An Eastern Band of Cherokee Farmer Fosters ‘Memory Banking’ and Growing of Heirloom Seeds

Kevin Welch is helping Eastern Band of Cherokee growers save heirloom vegetables from extinction. (Courtesy Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Cooperative Extension)

Kevin Welch is helping Eastern Band of Cherokee growers save heirloom vegetables from extinction. (Courtesy Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Cooperative Extension)

Ask Kevin Welch what he does, and he’ll tell you he’s a “professional farmer.” But he’s no ordinary farmer.

In his unique role with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Cooperative Extension, Welch has become a nationally renowned speaker on health, nutrition and the benefits of traditional agriculture. He has served as a lecturer-in-residence at Purdue University and spoken at the University of Georgia as well as to the Association of American Indian Physicians in San Diego, California and Anchorage, Alaska, preaching the importance of traditional plants and their roles in combating diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and depression.

But in his day-to-day life, his passion is preserving the heirloom seeds of his heritage. And that’s what makes him a farmer.

In 2007, Welch established the Center for Cherokee Plants, headquartered in the Great Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina on the Qualla Boundary. The project is funded by the Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and the Cherokee Choices Healthy Roots Project through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Welch’s interest in preserving traditional Cherokee methods of farming, creating a heritage seed bank, and sharing with the community is known far and wide. And he regularly receives donated seeds from growers who have passed them down from generation to generation. Though some of these seeds were cultivated for centuries by Cherokees, the tradition of growing these ancient crops had been all but lost. Welch’s mission is to preserve and propagate plants that are considered culturally relevant to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and to maintain a seed exchange program for enrolled members who agree to grow the seeds in isolation, thus keeping them pure, and to share 10 percent of their first harvest with the Center.

During growing season, Welch’s office is an ordinary single-level white outbuilding off U.S. 19 beside a large open field where he tends to his crops on a two-acre parcel of land alongside the Tuckaseegee River in a fertile valley. On the same stretch of ground lies the sacred Kituhwa Mound—the site of the first Cherokee Village.

The long concrete structure, once a former dairy, is used mainly for farm equipment, but it is here in a small room where Welch first carefully records the history and provenance of the rare cultivars.

Harold Long, an Eastern Band member, and his wife Nancy are locals who have benefited from Welch’s seed exchange. Their three-generations farm is a mile higher in elevation from the valley below, and they seek out plants with a shorter growing season—plants like Harold’s mother and father grew.

“We grow seventeen types of heirloom tomatoes like Cherokee purple, Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Mortgage Lister and Violet Jasper, which is small and very beautiful,” says Nancy. “Our pole beans are all string-less—October bean, Lazy Housewife, greasy bean and Cherokee butter bean. We collect our seeds or get them from the extension. We also have the older varieties of apples on our farm, like Moonglow and Liberty. We keep patches of sochan [a relative of the green-headed coneflower] and ramps too.”

Along with hundreds of other gardeners, the Longs have become part of the ever-expanding circle of heirloom plant growers, and their farm a testing ground for these ancient seeds.

In a recent interview, Welch spoke to Indian Country Today Media Network about the program’s promising future.

What are you doing now?

We have a project calledDa gwa le l(i) A wi sv nvusing an enclosed trailer we call the garden wagon. We converted it into a space for holding educational courses. We can set it up at any venue and be ready to teach in about 15 minutes. In remote places where it’s hard to get people to a community center, we can bring it right to them.

We also have a garden kit giveaway program coordinated by Sarah McClellan, project director and educator of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Cooperative Extension, and funded for the past 10 years by Chief Michell Hicks’ discretionary fund. In addition to organizing the volunteers and selecting locations, McClellan determines all the plants and seeds we give away.

Volunteer Kevin Welch unloads Garden Wagon plants. (National Institute of Food and Agriculture)

Volunteer Kevin Welch unloads Garden Wagon plants. (National Institute of Food and Agriculture)

How are the seeds kept?

We collect them and dry them and put them in the freezer to kill off any pests. Then we sort and clean them and store them in bulk. It’s actually very low-tech. We hold seed saving workshops to teach the basics. Sharing them and planting them is the best way to keep a viable seed bank.

How are they shared

We provide the seeds to enrolled members only. We don’t sell seeds. Sometimes I bring seeds along with me when I give talks, but then I’m mostly talking about the practical applications, local foods and agricultural education.

All tribes have some aspect of agriculture—from aquaculture to agriculture to ranching. A lot of tribes, when they try to modernize, tend to get away from their traditional agricultural heritage.

Who are some of the people outside the immediate community you have you given seeds to?

