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Snowbird Cherokee celebrate traditions in Graham County

The mound building ceremony will be a part of the Demonstration Day. Here is the ceremony during a previous Fading Voices Festival in Graham County.
Little River Creative
The mound building ceremony is a part of the Demonstration Day. Here is the ceremony at the 2021 Fading Voices Festival in Graham County.

Graham County hosts the 37th annual Fading Voices Demonstration Day Festivalto celebrate the traditions of the Eastern Band of Cherokee members in the county.

BPR sat down with members of the Snowbird community who have organized the festival for many years.

Paulette Cox’s mother Lois Calonehuskie founded the Snowbird Fading Voices Festival around 1985.

“I think my mother would be very proud and, um, to know that it has gone on this long,” Cox said.

The festival started as an oral history project to preserve the stories and traditions of the Snowbird community.

While much of the Eastern Band of Cherokee land is located on the Qualla Boundary mostly in Jackson and Swain Counties, there are also Eastern Band members in other parts of Western North Carolina including about 500 Eastern Band members in the Snowbird Community of Graham County.

“The project started with a grant from the Museum in Cherokee. It was funded by the North Carolina Arts Council. My mother was named the project director,” Cox explained. “The purpose was to capture personal histories and our tribal traditions of the elders.”

Cox’s mother was a fluent Cherokee speaker, so she translated the interviews into English. After a year of interviews, she thought it would be a good idea to bring these traditions to life for the public and especially Snowbird youth.

“She really wanted the youth to carry on the traditions of the Snowbird Cherokees,” Cox said.

After Calonehuskie conducted the local interviews, she wanted a way to bring the community together, Cox said, and the idea for a festival was born.

Snowbird Fading Voices committee members Paulette Cox and Roger Smoker pose with a map of Graham County.
Lilly Knoepp/ BPR News
Snowbird Fading Voices committee members Paulette Cox and Roger Smoker pose with a map of Graham County.

Eastern Band of Cherokee Snowbird member Roger Smoker has helped organize the festival for more than three decades.

Cox remembered when her mother passed the reins of the festival to Smoker. Calonehuskie passed away in 1999.

First, Smoker helped with the shingle-making demonstration but soon he was on the planning committee.

“[Cox’s] dad was the one that taught me how to make those shingles. So year after that he turned over to me to do the shingles,” Smoker said. “So I did shingles for a couple years, I guess. And that's when the women came up to me and said, ‘We need some men folks on this committee.’”

Smoker, who is a fluent Cherokee speaker, said the traditions of the Snowbird community are the same as the rest of the Eastern Band but there are some differences in their dialect.

“A lot of Cherokees in Oklahoma use a sound of like ‘Sh-la,’ a lot. And, our Snowbird dialect is kind of, we say a few words in 'sh-la,' Cherokee mostly use a ‘sh,’ s-h sound,” Smoker said.

The festival features about 20 demonstrations of crafts such as beadwork, pottery, quilting, wood carving and more. Cox said she hopes the celebration will prompt interest about the culture in younger generations.

“We've lost some of the elders and haven't been able to replace them,” Cox said. “We're hoping that, you know, the young people will come on board and get interested and want to participate,”

Smoker said they started demonstrating one of the more popular events- stickball - around 1995.

“That was the biggest attraction, for people to come and watch the stickball game,” Smoker said.

Another demonstration is mound building where participants are invited to bring a cup or a turtle shell of dirt from home.

The mound building ceremony starts off with a fire that is built with seven types of hardwood to represent the seven clans of the Cherokee. The fire starts and the leader walks around the mound slowly while the group sings a song.

“The mound building was used when there was like a decision that needed to be made within the community,” Cox said, explaining the demonstration. “Every year the, the mound, you know, just gets bigger. It just grows and grows and has the different types of dirt in it.”

Eastern Band members will participate first and then others join in.

This is part of the mission of the festival: to make sure that traditions are not lost. Smoker said he hopes more youth in Snowbird learn how to weave baskets of all types.

“That's the reason it's called Fading Voices cause a lot of the things are kind of fading away,” Smoker said.

"I'm hoping to, especially as a basket making, it's hard to find any more basket makers in this community in order for the people to come out to the event, to demonstrate we have to go to the boundary.”

Smoker and Cox both hope about 500 people will attend the festival which takes place Saturday May 27th in Graham County.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.