By EUGENIA L. JOHNSON
Swain County High School and Swain County Middle School celebrated Native American heritage and culture this month by having school assemblies at Swain County Center for the Arts. The three assemblies featured EBCI tribal member Eddie Swimmer performing Native American hoop dancing, playing the flute and sharing stories that tear down the stereotypes Hollywood has created about Native Americans. These assemblies received support from the North Carolina Arts Council, a division of the Department of Cultural Resources.
SCHS students in the Cherokee Language and Culture class, taught by Kathy deCano and Mary Brown, opened the high school assemblies by bringing members of the audience up onto the stage for the Friendship Dance. Freeman Owle, Native American tutor for SCHS, introduced Eddie Swimmer, who is a member of the deer clan and who is recognized nationally and internationally for his hoop dancing. Swimmer performed at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, and he won the first-ever World Hoop Dance Championships held annually at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Ariz.
After playing the flute, Swimmer had four students from the audience join him on the stage while he instructed them and the audience in basic hoop dancing, using three hoops to make three different designs.
Dancing to the beat of the drum, wearing full regalia and using up to 36 hoops, Swimmer then created a variety of designs, such as the butterfly, turtle, basket, buffalo, eagle, two worlds and even Mickey Mouse. He had four members of the audience join him on the stage to play rattles and other percussion instruments along with the drum beat during his final dance.
Swimmer talked about the customs and history of the Cherokee. He pointed out that they always lived in cabins or mud huts in villages and didn’t move around because the mountains provided everything they needed. He said that the word, “Cherokee,” means “people of a different tongue” and is the name that other people passing through gave to Native Americans in this area.
Some of the stereotypes that Swimmer dispelled included the war bonnet, the war cry and the greeting, “HOW,” depicted in movies. He pointed out that Western tribes and the Plains Indians wore headdresses which had to be earned and were sacred, but that the Cherokee never wore big feathers. They believed it was wrong to boast or brag. The warriors cared about other people and took care of the needy. The war cry typically heard in the movies is the lulu sound that the Native American women make when cheering their men during a stickball game. He said that men never lulu and that the Cherokee war cry is much more scary. The Cherokee greeting is “SI-YO,” not “HOW.”
At the end of his performances, Eddie Swimmer told the audience to do five things: 1) know who you are and be proud of your culture, 2) learn some of the language, 3) learn about the colors, dance regalia and dress, 4) learn about the foods cooked for your celebrations, and 5) learn about the spirituality. He recommended the book, Indian Givers by Jack Weatherford, a 1988 non-fiction book about how the Indians of the Americas transformed the world.
Eugenia is the director of Swain County Center for the Arts.