We gave seeds to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. for their garden and also on the Earth Day event to the [U.S. Department of Agriculture’s] “People’s Garden” when I came and spoke about gardening. Several years ago, we donated seeds for a rare Cherokee flour corn; Cherokee Speckled butter beans; “Candy Roaster”, a variety of winter squash; and a mix of October beans, to Michelle Obama’s White House garden.

And to start their seed program in the Western Cherokee Nation, we have given 24 varieties to Pat Gwin [director] and Mark Dunham [natural resources specialist] with the Cherokee Nation Natural Resources.

How many different varieties do you have now?

We have many varieties but we only grow out a few each year. We rotate them to build up a stock. My job is to plant, care for them and harvest them. We have quite a few folks that support our program and bring in heirloom seed that has been grown in their family for a long time. We grow varieties of tomatoes, the Cherokee Tan pumpkin, corn, beans, peppers, Jerusalem artichokes and gourds, as well as non-traditional varieties like vetch and wild potatoes from the Americas.

How do you process the seeds you receive?

When we get them, they are catalogued with a story about their heritage. Then they are dated and labeled. Afterwards, we grow them out to see if they are a stable variety, and we’ll take as many seeds as we can. We give away the seeds for free, because the idea is to get as many people growing it as possible, so the variety doesn’t die out.

What about the stories the families tell about their seeds?

That’s an integral part of its being an heirloom and being around so long. If no one liked it, then they would have not grown it anymore. I tell people that without the story of why it’s important to anyone—a seed is just a seed. This is called “memory banking”—the process of gaining the story behind the plant or behind any social construct. The same application is done for the seeds and the plants, like who grew them, why they grew them and why they liked them.

Are they more disease resistant? 

Most open-pollinated varieties evolved because they have traits for a certain area. It really goes to soil conditions, environment, pH levels, climate—even the topography of where they come from. Basically they are grown because theyarepest and disease resistant. Sometimes people do what they call “high grading,” selecting the ones they like until they become the dominant trait.

Have you found traditional and natural ways to combat pests and disease? 

Most of it is really basic. You can plant companion plants like beans that are a good nitrogen fixer for corn [and] squash, because its broad leaves shade out other plants for a natural weeding effect, and certain types of flowers that attract desirable insects. In winter, we collect praying mantis chrysalises that we place in the garden in springtime, where they’ll hatch out and eat the aphids. Also important is to select the right slope and drainage to prevent mildew from overly damp soils.

What are the challenges to growing these seeds? 

The only challenge is crossbreeding and the application of pesticides and fertilizers, which we do not use here; also the elk that roam free here, or even the neighbors’ critters!

Do you have fruit seeds too? 

Yes, we have Junaluska apples and Nickajacks—both documented as over 100 years old; Buff apples that are a variety documented to have been grown for at least 150 years; and the heritage White Indian peach, very small and sweet, that the elders really enjoy; also ground cherries and persimmons.

Do you teach people how to prepare the fruits and vegetables?

Most families still know how to cook these foods. It’s generally passed down from mother to daughter, though there are several cookbooks out by enrolled members. The Big Cove Community Club recently held a workshop about traditional cooking. And if you ask at the elementary school, the kids all know whatsochanand ramps are and how they like to eat bear and deer meat.

What are your plans for the future? 

Hopefully we will continue to enhance and develop our programming to reach a broader audience. We want to focus on growing more varieties and developing a program customized to different groups. One of the things we’re trying to do is to re-educate the youth so that they’ll have a set of life skills. In this way they will be able to grow their own foods and pass that knowledge along. Our emphasis will be on education and youth gardening because the children are the ones that will carry on the traditions to future generations.

Putting Your Best Foot Forward

Jordan Wright
February 20, 2012
Special to Indian Country Today Magazine

Women's Moccasins - Michael and Pam Knapp from KQ Designs photos  - All photo credit to Pam Knapp

Women’s Moccasins – Michael and Pam Knapp from KQ Designs photos – All photo credit to Pam Knapp

Originally crafted from the tanned skins of elk, deer, moose or buffalo, stitched with sinew, and in colder climates often lined with rabbit fur or sheepskin, moccasins have evolved into the preferred footwear for pow wows.  Since the late 15th Century when Italians arrived on our shores and traded Venetian glass beads with American Indians, the art of beading on moccasins has become a tradition that has evolved into high art.  Once simply adorned with shell, quill, wood and bone, the moccasins of today are intricately beaded canvasses that tell the story of the wearer.  Fanciful designs with botanical, geometric and animal themes stitch complex motifs to reflect tribal, clan or familial influences.  Styles can be short with a tongue and hole-threaded ties, or fashioned more like a ‘desert’ boot with high sides or turndown cuffs.  Others might be unadorned mid-calf boots with thong ties or heavily beaded moccasins with add-on leggings, although there are countless variations of these basic shapes.

