When it came time to select a new interdisciplinary learning theme, Western Carolina University didn’t need to look far. The heritage and tradition of a proud people permeate the very ground upon which the university is built. Thus the selection of the 2017-18 theme of “Cherokee: Community. Culture. Connections.”
An interdisciplinary learning theme fosters campus conversations and connects students with collaborative opportunities for an integrated campuswide experience. For the past seven years, WCU has selected a learning theme for such reasons. This marks the first time that faculty, staff and students were able to vote on a topic. Of the six choices, “Cherokee” received nearly a third of the votes. The 2015-17 theme of “Africa! More than a Continent” ended at the conclusion of the spring semester.
In announcing the selection, Carol Burton ’87 MAEd ’89, associate provost for undergraduate studies, said the learning theme “will afford us an opportunity to really dig in and not just articulate better our relationship with the Cherokee, but build on it, enhance it and, more importantly, educate our students and faculty and staff about the Cherokee and this beautiful place where we are and its importance.”
The tribal and demographic context for the theme of “Cherokee” will be largely in keeping with WCU’s neighbors, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and the portion of their ancestral home that they still retain, the Qualla Boundary. During the Indian Removal of 1838, the Cherokee who owned lands largely in present-day Swain and Jackson counties as a collective – with the deeds held by a white “chief” – were not forced to leave their homes, while others evaded capture by hiding deep in the Great Smoky Mountains. Today, the Eastern Band is a federally recognized tribe, and the 57,000-acre Qualla Boundary and numerous land parcels in Cherokee and Graham counties is a sovereign nation, with its own government, judicial and law enforcement system, schools and more than 15,000 enrolled members.
“The Cherokee people have a very rich history in Western North Carolina, some of it right here on our very own campus, something that many folks are not aware of,” said Lisa Bloom, chair of the learning theme steering committee and the Jay M. Robinson Distinguished Professor of Educational Technologies. “Even more importantly, they have a thriving culture that contributes in so many ways to our lives in the region. My hope is that, through the campus theme, our students, faculty and staff will explore the rich culture and heritage of the Cherokee people, understand and appreciate their contributions both past and present, and make connections with the Cherokee community.”
The ties between WCU and the Eastern Band are indeed deep and historic. WCU’s Cherokee Studies Program, with both undergraduate and graduate degrees, is renowned for its curriculum in the culture, language, history, health and environment of Cherokee and indigenous issues. The Sequoyah Distinguished Professorship in Cherokee Studies, fully funded in 1998, is currently held by Brett Riggs, a research archeologist who has worked with the Eastern Band on projects since the 1990s. In 2016, the university signed a memorandum of agreement with the Eastern Band and two Oklahoma-based Cherokee tribes to continue its commitment to the academic study and promotion of Cherokee language, history and culture.
WCU also is a lead partner in the ongoing Cherokee Language Revitalization Project, an initiative to provide broader, more comprehensive training and learning opportunities. For example, Project Songbird, a collaboration with the Eastern Band’s Kituwah Preservation and Education Program, recorded original songs in the Cherokee language. Another example is the work with the New Kituwah Academy, a Cherokee immersion school, where Bo Lossiah ’05, curriculum, instruction and community supervisor, has been a leader in those efforts. Last year, the preservation and education program and WCU’s Cherokee Language Program worked with the WCU Print Shop to create card games for learning Cherokee pronouns, as well as a Cherokee language board game created by WCU graphic design students. The games were given to Hunter Library’s Special Collections and the New Kituwah Academy.
“New Kituwah Academy is a multifaceted school, so our first goal is a quality education for the children,” Lossiah said. “Preservation of our language is important, too, though, and must be considered a part of that quality education. As our instruction has evolved, we’ve found conversational Cherokee is a good beginning for learning. Our challenge has been finding volunteers to come in and speak with the students and share life experiences. There are maybe 230 Cherokee speakers now, with 80 percent older than 60, I’d estimate. That really shows the importance of this instruction and Western’s support. Younger students get immersion lessons in Cherokee, older students get dual language.”
The WCU Cherokee Center, established in 1975, serves tribal and nontribal residents of the Qualla Boundary and the surrounding communities by improving educational opportunities. “We want to bring as much of Cherokee to WCU as we want Western to come to Cherokee,” said Sky Sampson ’10, recently appointed center director and an enrolled tribal member. “I think we can make connections back and forth with so much we have planned and things under consideration, and there are so many WCU alumni in Cherokee and the Qualla Boundary.”
One of the many events in which the Cherokee Center will be involved during the learning theme is a two-day solar eclipse celebration in August. In partnership with the Eastern Band, the Cherokee Historical Association and the Museum of the Cherokee Indians, the center will host events based around the nearly two minutes of total darkness beginning at 2:35 p.m. Monday, Aug. 21, making the town of Cherokee a probable prime viewing location. The astronomic phenomenon was described by the ancient Cherokee as when a giant frog that lived in the sky had swallowed the sun, causing darkness to occur during the daytime. The Cherokee would gather and beat drums and make noise so as to frighten the great frog away, allowing the sun to shine brightly again.
