended his participation two weeks into the tour. When he was still 14, Freeman began his professional fiddling career with the Green Valley Boys at radio station WCYB in Bristol, Tenn. Following a tour in the military, he decided to play his fiddle in his native Western North Carolina, despite offers for employment from bluegrass stars Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers.
Over the years, Freeman served stints with the Piney Mountain Boys and the legendary Reno and Smiley, and for 14 years in the 1970s and 1980s he performed five nights each week with the Marc Pruett and 40 West bands at a downtown Asheville restaurant.
Freeman has performed for 11 years with the Stoney Creek Boys, house band for the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, and Asheville’s Shindig on the Green. Over his 57-year musical career, he has played on more than two dozen recordings and has received many honors for his musicianship. For the past three decades he has taught the fiddle to a steady stream of young musicians who are carrying on the WNC fiddling tradition.
The dance group Warriors of AniKituhwa was created in 2003 when Marie Junaluska, a member of the Tribal Council of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, wanted to establish a Cherokee dance that would welcome visitors and other tribes to Cherokee. Junaluska and two other tribal members, Carmaleta Monteith and Chrissy Arch, sought to find a dance that was distinctly Cherokee, rather than the intertribal dances performed at powwows.
Their research led them to an account of Cherokee dances described by Lt. Henry Timberlake, a Colonial journalist and cartographer, in 1762. Timberlake witnessed the “Warrior Dance” and the “Eagle Tail Dance” in the Cherokee capital of Chota, and he described the dances in his memoirs, published in 1765.
That research was further enhanced when Barbara R. Duncan, education director at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, and James “Bo” Taylor, museum archivist, helped find wax cylinder recordings and other archival recordings of a song that accompanied one dance, as well as written descriptions of the dance as it was still performed in Cherokee in the 1920s.Taylor worked with Cherokee elder Walker Calhoun and other dancers chosen by Junaluska to re-create the dances as they now perform them.
The original members of the Warriors of AniKituhwa were designated Cultural Ambassadors by the Cherokee Tribal Council in February 2005. The group’s official sponsor is the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. The Warriors have danced at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and have performed internationally in Canada and Germany. They also have been featured at many festivals throughout the Southeast and have appeared on television and film. Their unique, historically accurate appearance recently has been the focus of an advertising campaign for Cherokee.
The Warriors’ performances have led to increasing interest in traditional dances and 18th-century clothing among Cherokee people of all ages, both in North Carolina and within the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. The Oklahoma Cherokee have offered workshops to teach and preserve the “War Dance,” “Ant Dance,” “Buffalo Dance” and others.
Arvil Freeman and the Warriors of AniKituhwa are the 32nd and 33rd recipients of Western’s Mountain Heritage Award. The award is given in recognition of outstanding contributions to the preservation or interpretation of the history and culture of Southern Appalachia; or in recognition of outstanding contributions to research on, or interpretation of, Southern Appalachian issues.
During the previous 31-year history of the Mountain Heritage Award, the university gave out one award each year. Because the contributions of individuals are often different from that of groups and organizations, making direct comparisons difficult, the university’s Mountain Heritage Award Committee decided to give out two awards beginning this year – one to an individual and one to a group or organization, Philyaw said.