For Michael Knapp, a bead artisan for the past 40 years, beadwork is like snowflakes, “No two designs are the same,” he explains.  Knapp, who comes from a Winnebago background, recalls his first pow wow experience as an impressionable seven year-old who joined a dance circle.  “I loved it and wanted to stay, but my father who was ready to leave had to pull me out of the arena kicking and screaming.”

Yet out of adversity can come raw determination, and for Knapp it turned into a passion for the art of Native beadwork.  His enthusiasm and knowledge is palpable as he travels to pow wows around the country selling his designs, meeting up with friends and, yes, still dancing.  “The pow wow community is like one big family.   Everyone is your aunt and uncle and everyone looks out for everyone else,” says Knapp.  It’s where he met his wife Pam and taught her the intricate skill.  Together they create exquisite custom pieces from their two-person studio, KQ Designs, in Lexington, Kentucky.

Knapp describes moccasin regalia this way, “There are two types of footwear, the Southern Plains boots or high top moccasins.  They’re not usually fully beaded though they might have a beaded medallion on the ‘vamp’, the top part of the shoe.  Southern tribes like Kiowa, Comanche, and Oklahoma Indians typically wear those.  Historically the Seminoles did very little beadwork, mostly patchwork applique with different colored materials and some accent edge beading.  In California they rarely used beadwork.  But in the Plains area, the Dakotas, Montana, Nebraska, Iowa, they did a lot of beading and the women’s dresses have fully beaded yokes, moccasins and leggings.  The Plateau region of Oregon, Montana and Northern Utah use a different style called ‘flat stitch’ to refer to the way beads are tacked down onto deer hide or cloth.  And the Central Plains people, like the Southern people or Cheyenne, used lazy stitch, eight to ten beads wide, creating the look of texture.”

Knapp uses only Czechoslovakian glass beads and keeps an extensive collection of antique beads for restoration.  “Every dancer wears moccasins.  There are several different styles for women depending on what is typical for their tribe or the part of the country they are from and what dance style they dance.  For men it’s a basic pair of fully beaded moccasins using the lazy stitch style of beadwork.  Men who dance ‘traditional’ or ‘straight dance’ wear men’s leggings, though for traditional dance it’s optional.  In the old days all men wore leggings.  With women there are more choices.”

The Knapps bead their moccasins on brain tanned deer hide, a method of soaking the skins with emulsified deer brain oils to condition and soften the stretched hide.

Men Moccasins - Michael and Pam Knapp from KQ Designs photos  - All photo credit to Pam Knapp

Men Moccasins – Michael and Pam Knapp from KQ Designs photos – All photo credit to Pam Knapp

“The amber tone moccasins come from smoking the hides over a fire.  If it’s smoked a lot, it turns brownish or a light tan.  For pow wows the primary choice is white, the hide’s original color.”  As for the thread, Knapp swears by waxed dental floss that he feels is twenty times stronger than nylon thread.

Although much of the regalia today can be very contemporary, many beaders feel that some of the changes are good.  “Though rhinestones and mirrors on beadwork are only from the last fifteen years and don’t reflect traditional styles, it comes down to artistry and we are very open to it,” says Knapp.  “It has more to do with the dancer as a beautiful piece of art.”

Juanita Growing Thunder Fogarty (Sioux and Assiniboine) is another bespoke beader whose work has won numerous awards and been featured at the National Museum for the American Indian in Washington, DC and the Denver Art Museum.  While living on Montana’s Fort Peck Reservation, she learned the art from her mother, Joyce Growing Thunder, one of the most prominent beaders in North America.

Mother and daughter now reside in California in the same place where Juanita’s father’s people came for the Gold Rush in the 19th Century.  They still refer to moccasins by the Sioux word ‘hampas’.   Through the year the women prepare their crafts for the annual Indian Market in Santa Fe where Juanita has participated for the past 27 years.  Joyce and Juanita incorporate a wealth of stitches in their extraordinary designs.  “Some of the stitches we use are applique, lazy stitch, edging, whipstitch, Southern, peyote, brick or loom beadwork.  We try to be traditional and stay within our own tribal style but we know how to do others too,” says Fogarty who teaches summer classes in beading and doll making at the Idyllwild Arts center.

Fogarty has a strong sense of responsibility to pass along the craft.  “I was raised to appreciate the ability and gift of creating such works of art and to further my knowledge.  I carry great respect for my heritage.  It is my hope that in being able to hold true to the traditions within my work, I can be reassured these creations carry on the traditions of the people in a good way.”

