Wolfe wears mantle of Cherokee culture as Beloved Man
Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians citizen Jerry Wolf at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, North Carolina, has run the museum for 17 years. As one of the tribe’s most respected elders, Wolfe has been named the Beloved Man, the first Cherokee to hold the honorary title in more than 200 years. MIKE BELLEME/SPECIAL TO THE CITIZEN TIMES
Jerry Wolf, an Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians citizen, volunteered for the U.S. Navy after completing 10th grade. It was the first time he left the mountains. At 90, he is one of the tribe’s most respected elders. MIKE BELLEME/SPECIAL TO THE CITIZEN TIMES
ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) – Most days you’ll find Jerry Wolfe behind the ticket counter of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.
He’s reading a yellow-bound New Testament, and he has open a Bible written in Sequoyah’s syllabary. Sporting a Stetson with a beaded headband, a thin gray braid of hair at the back of his bent neck, Wolfe gets up to greet a visitor with a firm handshake.
“‘Siyo,” he says – Cherokee for “hello.”
Still spry at 90, Wolfe is a living repository of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ wisdom and the old ways on the Qualla Boundary. As one of the tribe’s most respected elders, Wolfe has been named the Beloved Man, the first Cherokee to hold the honorary title in more than 200 years.
He’s seen war and peace. A Navy veteran who saw action on Normandy Beach during D-Day, a stonemason who laid rock through the Smokies, Wolfe is one of the last elders fluent in Tsalagi – the native language he grew up hearing in the Big Cove community.
Up in Big Cove, there were no paved roads, only footpaths or wagon trails. In the 1930s, the Blue Ridge Parkway would come right across Wolfe’s birthplace, forcing the family on down the mountain.
His father, Owen, spoke no English – only Cherokee. His mother, Luciana, had gone through the fifth grade and knew English, which she often spoke with her youngest child.
“I learned by listening to my dad. And I often asked my mother, what did he say? Back in those days, we didn’t have the tube to watch. My dad would build a big fire to keep us warm, and he would start talking.”
He told of Spearfinger, the terrible witch who could impale your liver on the sharpened nail of her finger. He talked of the stickball game that the little mouse won over the big bear.
But mainly, his stories were of great stickball matches – the native pastime that evolved into modern-day lacrosse.
Each of the towns – Big Cove, Wolf Town, Paint Town, Bird Town, Snowbird and central Cherokee or Yellowhill – fielded a team. The rivalries were bloody, the exploits remembered for many winters.
“No helmets or shoulder pads. Just two sticks and a lot of wrestling. We still play it today,” Wolfe said.
As a boy, Wolfe heard of the exploits of his uncle, Standing Turkey, the strongest man on the boundary, never defeated in wrestling or stickball.
A European wrestler once came to Qualla, challenging Standing Turkey to a bout. “Send that man to the center ground,” said Standing Turkey, who had a stickball game to play first.
“He body slammed all the opponents, cleared the field. He didn’t run. He just walked over to the goal to score,” Wolfe said.
“OK, I’m ready to wrestle,” Standing Turkey announced to the cheering crowd. “Where’s that man?”
But after witnessing the carnage on the field, the European was long gone.
“They found him a mile down the road to Bryson City,” Wolfe said. “He took a big bank roll out of his pocket. ‘Give this to Standing Turkey.’”
Wolfe went on to attend the Cherokee Boarding School. His mom and dad dropped him off at the dorms when he was only 7. His mother had waited a year until he was big enough to take care of himself.
In the strange dorm, the little boy sidled up to a circle of other boys in the strange dorm. Naively, he asked a question in English.
The other boys glared at him. “Nuneltiwoni,” they said. “Why you talk so ugly?”
But speaking Cherokee was strictly forbidden in the school. English was imposed with a military discipline.
The boys and girls woke to a bugle sounding Reveille and went to bed to Taps. They marched up and down the knoll to the dining room and to the classroom. “If you didn’t salute the flag, you’d get a strapping,” Wolfe said.
All that drilling came in handy when war rolled around. The teacher came in and told the children that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. “I didn’t know there was a Pearl Harbor,” Wolfe recalled.
