University, Cherokee leaders gather to celebrate Sequoyah professorship

CHEROKEE – Representatives of Western Carolina University and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians got together Wednesday (Feb. 19) to celebrate the establishment of Western’s Sequoyah Distinguished Professorship in Cherokee Studies, and the “quiet genius” of the Cherokee for whom the endowment is named.

Tom Hatley

Tom Hatley

The dinner meeting, held at the new Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Hotel, also provided an opportunity for university and tribal leaders to meet Tom Hatley, a historian who has already begun working in the scholarly position.

The $1 million endowed professorship will provide for enhanced research by WCU faculty and students into Cherokee history and culture. Funds to match a state grant for the position came from several sources, including the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, National Endowment for the Humanities, the Friends of Sequoyah organization, Cherokee businessman James A. “Jimmy” Cooper, and Harrah’s Entertainment.

Sequoyah, the legendary originator of the Cherokee alphabet, was a “peacemaker, teacher, artist and creator,” Hatley told the crowd that gathered for the occasion. “Sequoyah was a quiet genius who made a tremendous mark on his world, and on our world. He was acclaimed both by the Cherokee and the new nation around him – a nation that would ultimately undo much of his world,” Hatley said.

Even though Sequoyah invented an alphabet, a way of communicating, he said almost nothing about himself, Hatley said. It is known that Sequoyah worked with children in isolating the elemental sounds that he later translated into symbols, and he first tested his syllabary on his 10-year-old daughter and on a group of young adults.

“I think that was not only the invention of an alphabet, but an innovative educational approach based on an exchange of learning and respect between the generations. I think this is the legacy that we can all celebrate here today,” Hatley said.

A native of Charlotte, Hatley earned a bachelor’s degree at Davidson College, a master’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a doctoral degree in colonial and environmental history at Duke University, and trained in forestry at Yale University. He has written extensively on sustainable development and is an authority on the colonial-era Cherokees. Hatley has more than 25 years of experience working for conservation and rural development organizations, including The Nature Conservancy and the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition.

As a teacher, Hatley said he hopes to expand on historical and anthropological research already done by Western Carolina faculty members such as Bill Anderson and Anne Rogers, “visionary work that was done when no work like it was being done across the nation.” Hatley plans to continue research into Cherokee history during the Revolutionary War period. “The intercultural history of the Revolutionary War South has been misunderstood for far too long, and I hope we can begin to change that,” he said.

Hatley is already working with the Cultural Resources Office of the Eastern Band and the Museum of the Cherokee Indian on a project to restore rivercane, and he also hopes to work with Roseanna Belt, director of WCU’s Cherokee Center, to help expand the Cherokee language program in the schools.

Cherokee Principal Chief Leon Jones, who hosted the gathering, said the tribe puts great importance on its relationship with WCU, and said his goal as chief is to do everything he can to ensure a secure future for the tribe.

“The American Indian has had a long, hard struggle, but things are getting better,” Jones said. “We’re making them better, you and I, through educating our young people. I want my tribe to be here 100 years from now, and 200 years from now, and the only way that can happen is to educate our young people.”

WCU Chancellor John W. Bardo said the relationship between Western and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee has been constant over the years and thrived, in particular, under the leadership of former Chancellor Myron L. Coulter.

“Our interests and your interests are in common,” Bardo said. “At the end of the day, we want to be able to say we helped make it possible for the people of the mountains to have a future, and for our culture to continue to evolve and to prosper and grow. Tonight, we’re celebrating a tie between an institution and a people, the potential we share together for an exciting future for our children, to ensure that the past is honored by our young people as they move forward and have their own families.”