Derrick Suwaima Davis: A World Champion Hoop Dancer Breaks It Down

Derrick Suwaima Davis (Ken Ross Photography)

Derrick Suwaima Davis (Ken Ross Photography)

November 20, 2012
Special to Indian Country Today Magazine

As a child growing up in his native Arizona Derrick Suwaima Davis, Hopi/Choctaw, was fairly certain how he fit into life on the reservation.  “I got my first dance clothes when I was three.  I was always around native songs and dances, but that’s when I considered my life as a dancer official.”  For Davis, who was the Head Man Dancer at the grand opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. in 2004, dancing was both his destiny and means of escape – a place of imagination where he could use its intricate forms as a means of self-expression.  His first hoop dancing championship was in 1992, his most recent in 2010, and he has earned the title of World Champion Hoop Dancer five times.  As a member of the pop/rock group Clan/destine he has worked with the Heard Museum, the Phoenix Symphony, the American Dance Theater, Canyon Records and Willie Nelson continuing to share his Hopi culture with thousands of admirers around the world.  Davis has been featured on the covers of leading publications like Smithsonian and Native Peoples and was once named Cosmopolitan’s “Man of the Year”.

As one of Arizona’s cultural treasures Davis has been Artistic Director of Native Trails, an intertribal collaborative presented by the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation and produced by the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts in Scottsdale, Arizona.  Nine performers including Davis represent the best of the Southwest region, in a twice-weekly free show at the amphitheater at the Scottsdale Civic Center Park where the hour-long performances showcase song and dance using traditional instruments, regalia and stories.  Unique indigenous cuisine, like cactus chili, blue corn mush and mesquite muffins, are sold there alongside the more familiar fry bread.  Look for the 2013 season to start up again on January 17 and run through April 6 on Thursdays and Saturdays at noon.  Visit for more information.  You can also see Davis perform daily at the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale where for over twenty years he has been part of a three-person 5 p.m. show.

In a recent interview he told ICTMN of his early life with its traditional influences and why he feels the need to share his culture with the world.

What was your childhood like?

My father worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and took us a lot of places.  I spent part of my life on the Navajo reservation and summers with my grandparents on the Hopi reservation that is surrounded by the Navajo reservation.

When did you first become interested in dancing?

I never thought I would end up in my adulthood being a performer.  I just grew up singing and dancing as part of our culture capturing history and expressing gratitude and encouraging good life.  It wasn’t until I moved down to the Phoenix Valley and was asked to be part of a Native American dance troupe where we performed at resorts and cultural festivals.  I saw how it would be a way to educate people about Native culture.

Who was your greatest influence?

My grandfather as far as information and experiences and putting it all into song and dance.  He was well known in Hopi.

How did you develop your own style?

I first saw the dance when I was around the intertribal gatherings in New Mexico.  I was already a champion fancy dancer.  As a young boy my father made us hoops.  I didn’t really understand the significance but it was something I was drawn to.  We began to imitate the dance.  I continued fancy dancing but later got involved with the Hopi cultural dances.  There are a lot of parallels with those two art forms.  When I moved to Phoenix I joined the Eagle Spirit Dance Group.  I was asked if I would also do intertribal eagle dancing along with hoop dancing and the horsetail dance.  I got into it at the Heard Museum where they had the World Championship Hoop Dancing contests.  That’s where all us hoop dancers inspired one another.

As I was coming along I really began to understand the story.  The origin of the dance goes back to the Healing Dance where the shaman or the patient would pass through the hoop and whatever ailment was disturbing the patient would be dismissed.  And although this dance is done in a public and competitive format, it still conveys that message of healing and restoring balance and the Hopi culture and how we talk about First, Second, Third and how we are now in a Fourth World.

At the end of the dance I set down a four-hoop globe.  Each time I pick up one of those hoops it acknowledges times of adversity and prosperity, and how through time it’s the plants, the animals and the insects that have taught human beings how to utilize the resources around us.  And so, as we are stewards and guardians, it’s through our songs and our dances we ask and encourage everything to be healthy.  Because if the environment is healthy, then we are going to be healthy.  Through our art forms and with our good intentions we encourage wellbeing.  The hoop dance encompasses a large amount of teaching.

Did you learn a specific pattern of dance steps and later interpret it for yourself?

The dance steps and the rhythm are based more on the intertribal pow wow style of music. I used that style of song and dance for most of my hoop dance career.  That goes back to the fancy dance style of footwork.  The showmanship and athleticism I learned from fancy dance I brought into hoop dancing.  There is some crossover.  The reason for dancing with five hoops is because in the Southwest we don’t get much rain.  In many ways we must do the best we can with the least amount possible so you’re not overharvesting or being selfish with the natural resources.  Instead we let the plant community and the animal and insect community be strong and grow in numbers.   That’s where a lot of the story in my dancing comes from.