Overnight, the big boys dorm emptied out as Cherokee went to fight for their country. In 1943, Wolfe completed the 10th grade and volunteered for the U.S. Navy.
It was the first time other than a couple of trips to Asheville or over to Bryson City and Sylva, that Wolfe had left the Boundary or been out of the mountains.
Wolfe served on a tracked landing vehicle, ferrying troops to storm Normandy Beach on D-Day in 1944.
Later, he led a crew of sailors by train that pulled into New York on the day that Victory in Europe was declared. The train stopped on the tracks as the whole city celebrated. They came back with armloads of whiskey and vodka, but under Wolfe’s command, he got all his sailors safely to Rhode Island.
He would ship out to Pearl Harbor – the place he had never heard of as a boy – when the Japanese formally surrendered that summer.
Wolfe still carries the memento of his sailor day, sporting the profile of a feathered Indian Princess, the initials U.S.N. and his service number inked on his forearm.
Warriors run in Wolfe’s family.
Ask Wolfe for his favorite story, and he’ll talk about his grandfather, Joe Stout Wolfe, who had fought for the Confederates across the mountain in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Among the Southern troops mustered, there was a bully who challenged everyone to wrestle. “Then he’d put an extra hurting on them,” Wolfe said. “Everyone hated the man.”
Finally, he called out Joe Stout Wolfe. “I’m no wrestler. I just play stick ball,” Joe Stout insisted. But the young Indian turned to a pair of Cherokee elders who were visiting the camp. They went into the woods, gathered medicine, herbs and formulas to prepare their warrior to wrestle.
Joe rushed the bully and lifted him overhead, and body slammed the bully. Everyone cheered. The bully, who lay on the ground, calling feebly for water. No one lifted a finger to help the man they all hate. He slowly crawled to the nearby spring and died.
The elders then asked to take Joe up into the mountains for healing rituals after he had killed his opponent. “They had to cleanse his soul so he wouldn’t worry about what had happened,” Wolfe said.
Respect for elders is a long Cherokee tradition. Wolfe followed it when he was learning his trade in construction, calling on old men to help him learn how to lay brick and rock.
After he returned from the war in 1949, settling into married life with his wife, Juanita, he earned $3 an hour laying rock up in Heintooga in the Smokies. “We built Cades Cove, Deep Creek, Greenbriar.”
He can still see his handiwork across the mountains and in Qualla. “I did the bank, the post office, the Teepee Restaurant, the Drama Motel.”
In 2013, the Tribal Council showed appreciation by naming Wolfe the tribe’s Beloved Man.
Barbara Duncan with the Museum of the Cherokee Indian researched the records and found that the tribe’s last Beloved Man, Little Turkey, had died in 1801.
Having lived through war, the Beloved Men and Women served as trusted advisers to the war and peace chiefs of the nation, Duncan said.
In 1783, the Beloved Woman, Kattuea of Chota, wrote a letter to Benjamin Franklin, enclosing some tobacco as a sign of peace. “I hope you can smoke this with your Beloved Men and Women,” she wrote.
The tribe has honored Beloved Women in recent years, conferring the title on Myrtle Driver and Ella Bird of the Snowbird community.
Bo Taylor hopes the tribe doesn’t wait another 200 years to name a Beloved Man, but adds “Jerry has set the bar high.”
Now the museum’s executive director, Taylor was the Big Cove representative on the council who nominated Wolfe for the honor.
Taylor pointed to Wolfe’s war record, his work in the church and for the Cherokee Lion’s Club, his long years as a mason and his championing of the Cherokee language and culture.
“We are a tribal nation and we have to live in a world interacting with a dominant culture,” Taylor said. “It’s important to remember we are a native people with unique traditions.”
Wolfe is proud of his culture and quick to show you that Bible he studies at the ticket counter. “We have the Old and New Testaments, written in our language. We’re the only tribe on the whole globe with our own written language. Think of that.”
And long ago, listening to his dad by the winter fire in Big Cove, and through the years telling stories to different audiences, Wolfe learned to move between two worlds, between two languages.
“You can tell a story in Cherokee language to a bunch of people and they all have a big laugh. I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s strange but if you tell in English, there’s no punchline,” Wolfe smiled.