Cherokee gig-maker carries on tradition
Cherokee Nation citizen Larry Shade forges a fishing gig inside his workshop on Aug. 21, 2019, in anticipation of selling his wares at the Cherokee National Holiday. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Gigs crafted by Larry Shade, of Lost City, are seen on an anvil inside his workshop in August 2019. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Cherokee Nation citizen Larry Shade sells homemade crawdad gigs at the Cherokee Heritage Center during the 2019 Cherokee National Holiday. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Larry Shade shows off a homemade crawdad gig at the 2019 Cherokee National Holiday. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
LOST CITY – In the heat of his late father’s forge, Larry Shade carries on a tradition as one of the few Cherokee gig-makers still crafting the fishing spears by hand.
“When I was younger, I’d come out here and I’d just help him hammer,” said Shade, whose family has long owned property in northern Cherokee County. “I was probably in my early 30s when I actually started, but I knew the technique. A lot of people understand that I’m doing the same thing that he did and try to produce the same quality of work.”
Shade, 57, is a seventh-generation descendant of Sequoyah, inventor of the Cherokee syllabary. He is also the son of the late Hastings Shade, a former deputy chief from 1999 to 2003 who died a decade ago at age 67. Known as a Cherokee traditionalist, Hastings was widely recognized for his work in cultural preservation and as a skilled artisan. He was designated a Cherokee National Treasure in 1991 for his craftsmanship, which included making gigs.
“My dad made one a long time ago and it was pretty neat,” Shade said. “It was a little bit longer one and when he hammered it down and finished it, it had scales on it. I thought, man, that looks like a dinosaur. I really wanted it, and the first thing he said was maybe. A couple weeks went by and I noticed he didn’t have it anymore, and you know, he sold it. It’s like, he made a comment one time. He said, ‘I asked my grandpa to make me a gig. He said if I make you a gig, I’ll always be making you a gig. Let me show you.’”
The gigs, which resemble multi-prong spears, are used for hunting fish, crawdads or other small game. Shade’s third-generation gigs are a “spinoff design” of his father’s and grandfather’s styles. They include three-prong river gigs, two-prong wader gigs, barbless crawdad gigs and more, made from the metal of “buggy” springs, lawnmower blades or old railroad spikes. Poles are crafted from local wood such as black locust.
“Growing up, dad only let us use a single-prong gig,” Shade recalled. “He said if you can hit something with one of these, you’ll make a good gigger.”
For decades, the Shade family has fished the waters of nearby Fourteen Mile Creek.
“There’s two stumps over there,” Shade said. “That’s where me and my brother sat when we were 6, 7, 8 years old. That’s when we got to hear the Cherokee stories, sit and talk. We just grew up eating crawdads and chasing fish, wild onions, watercress, mushrooms in the fall and in the spring the morels and the wishi, eating deer meat, squirrel and rabbit. There is a good feeling that it’s something you worked for that is going to satisfy a lot of hungry bellies and mouths.”
Fishing was not just enjoyable, but practical for the youngsters, Shade added.
“Dad worked construction and mom didn’t work for a long time when we were little,” he said. “So as we were growing up, we knew that if we went down to the creek and killed some fish, we had something to eat. We kind of helped them out during that time. It was a way of life, but it also put food on the table.”
Independence Day was a “big time” for families at the creek with fireworks and a fish fry after gigging.
“Some people do that nowadays, but for us that was pretty special,” Shade said. “It was a time when we went gigging and got to spend a lot of time with family and just enjoy the fellowship with everybody.”
Shade and his wife, Shelley, have four children. He is an instructor at Cherokee Immersion School and Sequoyah High School.