At a young age I was introduced to ‘dry farming’ that we still do at Hopi.  In the Southwest we have been in a drought.  When I remember the days when I was young and rainfall was plentiful, it’s easy to understand the importance of nature and to encourage everything to be healthy.  In the dance, although there may be mechanics involved, there is also the inspiration of what the dance continues to represent.  It is filled with its own type of prayer and desire and expressing gratitude.  So when I make the various patterns I know how important it is for the insects, like when I make the butterfly, or similarly if I make a hummingbird, or eagle or buffalo.  I have learned not only from Hopi, but also from schooling, how important these creatures are and how everything fits into the circle of life, the web of life, which is what the hoop represents.

Do you integrate different forms in your performances?  Are there strict guidelines for a contest?

Each one of us hoop dancers has our own story that we like to share.  I am one of maybe two dancers who use only five hoops.  Everyone else dances with from ten to maybe sixty hoops.  It’s not how many hoops you use.  Any art evokes some kind of emotion whether it’s a painting, a sculpture, or singing and dancing.  They all evoke some kind of emotion.  The music and the movement combined make people feel really wonderful.  Any talented or gifted artist realizes that we really are just an intermediary between something higher than we are, and as performers we are just a vehicle to share our blessings with those in the audience.

Do you have different feelings when you dance?

Yes. I think that the objective of sharing the dance is always the same, but certainly what we have most recently experienced in our lives shapes how the dance is shared.  I always feel that I’ve done the same dance, but people who see it will say that I’ve done something different in it.  And of course after a six-minute dance there’s no way I can remember everything I did!  I may notice simply that the floor was smoother or uneven or the song was faster or slower.  So each performance is unique and influenced by the audience.

Have have you performed outside of the U.S. and what has it meant to you?

Yes, and that’s what I’ve really enjoyed.  I’ve been to half of Africa, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Denmark, Germany and Spain and up to Alaska and Hawaii, and Canada.  I’ve brought our Native Southwestern culture around the world and they have shared their songs and stories with me.  It has helped me understand how much alike we are as human beings and the geography and history that have shaped our cultures.  There are both similarities and also a uniqueness to the different cultures.

What else are you passionate about?

I was honored to record a PSA for the Arizona Department of Health Services on Diabetes Prevention.  It’s an issue that means a lot to me.

Do you have a favorite drum and singer to perform with?

Through the years I’ve worked with various singers.  I work with three different singers for the two-man performances.  Most are based on the intertribal rhythm and they incorporate the Hopi language as well as our rhythms.  It makes it very unique from other hoop dancers.

How would you advise a young person just getting started?

It’s important for young people to really listen to who they are.   What I mean by that is we all have a gift, a purpose here in life.  As a young boy I experienced contradiction and ideas of wanting to live a healthy life.  I want all children to hang on to their innocence, their dignity, and make healthy decisions.  Hopefully their songs and dances will be an art that encourages wellbeing.  Don’t worry about being unique.  Just be yourself.  As a father I don’t expect my boys to grow up to be like me.  They have a gift and a purpose.  So if I live my life with good intentions and I stay true to who I am, then I think that’s a good role model for my boys to stay true to who they are.

Even though I can’t put everything into words our cultural singing and dancing was a way to express myself in this art form.  It allowed me to be who I am.  I’m fortunate to speak politely and honestly and when I do share my culture I never say that I’m right, but that the power of choice is up to everybody.  Hopefully what I do share is an inspiration to people to be who they are and accomplish their goals.

Derrick can be reach through

Discovery of Long-Lost Silent Film With All-Indian Cast Has Historians Reeling

Jordan Wright
August 28, 2012
Special to Indian Country Today Media Network – Magazine feature

Long-Lost Silent Film With All-Indian Cast

Long-Lost Silent Film With All-Indian Cast – Photo Credit Oklahoma Historical Society

How a silent film featuring an all-Native cast came to be made, lost (seemingly forever), discovered nearly a century later (in shambles), then restored and shown to the cast’s descendants is one of the most fascinating stories in the annals of American filmmaking. The Daughter of Dawn, which had its world premiere in June at the deadCENTER Film Festival in Oklahoma City, may be the only all-Native cast silent film ever made.

In the autumn of 1919 Norbert Myles was hired to direct a film for Richard Banks, owner of the fledgling Texas Film Company. Banks, who had written the story for his new project, was looking to make an adventure film in Oklahoma. He had met Myles a few years earlier on a California movie set and was impressed by the ambitious upstart. Myles, who had been a vaudevillian, a screen actor and sometime Shakespearean actor, had fallen out of favor in Hollywood and had turned to screenwriting and directing.

Banks drew on his 25 years of experience living among the Indians and his knowledge of what he called “an old Comanche legend,” to lend authenticity to the film. He decided to shoot on the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, a national reserve known for its mountains and grassy plains spread across 60,000 acres in southwestern Oklahoma. This was an attractive setting for several reasons, including the fact that in 1907 a program to reintroduce the nearly extinct bison to the Great Plains was launched. Under the auspices of the American Bison Society, 15 of these American icons, plucked from New York City’s Bronx Zoo, were sent by railway to grasslands in Oklahoma, and in little more than a decade, they flourished and were an enormous herd.

