All-Women Organization NAIWA Offers A Taste of Cherokee Culture | Cherokee, NC

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All-Women Organization NAIWA Offers A Taste of Cherokee Culture

(Pictured above, Carmaleta Monteith on right presented a Cherokee carved wooden bowl to Marcella LeBeau, a founding member of NAIWA. Photo courtesy of The One Feather.)

If you’ve eaten the amazing food at the annual Cherokee Indian Fair or Qualla Arts and Crafts Open Air Indian Art Market, it’s likely that you’ve interacted with members of the Cherokee Chapter of the North American Indian Women’s Association (NAIWA) who often prepare the fare at large Cherokee events. But NAIWA is so much more than a group of talented cooks. It’s a nonprofit membership, educational, and service organization established in 1970. The focus of activities for the association include education, health, family and community life, leadership, and the preservation of culture.

We spoke with Carmaleta Monteith, NAIWA and EBCI member, about why this organization was founded and how it continues to help preserve and nourish Cherokee culture today. Carmaleta’s mother, Ruth Littlejohn, was one of the founding members of NAIWA from North Carolina, and Carmaleta herself has been a member since day one. 

“The reason that we are so connected to our food is that it is a part of the survival of our culture,” says Carmaleta. “We [serve]...southern Appalachian dishes such as fried chicken, cabbage, beans, hominy, and potatoes. The one traditional food that we include with the meals is bean bread. Without bean bread, you do not have a Cherokee meal. Meals are a successful fundraiser and with our reputation, we are good cooks. Occasionally for educational events, we do serve samples with native greens, venison, mushrooms, berry dishes, etc.”

Who can be a Member?

Carmaleta says that in 1970, The Bureau of Indian Affairs assisted the Cooperative Extension Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to determine and select the best qualified community leaders to represent the Indian people in a National Seminar for American Indian Women, which was held August 2–8, 1970 at the Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado. The Country Women’s Council and the Associated Country Women of the World provided funding for 50 delegates to participate in the Seminar, which would focus attention on the role and influence of Indian Women in community leadership.

NAIWA membership is open to any American Indian or Alaska Native or Canadian woman, 18 years and older, who is officially identified as a member of a federally recognized Indian tribe/nation, and who shares the mission of NAIWA.

NAIWA’s Annual Conference

NAIWA is organized from a representational standpoint into six areas throughout the United States of America and Canada, where annual conferences are held on a rotating basis to provide Indian women all over the country with an equal opportunity to make their voices heard. “The national conference helps us fulfill our purposes and it takes us to other Indian communities so we can learn about and appreciate their cultures,” says Carmaleta. In summer 2018, Cherokee, NC, hosted the conference for the eighth time, with the theme “Planning for the Future of the Seventh Generation.”

Ruth Littlejohn and Ethelene Conseen represented the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians at the first seminar in Colorado with the theme “Indian Women Plan for the Seventies.” Because she had two young sons to care for, Carmaleta didn’t become an active participant of NAIWA until 1977 (although she was a member since 1970). Her mother Ruth only missed one national conference—in 1990 when she died of cancer. Carmaleta, too, only missed that one conference since 1977. “I feel as if I am continuing the work my mother helped to start,” she says.

For the inaugural seminar, the general objectives were to provide an opportunity for American Indian women leaders to get acquainted and give attention to the opportunities and needs of Indian Communities; to expand the understanding of what constitutes an adequate desirable community, and to generate an interest in assuming leadership to promote better communities for a more enriched life for Indian families.

That first year, Indian women from 23 states, from Alaska to Wyoming, representing 65 Indian communities across the nation, attended the seminar. State chapters and local chapters within the states were established to further the work of the association. Carmaleta says, “The most active chapters are in South Dakota, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Arizona, and New Mexico.”

Support NAIWA at the Cherokee Indian Fair

NAIWA has representation at many events around Cherokee with Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Western Carolina University, Cherokee Central Schools, and visiting school groups. Autumn is an especially busy season for the Cherokee Chapter of NAIWA as October 2–6 brings the annual Cherokee Indian Fair. NAIWA members will be selling fair food favorites, including burgers, hot dogs, and popcorn. See you there!

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