Mountain Heritage Awards presented to Cherokee potter, national park

Western Carolina University presented its 2009 Mountain Heritage Awards on Saturday (Sept. 26) to Amanda Swimmer, a Cherokee woman who has demonstrated traditional pottery making for more than 40 years, and to Great Smoky Mountains National Park – specifically, to the National Park Service and the thousands of individual who have helped create and preserve the park throughout the decades.

The awards presentations were part of activities at the university’s 35th annual Mountain Heritage Day. The awards were presented by Scott Philyaw, chairman of Mountain Heritage Day.

Amanda Swimmer

Amanda Swimmer is one of the best-known pottery-makers among the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Born in 1921 and mother of seven children, she lives and works in the Strait Fork section of the Big Cove community on the Qualla Boundary.

By trial and error, she developed her expertise in making open-pit fired pottery. “After I got married, I decided to hunt that clay right above where I lived,” she recalled. “I made some small bowls, and I told my husband, I said, ‘Let me try to burn them. Just make a hole right there in the yard.’ We just piled wood in there and burned my pottery. And that came out pretty good. And I just kept on playing with that wood, off and on.”

Amanda Swimmer receives her Mountain Heritage Award.

Amanda Swimmer receives her Mountain Heritage Award.

Cherokee pottery-maker Amanda Swimmer was honored at WCU’s Mountain Heritage Day festival on Saturday as the individual recipient of the university’s Mountain Heritage Award. Swimmer has demonstrated pottery making at Oconaluftee Indian Village in Cherokee for more than 40 years. She is shown accepting the award from Scott Philyaw, chairman of the Mountain Heritage Day organizing committee.

She works in a pottery tradition that was almost lost in the years following the removal to the west of most of the Cherokee tribe during the nineteenth century. Tribal potters who were still active at the turn of the century, ethnologists and art historians who documented their wares, potters from the adjacent Catawba tribe, and subsequent generations of Cherokee potters have all played a role in preserving and reviving the tradition of Cherokee pottery that Amanda Swimmer’s work represents.

Her pottery-making techniques are ancient. Swimmer has never used a potter’s wheel. Instead, she molds pots and bowls, often beginning with coils of clay. She uses traditional techniques for smoothing and shaping, then presses designs into the clay with wooden and bone paddles, sea shells and smooth rocks. After drying the pieces in the sun, she fires them in an open pit. The woods she chooses for firing determine the final color. Hardwoods produce less smoke and thus a lighter gray color. Soft poplar, which she often uses, produces a thick smoke and a dark finish.

“If I want to make them all different colors in brown, I usually get this oak and hickory and locust – locust gives you hot heat, it burns hot, and it gives you an orange color,” Swimmer said. “And if you mix oak and maple and birch, that gives you a spotty color, and sometimes it gives you a picture on the bowl, too. It might be black or brown. You never know how they’re going to turn out.”

Amanda Swimmer’s expertise in working with clay has won her national recognition and many awards, including the North Carolina Heritage Award in 1994. She has demonstrated pottery making at the Oconaluftee Indian Village in Cherokee for more than 40 years. A founding member of the Cherokee Potters Guild, she is helping to preserve pottery traditions through her teaching at Cherokee Elementary School. She also has offered many workshops and demonstrations at other schools throughout the region. Pottery making has been important to her people, and she wants to carry on the tradition.

“I always think about my old ancestors, and I ought to just keep going and keep making pottery and teaching others to make pottery,” she said. (Information courtesy of the Folklife Program of the North Carolina Arts Council)

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park has had a profound influence on the people of Western North Carolina during its 75 years of existence, both as a haven of natural beauty and as a vital cog in the region’s tourism industry, Philyaw said.

The idea to create a national park in the Southern Appalachians began in the 1890s, but the drive to create it was not successful until the mid-1920s. President Calvin Coolidge signed a bill in May 1926 authorizing the establishment of Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah national parks. Unlike many national parks in the West that were developed from land already owned by the federal government, Great Smoky Mountains National Park was created from land owned by hundreds of small farmers, many of whom had strong family and emotional ties to their land, and from a handful of large timber and paper companies. In the late 1920s, the legislatures of North Carolina and Tennessee appropriated partial funds to buy land for the park. Additional money was raised by individuals, private groups and even school children who pledged their pennies to purchase land for the park. Those efforts, together with a grant from the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial Fund, assured the purchase of the remaining land.

Assistant superintendent Kevin Fitzgerald accepts the Mountain Heritage Award on behalf of the park.

Assistant superintendent Kevin Fitzgerald accepts the Mountain Heritage Award on behalf of the park.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park was honored as the organizational recipient of WCU’s Mountain Heritage Award during Mountain Heritage Day activities on Saturday. The award was presented to the National Park Service to commemorate the service and sacrifices of the thousands of individuals who have helped create, preserve and protect the park over the years. Kevin Fitzgerald (right), assistant superintendent of the park, is shown accepting the award from Scott Philyaw, chairman of the Mountain Heritage Day organizing committee.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the 1934 Congressional legislation providing that the then-400,000-acre holding “be established as a completed park for administration, protection, and maintenance.” The park was formally dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt in a ceremony held at Newfound Gap, on the North Carolina-Tennessee line, in September 1940. Today, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited unit of the national parks system, with more than 9 million visitors each year.

Biological diversity is the hallmark of the 800 square miles that encompass the park. No other area of equal size in a temperate climate can match the park’s amazing diversity of plants, animals and invertebrates. Over 10,000 species have been documented in the park, and scientists believe an additional 90,000 species may live there.

“In recognition of their stewardship of these ancient mountains, the Mountain Heritage Award is presented to the National Park Service to commemorate the service and sacrifices of the thousands of individuals who have helped create, preserve and protect the Great Smoky Mountains over the years,” Philyaw said. (Some information courtesy of the National Park Service)

WCU’s Mountain Heritage Awards are presented each year 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.

Beginning with the award’s inception in 1976 and through 2006, WCU gave out one Mountain Heritage Award each year. Because the contributions of individuals often are different from those of groups and organizations, making direct comparisons difficult, the university’s Mountain Heritage Award Committee decided two years ago to begin giving out two awards – one to an individual and one to a group or organization.