Banks must have also realized that shooting there would provide not only the perfect backdrop, but would also afford him an abundant source of American Indian talent. For actors Myles tapped into the local tribes—notably the Kiowa and Comanche, who were living on reservations near Lawton, Oklahoma. This wildly ambitious project had an all-Native cast, just one cameraman, no costumes, no lighting, no props and wild buffalo. The Indians, who had been on the reservation less than 50 years, brought with them their own tipis, horses and gear. Featured in the film were White Parker, Esther LeBarre, Hunting Horse, Jack Sankeydoty and Wanada Parker, daughter of Quanah Parker, a Comanche chief and one of the founders of the Native American Church movement. Among the 100 extras were Slim Tyebo, Old Man Saupitty and Oscar Yellow Wolf.

Myles ordered his cameraman to shoot buffalo chase scenes “from a pit so as to have all the buffalo…and Indians…pass directly over the top of the camera.” To add verisimilitude, Myles incorporated the tribe’s tipis, horses, personal regalia and other artifacts, and shot scenes of the Comanches using cross-tribal Plains Indian sign language. He also shot scenes of tribal dancing while the women prepared buffalo for a celebratory meal.

Comanche “raid” on Kiowa village (Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society)

Comanche “raid” on Kiowa village (Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society)

The tribes’ participation in the film did not sit well with a certain “Assistant Field Matron” assigned to the area by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to monitor the tribes’ activities. In her weekly report, filed July 31, 1920, and sent directly to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, she wrote: “Went to a camp close to headquarters where their [sic] are about 300 Kiowas and Comanches gathered dancing and having pictures taken to be used in the movies.… I talked to the manager to have the camp broken up and dances stopped.

“These dances and large gatherings week after week are ruining our Indian boys and girls as they have been going on for about three months and different places. No work done during these days.”

Her actions had little effect on the enthusiastic cast members, who Myles called “very shrewd” in their financial negotiations with him.

When the 80-minute silent film was screened in October 1920 at the College Theater in Los Angeles, it received raves, with one critic calling it “an original and breathtaking adventure…hardly duplicated before.” But despite favorable reviews, the film was, for some unknown reason, never released. And it was never shown again—that is, until June 10, 2012.

The story of the film’s unlikely return is as dramatic as the story of its making. It began in 2003 when a private investigator in North Carolina looking to collect his fee from a client was given five cans of what was originally a six-reel film. The investigator-for-hire needed to convert the rapidly decaying film into cash to cover his expenses so he contacted Brian Hearn, film curator at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. He told Hearn he believed the film was The Daughter of Dawn. At that time the museum was not in the business of collecting films so Hearn got in touch with the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS), which also operates the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City.

Moore (seated), purchased the five canisters of footage from a private investigator. (Courtesy Bil Moore/Oklahoma Historical Society)

Moore (seated), purchased the five canisters of footage from a private investigator. (Courtesy Bil Moore/Oklahoma Historical Society)

The film was purchased by the OHS in 2006, and Bill Moore, the society’s film archivist and video production manager, took possession of the five cans of the nitrate film. “Our first concern was to protect it,” he recalls. “So after watching the footage on a Moviola and noting its fragile condition, we applied for a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation in the hopes of preserving it as soon as possible.

“In the early years of filming, producers had to provide a copy to what was called the Paper Print Collection. It was a requirement to show every frame of film and file it with the Library of Congress’s Copyright Office in order to establish the copyright of the film. The library would then shoot the films from the ‘contacts’—the individual frames—and that’s how this film survived. It took only a few months to restore the film and after the intertitles [dialogue text pages inserted into the film between cuts] were added, the footage expanded out to the full movie and the original six canisters.” The completed film has a four-way love story and includes two buffalo hunt scenes, a battle scene between the Kiowa and the Comanche, scenes of village life, tribal dances, hand-to-hand combat and a happy ending.

In 2008 Robert Blackburn, executive director of the OHS commissioned David Yeagley, a Comanche classical composer who is well regarded in his field, to do a new score for the movie. “I knew the music was important,” Blackburn says. “That’s why we decided to go for a full symphonic score. Yeagley’s original score is timed to each second of the movie, and he uses different styles of music for each character. Seventy Oklahoma City University Philharmonic grad students working on a Fast Track system recorded the score earlier this year.

“This film is so important to Indian people and is a rare piece of art as well, since only two percent of independent films made in this era have survived,” Blackburn says. “We plan to show it in Telluride, Denver and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in 2013. [Documentary film producer] Ken Burns has committed to assist with the film’s distribution.”

