New testaments

“People are creative because we are made in the image of the Creator.”

— Betty Maney, basketmaker, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians

For many Cherokee, images of the creation of Mother Earth are as keen as the memories handed down by their great-grandparents, who endured the Trail of Tears just 162 years ago.

Minor distinctions like millennia and centuries are merely passing details in the telling. All time, each person — indeed, all people — are links in the continuum.

And thus, the art pieces displayed in the Museum of the Cherokee Indian’s newest exhibit, Where It All Began: Cherokee Creation Stories in Art — though done by 14 artists in different media and styles — all share the same theme: Creation is now and always.

For the Cherokee, ancient myths aren’t merely dusted off and trotted out to fire the muse: They are the solid bedrock of a living philosophy. In 2003, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) will open on the mall in Washington, D.C. One of its permanent exhibits will showcase Western North Carolina’s Eastern Band of the Cherokee, from which the Smithsonian Instituion curatorial staff needed a creation image. And so the Cherokee museum invited Eastern Band artists to compete for the Smithsonian spot.

But in true Cherokee fashion, the pieces up for consideration “won’t go directly from studio to the Smithsonian,” explains guest curator Lynne Harlan. “By being in the exhibit here, they will pass through the Cherokee community first.” (At press time, the “winning” work or works had not yet been chosen.)

Unlike the simple, seven-day catch-all version of creation found in Genesis, “there is a whole complex of Cherokee creation stories, of how different animals and plants came about,” explains Barbara R. Duncan, Ph.D., the museum’s education director and the folklorist responsible for Living Stories of the Cherokee, the first major print collection of Eastern Band Cherokee tales to be gathered in more than 100 years.

“These images and stories are woven throughout Cherokee culture,” she continues. “They turn up in baskets and pottery and carvings and masks and songs and dances, and of course, in the stories.”

Because there is no one creation story, “the artists could only do one perspective of the creation story, not the whole thing,” explains Harlan. “It was important to have a lot of voices. Our artists don’t see their pieces as separate. They see the exhibit as one collaborative piece.”

One of the main creation myths is the story of how Water Beetle dived from the sky vault, where the animals were getting more and more crowded, down to far below the surface of the sea. At the very bottom, he found a clump of mud he laboriously brought back up — it became Earth. Several of the exhibited pieces portray this myth. “Creation” is a stunning image of Water Beetle with the dream of Earth’s beautiful landscape taking form on his back. “There is no place I would rather be than in these woods, the mountains and streams that make up North Carolina,” says the work’s creator, Jeneane Hornbuckle. “My desire in painting is to motivate the viewer into the woods.”

Another version of the Water Beetle story is told in Shan Goshon’s two mixed-media pieces, in which she includes portraits of her grandmother, Stacy Saunooke, and another Cherokee elder, Margaret Davis, as the images of the Creator. In “He Tells the Creation of our World,” Paula Nelson pays tribute to the storytellers who’ve kept the creation myths alive. “While considering the theme of this exhibit,” says Nelson, “a picture began forming in my mind, a picture of a tree, a tree of life, whose branches hold the frames of time and countless stories of life that happen above and underneath its boughs.”

Two modern-day storytellers also contributed visual creations to the show. Taking center stage is “Spirit World,” Freeman Owle’s magnificent soapstone carving of creatures swirling out of the primordial soup. Davy Arch makes masks to dramatize his telling of the ancient stories. “Legend of the Blowgun Mask,” carved from buckeye wood, represents the old man to whom the Cherokee Little People gave the secret of how to make blowguns and darts. Though he was too old to walk far and hunt with a bow, the old man could capture nearby birds and have fresh meat. “Wild Boy,” by Luzene Hill, is a simple yet extraordinarily powerful mixed-media piece. Reminiscent of the famous ancient marble sculpture “The Dying Celt,” Hill’s Indian boy seems to be resting his bloody head on his outstretched arm. “Wild Boy” grew out of the river created from the blood that poured into the water as First Man, Kanati, cleaned the animals he had hunted. Wild Boy, the classic trickster, encouraged disobedience and mischief and confounded the people with his blood-borne magic.

Two artists chose modern perspectives of Mother Earth, as seen from outer space. In “Earth By 4 Cords,” Margaret John Usti shows an island earth suspended from each of the four cardinal directions. “And Then,” the show’s only pastel, is Rachel A. Harris’ vision of First Man and First Woman and the circular trail of all those who came from them.

The exhibit’s best-known artist is carver John Julius Wilnoty, whose work has appeared worldwide. Like sacred treasures, his wood carvings of “Water Beetle” and “Spider” live behind glass doors, keeping company with “Serpent” (a soapstone carving by Fred Wilnoty) and a shell-and-leather wampum belt by Richard Saunooke.

Fourth-generation Cherokee potter Melissa Maney used traditional incising techniques to create a black clay plate telling how Buzzard flapped his wings and created the Great Smoky Mountains. Cherokees revere baskets because the ancient people used them to carry the precious Fire after it was created by Spider. Maney’s sister-in-law, Betty Maney, created a collection of miniature baskets, crafted from tiny white-oak splints, and Emily Smith’s full-sized vessels, also of white oak, are colored with bloodroot and walnut dyes.

Although the Museum of the Cherokee Indian is self-sustaining, Where It All Began did garner corporate support in the form of a first-time co-sponsorship from Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

“Because of its long-term importance and the variety of artists,” says Community Manager Marsha Cameron of Harrah’s, “we wanted to be involved. It’s one of the most important exhibits the museum has done.”

Unless you are Cherokee and already know these creation myths, Where it all Began may be most fully enjoyed as an exclamation point after a tour of this informative, visually stunning museum’s permanent exhibits. An easy 75 minutes down the highway from our city, this regional marvel, though known nationwide, remains relatively ignored by Ashevilleans. Another mystery.

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