Also during the year, WCU’s Central Hall, a residence for some 300 students, will be rededicated as Judaculla Hall to commemorate the university’s historic connection to the Eastern Band and to acknowledge the unique heritage and history of the Cherokee people. According to Cherokee folklore, all of campus and the surrounding Cullowhee Valley was once the earthly home of a giant, Judaculla (Tsu la ka la), a powerful hunter with slanted pupils in his eyes who could traverse the mountains and the spiritual realm with ease. Judaculla Rock, a large boulder linked to the legend that contains some of the best preserved and most significant petroglyphs east of the Mississippi River, is located south of campus.
Indian artistry, crafts and dance will be a significant focus of “Cherokee: Community. Culture. Connections.” The WCU Fine Art Museum is hosting “Ancient Forms, Modern Minds: Contemporary Cherokee Ceramics,” which features the work of 11 Cherokee artists such as Joel Queen ’05 MFA ’08 and Davey Arch and brings together historic and contemporary pottery techniques, through Friday, Nov. 10. The museum also will host a national traveling exhibit, “Return from Exile: Contemporary Southeastern Indian Art,” from Aug. 21 to Friday, Dec. 15, with more than 30 contemporary Southeastern Native American artists working in a variety of media including painting, drawing, printmaking, basketry, sculpture and pottery. A symposium on the exhibit will be held Nov. 10.
Signature campus events throughout the academic year will highlight Cherokee connections to the region and the university. Mountain Heritage Day, scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 30, always has carried Cherokee elements, such as stickball games, as part of the cultural festival. Organizers are planning for expanded and highlighted roles this year. The 16th annual Spring Literary Festival will include a Cherokee theme day. The eighth annual Rooted in the Mountains symposium, a collaborative gathering that seeks to integrate indigenous and local knowledge with health and environmental issues, will continue narratives of Native American culture. Other events to be scheduled are a Cherokee language symposium, a cultural immersion trip and a tentative campus “pow wow.”
“We’re super excited about this opportunity, especially since the overall population at WCU selected Cherokee as the next theme,” said Sampson, WCU’s Cherokee Center director. “Those results give me a personal sense of pride in knowing that others are reaching out to learn more about our people and our culture. We can’t wait to see what’s in store for the coming year within this fantastic collaboration.”
To kick off Western Carolina University’s yearlong campus learning theme focused on “Cherokee,” perhaps nothing could have been more appropriate than an honorary doctorate bestowed upon tribal elder Jeremiah “Jerry” Wolfe during May’s commencement exercises.
The 92-year-old Wolfe, a D-Day veteran, teacher, community leader, storyteller and artist, accepted the honorary degree by inviting audience members to sing along to a hymn of deliverance, his voice in Cherokee and theirs in English.
U ne hla nv i u we tsi
I ga go yv he i
How sweet the sound
na quo tso sv wi yu lo se
That saved a wretch
I ga gu yv ho nv
Chancellor David O. Belcher called Wolfe “a cherished living repository of his tribe’s wisdom,” whose efforts have enriched the cultural landscape of Western North Carolina, the state and nation.
“You have served with exemplary distinction and dedication throughout your life as a member of your community and as a conservator and icon of Cherokee language and culture,” Belcher said. “You have been a tradition-bearer for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, preserving and teaching the Cherokee language, stickball traditions, knowledge of plants and traditional medicine, myths and legends, and oral history.”
Wolfe is an integral and valuable asset for WCU, with a decades-long list of activities and involvement ranging from interviews for the award-winning documentary “First Language – The Race to Save Cherokee” to serving as a panelist at a Native American Heritage Expo event on campus, participating in chancellor installation ceremonies and taking part in Mountain Heritage Day. When WCU calls, he answers.
Wolfe grew up in Big Cove, one of the six townships on the Qualla Boundary, in a household that spoke Cherokee. At the age of 7, he went away to boarding school where speaking his native language was strictly forbidden. He left after completing the 10th grade to join the U.S. Navy during World War II, where he survived the Normandy invasion as a landing craft operator, taking infantry ashore at heavily contested Omaha Beach. After the war, he returned home, started a family and was an instructor at the Oconaluftee Job Corps for more than 20 years.
Since 1997, Wolfe has worked at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, where he has shared his extensive knowledge of tribal history and culture with thousands of visitors. Over the years, he also has presented programs on those topics across the state and Southeast and has been interviewed and featured in many publications and video productions.
The honorary doctorate goes along with many other awards, including a 2010 Brown-Hudson Folklore Award and the tribal title of “Beloved Man,” an honor so rare it had been more than 200 years since the last male designee.