Once descendants of the Kiowa and Comanche cast members were identified, Blackburn arranged to screen The Daughter of Dawn for the families in the Oklahoma towns of Anadarko, Carnegie and Lawton. “There were tears,” he recalls. “They recognized an aunt or a grandparent, and out of that conversation came recognition of the tipi used in the film. It was very powerful for them to see family members who were pre-reservation wearing their own clothing and using family heirlooms that had been brought out of trunks. It was very emotional for them.”

Yeagley, whose works have included a commissioned symphony called The Four Horses of the Apocalypse: A Comanche Symphony and who once wrote an opera based on the life of a Holocaust survivor, calls Blackburn a visionary for choosing to score the movie with what he refers to as a high-European classical piece. “You would expect the typical drums and rattles.” He was conscious of how his music will be received—and perceived. “How do you write music that makes sense to a 21st century audience who is looking at something that is right out of history? What are other Indians going to think when they hear symphonic music? How are they going to regard me?”

Blackburn, clearly thrilled with the interest the film is drawing from audiences and historians, describes its appeal this way, “The Daughter of Dawn is all Oklahoma. Acted by Oklahoma Indians, filmed entirely in Oklahoma, in a story of Oklahoma’s Kiowa and Comanche nations, scored by a Comanche and played by the Oklahoma City University Philharmonic students, even the film was restored by an Oklahoman working in Hollywood for the Film Technology Lab.”

He believes the film has the potential to become the centerpiece for a national exhibit and wants it to be shown at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. In the meantime, the OHS is making a short film to show next spring. It will tell the story of the making of The Daughter of Dawn and Native Oklahomans talking about their ancestors, as well as an interview with Yeagley.

In June at the deadCENTER Film Festival, award-winning actor Wes Studi, Cherokee, came to view this major cinematic event that had brought together film buffs as well as descendants of the Kiowa and Comanche tribal members who had performed in the film. After the screening, Studi said, “It’s a film worth seeing for all people who are either in the business of making films or those who watch film in terms of American Indians.

“It’s really a historic film.… I would say this film proves that Indians have been acting since day one.”


The Cherokee Way to Vacation: The Call of the Wild in Qualla Boundary and Beyond

Jordan Wright
July 12, 2012
Special to Indian Country Today Media

A scene from “Unto These Hills”

Amid the majestic scenery of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ 56,000-acre sovereign nation known as Qualla Boundary lies the city of Cherokee, which sits at the entrance of North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The area is steeped in Cherokee history and culture and a beautiful setting for a vacation adventure.There are many ways to enjoy a visit to this region. But first determine your vacation expectations. Are you pumped by the glamour and glitz of an all-night casino and a swank suite in a luxury hotel? Or do you picture yourself luxuriating in a hot tub in a rustic cabin nestled snugly in the woods? Does the outdoor life beckon? There’s backcountry exploring along the Appalachian Trail or driving the iconic Blue Ridge Parkwayand camping beside miles of stocked trout streams where you may be visited by curious elk and wake to the chirp of the Eastern bluebird. In Qualla Boundary, or very nearby, you can choose from any one of these options and at a price to suit every budget.

What to Do

For nature lovers a good place to start is at the Oconaluftee Visitors Center and Mountain Farm Museum in the park, run by the U.S. National Park Service, where you’ll learn about the early farming history of the region. You can pick up hiking and topographical maps, light camping supplies and info on the region’s flora and fauna. Resident naturalist Ila Hatter encourages amateur botanists to get in touch with the power of the plant and shares her extensive knowledge of the area’s native plants and their use for food, medicine and crafting. “The Cherokee word adowahi means the spirit of the plant,” she explains. “You ask the power of the plant to do the healing. It keeps its strength in the plant to be your medicine. It can also mean ‘forest’ or ‘guardian spirit.’ It’s comparable to the Buddhist concept of living gratefully.”

Mountain Farm Museum

Whether roughing it or living the luxe life, you’ll want to experience Cherokee culture. Spend time in the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, which has an astonishing collection of Cherokee and Paleo artifacts dating from 10,000 years ago. Here interpretive dioramas of early life mesh with dramatic videos depicting ancient myths and legends. Among carved basswood tribal masks and stone gorgets is the rifle used to execute Cherokee hero Tsali in 1838. Ask for museum interpreter (and well-known stickball expert) Jerry Wolfe, who happily shares his extensive knowledge of traditional recipes and local lore.

Directly across the road is the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, an artisans’ cooperative with more than 250 members. The modern studio-like space, which houses exquisite early and contemporary pottery, beadwork, dolls and museum-quality white oak splint basketry, is a marketplace for authentic Cherokee crafts.

