19th Annual Cherokee Voices Festival, June 11th | Cherokee, NC

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19th Annual Cherokee Voices Festival, June 11th

When: June 11th

Where: Museum of the Cherokee Indian

589 Tsali Blvd.

Cherokee, NC 28719

Cost: Free

For almost two decades, thousands of people have traveled to Cherokee each summer for the Cherokee Voices Festival, sponsored by the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and the North Carolina Arts Council.

Now celebrating its 19th year, the annual Cherokee Voices Festival continues to grow and shine a light on the people in Cherokee who are carrying on the traditions of the culture–traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation, going back thousands of years.  

Barbara Duncan, Education Director for the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, and the original organizer of the festival, has a PhD in folklore, and a passion for Cherokee traditions.

"I love all of the traditional things; the things that get passed down from one person another. Here in the Cherokee community there is so much of that. These traditions are still alive and passed down through the generations."

"People are still going to the woods to get white oak to make baskets; going to the rivercane patch to get cane to make baskets or into the mountains to find stones to carve with.”

There are so many things that are being passed down, Barbara says, including the dance traditions, storytelling, and music.

"This community is so rich in traditions and the whole point of the Cherokee Voices festival is to celebrate that. To put forward the people who carry on the traditions and pass them down to their children, grandchildren, and in some cases, great-grandchildren," says Barbara.

Artists Spanning the Ages

As part of the festivities, multi-generational artists will be demonstrating their art and selling their wares.

"This is not just an art show where people are selling their work–they will actually be making their work and talking to the visitors about it, so it's really an incredible opportunity to interact with these traditional artists," says Barbara.

One of the elder artists participating in the festival is Amanda Swimmer, a renowned master potter in her 90s who has been making pottery and digging her own clay since childhood. Amanda is from the Big Cove community in Cherokee and is a native Cherokee speaker. Visitors to the festival will have a special opportunity to talk to and learn from elder artists like Amanda who don't often travel anymore.​

Another elder artist, Edwin George, is a folk art painter in his 80s, originally from the Birdtown community. George makes big, beautiful color paintings like the one below that are full of symbolism from traditional Cherokee stories. His work has been featured in the artwork at Harrah's casino and has won many prizes.​

Antonio Grant, who is from a younger generation, will also be at the festival, showcasing his beautiful shell carvings in the style of a thousand years ago, as well as many original pieces. The shells, called "gorgets," were worn around the neck as adornment during the Mississippian period.

For those interested in Cherokee style baskets, you won't want to miss Eddie Goings. Eddie is young man who comes from a long line of white oak basket makers, learning the ancient art from his father, grandmother, and great grandmother.

His grandparents, Louise and Butch Goings, will be honored at Cherokee Days in Washington DC for their First Peoples Award (see more here), at the same time as the festival, but sent Eddie in their place.

"Louise said, 'We can't come, but Eddie can come,' and I thought that was so great that their grandson is ready to step up," says Barbara.

Eddie knows how to go out in the wood and cut down the tree and gather the materials to make the dye, work up the tree, and do the whole process, she explains.

"Louise always says that that means you're a basket maker. If you do everything yourself from the beginning to the end you are a basket maker. This is what her mother always said (Eddie's great grandmother), that if you take the materials that someone else gathered you are a basket weaver; if you can do the whole process you are a basket maker," says Barbara.  ​

Dance, Music, and Storytelling

Dancers at the festival include the Warriors of AniKituhwa, the cultural ambassadors for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, sponsored by the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. The Raven Rock dancers will also be performing, made up of the family of the late Walker Calhoun, a Cherokee elder who did a lot to preserve the Cherokee dance traditions within the community.

For music lovers, there will be a some different groups performing, including Alfred and Maybell Welch from the Snowbird community, as well as the Snowbird choir, singing gospel music in the shape note tradition, a tradition of social singing from music books printed in shape notes, dating back to the 1800s.

"They have these really beautiful harmonies and parts to them, and the hymns were also a way of keeping the Cherokee language alive because they were sung in the Cherokee language," adds Barbara.

Other musical performances include traditional flute music by Matt Tooni who is celebrating the release of a new CD.

Traditionally, Cherokee flutes were made of rivercane, and there are accounts in the 1700s of visitors approaching a Cherokee village and being greeted by flute music.

Storytelling will also be highlighted in the festival, with several storytellers, including Freeman Owle and Lloyd Larnch sharing traditional Cherokee folklore and tales. Shawn Crowe will be presiding as MC.

Immersed in Cherokee

For a fascinating glimpse into Cherokee of the past, there will be living history encampments modeling Cherokee life in the 1700s and 1800s, including dwellings, clothing, cooking utensils, baskets, and everything from those earlier time periods that people can look at and talk to the actors about.

"The people that do this living history are so knowledgeable about their time period and can really take you back in time," says Barbara.

All in all, Barbara says that a first time visitor to the festival can prepare to be immersed in Cherokee culture in a way that they've never been before.

"You can eat the food, talk to the people, see the artwork, hear the music, participate in a dance with the Warriors, and spend a day absorbing the culture and meeting some really wonderful, fun people."​

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