Michael Yannette took over six years ago as director of choir and musical theater at Cherokee Central Schools. From the beginning, he faced a challenge he never encountered in his previous 25 years of teaching.
“I remember the first day I got here and I met the old choir director,” he recalled. “I remember going into the cabinets and seeing these little plastic elbow pipes, and he said, ‘Well, we use it so the kids can hear themselves sing.’ They hold one up to their mouth and the other to their ear, and I was like ‘okay.’”
Suffice to say, these students no longer need the elbow pipes. Over the past few years, as the Cherokee Chamber Singers—they've performed at the Smithsonian, Carnegie Hall and DisneyWorld, along with North Carolina’s capital and other locales in the state.
“Some (students) took it because they thought it was gonna be easy because it’s just singing, but some people actually liked it,” said Kimberly Hendrix, a 17-year-old senior at Cherokee High School, who has sung in Yannette’s classes and choirs since he arrived.
“I’d never traveled a lot. I never got out of my house,” she said. “Just doing those things (with the choir), it gave me confidence and made me excited to just be able to go out and not be scared.”
It might seem absurd to outsiders, the very notion of a choral program turning housebound introverts into proud, confident vocalists. But it appears Hendrix’s story isn’t unique here, and in a region where football and basketball games routinely draw larger crowds, Yannette said the Cherokee Chamber Singers have become ambassadors for the tribe.
“We’re a 96 percent Native American school. We’re on the reservation. And as a cultural generality, they’re reserved,” he said. “I’ve never seen quite the level of fear to just open up and sing.”
That fear dissolved, he said, with the first concert.
“There was just sort of this explosion in the theater,” Yannette recalled. “I just had a lot of people who were Cherokee came up to me and said we never expected our kids to be so outwardly expressive on stage, and in such a big way.”
On a recent midweek afternoon, Yannette rehearsed about 25 singers for a short tour that will bring them to Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center in Asheville (Nov. 21), the state capital in Raleigh and the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C.
“So, boys, I need you a little more up like this,” he said, straightening his back. “Whether you’re feeling energetic or not.”
The cornerstone of this touring program is a William Britelle composition commissioned just for this choir and the North Carolina Symphony, in Raleigh. Students had a strong hand in shaping the text. Hendrix and fellow senior Acecia Lambert were two of the three students on a committee with a heavy task—ensuring the piece was authentic to their experiences as Native youth.
“It was a lot of trying to figure out individually what we thought of our culture,” Lambert said. “I know a lot of us had strayed from our culture, so we weren’t sure what we needed to know.”
“I grew up with a white family and I grew up in a white school,” Hendrix said. “I wasn’t fully in touch with (my culture), so I’m slowly getting there.
The committee outsourced its input to the entire Cherokee Central Schools student body. Hundreds of students responded to survey questions asking about it means to be Cherokee, the perceived stereotypes of their culture and what they want outsiders to know about their lives.
About 70 percent of the finished piece is sung in Cherokee, but perhaps the most compelling segment is a sort of call-and-response between Cherokee and English over the title—“Si Otsedoha,” or “We’re Still Here.”
“We want people to know we’re not how we’re being interpreted on TV. The people that live in teepees or wear headdresses, are alcoholics and drug addicts, that isn’t our culture and not makes us who we are,” Lambert said.
“There are people out there that want to keep this culture alive and I think that really drove all of us to say this is our culture, we need to start embracing it,” Hendrix said. “This experience has brought us all closer to our culture in a way we never thought would happen.”