The Eternal Flame greets visitors at the 18th century Oconaluftee Indian Village and Living History Museum. Cherokee demonstrators encourage hands-on participation in weaving, carving, pottery, flint knapping and other traditional crafts. A guided tour of the Cherokee Botanical Garden and Nature Trail is also offered. It is part of the North Carolina Birding Trail System, and features more than 150 native plants through a half-mile loop along the slopes of Mount Noble. Be sure to pre-purchase tickets to the spectacular outdoor evening performances of Unto These Hills at Mountainside Theater. This moving portrayal of the Cherokees and the Trail of Tears told through dance, music and drama is held in a vast amphitheater. During the day special “Step-On” bus tours led by guides in traditional dress can be arranged by contacting the museum in advance.

At the Oconoluftee Village - photo credit Jordan Wright

At the Oconoluftee Village – photo credit Jordan Wright

Master woodcarver, tribal culture bearer and gifted storyteller Davy Arch is the village’s manager and one of the lifeways guides well versed in Cherokee lore. Call the Cherokee Historical Association in advance to arrange traditional suppers or guided trips to Mingo Falls or Soco Falls with its mountaintop observation deck overlooking Maggie Valley.

Just outside of town in a valley along the Tuckasegee River lies the Kituhwa Mound, the center of what is considered the “Mother Town.” The site, established 11,000 years ago, was once an ancient village considered by the Cherokee the center of the universe. Arch brings groups here to talk about the site’s importance as the first Cherokee village and the spot where the sacred fire was kept burning.

Sporting activities in the area include fly-fishing with Rivers Edge Outfitters guides (in Spruce Pine, North Carolina), zip-lining with Adventure America’s Nantahala Gorge Canopy Tours in nearby Bryson City, where you can also ride the rails in restored vintage railroad cars at the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. Or spend a few hours tubing and kayaking on the Oconaluftee River from Big Cove. A spectacular view of Clingmans Dome, at more than 6,600 feet the highest peak in the Smokies, can be yours on horseback with Cherokee guide Goodlow Bark, owner of End of the Trail Riding Stables.

Where to Eat

Restaurants abound and there are four plus a food court inside Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Hotel, but more traditional fare can be found at Paul’s Family Restaurant on Tsali Boulevard. The stream-side cottage with outdoor deck features blueberry frybread, buffalo rib-eyes and burgers, pheasant, rabbit, mountain trout, Indian chili tacos, fried green tomatoes and homemade coconut cake.

Since 1977 Cooper’s Roadside Stand, has been boiling peanuts in giant iron cauldrons on the side of Paint Town Road. Be sure to pick up some “rat” cheese (a sharp cheddar), locally grown produce, country ham and some unique jams and jellies like kudzu or wild dewberry.


View of the Great Smoky Mountains from the Sequoyah National Golf Course - photo credit Jordan Wright

View of the Great Smoky Mountains from the Sequoyah National Golf Course – photo credit Jordan Wright

Where to Stay

Luxury—The 21-story Harrah’s Cherokee has the most luxurious accommodations including four restaurants, a food court and a casino, currently under a major expansion. Book ahead if you want to hit the greens at the nearby Robert Trent Jones II–designed Sequoyah National Golf Course. The hotel is proud to be a participant in Harrah’s award-winning CodeGreen environmental sustainability and energy conservation program and recently installed 150,000 square feet of sedum on their new porte-cochère roof.

At Harrah's Cherokee in the Rotunda - photo credit Jordan Wright

At Harrah’s Cherokee in the Rotunda – photo credit Jordan Wright

Comfortable Adventuring—A 45-minute drive from Cherokee on the western side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the Fontana Village Resort on the 30-mile-long Fontana Lake. The 400-acre property has a large marina and features a great lodge, private cabins or riverside tent camping. With plenty of planned activities throughout the day, it’s like summer camp for the whole family. Free concerts are held on weekends and evenings are for gathering around the fire pit, karaoke contests, sunset pontoon boat cruises, ghost tours and Indian storytelling. While there plan to visit Fontana Dam. At 480 feet high and 2,365-feet across, it’s the tallest concrete dam east of the Rocky Mountains.

 The Lodge at Fontana Village Resort

The Outdoor Life—Tents, cabins and RV campgrounds are in every nook and cranny. Within walking distance from town is the Cherokee Campground & Craig’s Cabins where you can put your fishing pole in Soco Creek right outside your cabin door. For camping with a pool and plenty of kid’s activities try the local KOA campground or the Adventure Trail Campground.

Upcoming Festivals
Eighth Annual Festival of Native Peoples—July 13 and 14
Cherokee Blueberry Festival—August 11
Southeastern Tribes Festival—September 14 and 15
Centennial Cherokee Indian Fair—October 2 through 6