RTCAR: Revitalizing Cherokee artisan resources for more than a decade

basket weaving

During the assimilation era, Cherokee people were forbidden to display any items with cultural context in federal buildings located on the Qualla Boundary. This was also an attempt to eradicate Cherokee worldviews by enforcing mandated Federal assimilation policies.

Noting artwork at the CPF offices, traditional Cherokee leader Jerry Wolfe stated, “We would be punished if we hung up anything cultural in buildings when I was younger”. However, the Federal assimilation policies were unsuccessful because of the enduring nature and spiritual components that are intrinsic to Cherokee craftwork.

Printmaking with Jeff Marley

Seeking to support Cherokee artisan’s efforts to continue cultural craft making, the CPF helped the community create a program known as the Revitalization of Traditional Cherokee Artisan Resources (RTCAR). RTCAR is a grantmaking program that helps the EBCI restore the traditional Cherokee balance between maintaining and using natural resources like rivercane, white oak, and clay. RTCAR is focused on basket making materials and associated dye plants, clay for potters, and materials for carvers.

When David Cozzo, PhD, Foundation programmer and Director of RTCAR first began working with the Foundation, several double weave basket makers were creating these complex baskets.

The Foundation quickly realized that as more and more artists took up basketry, natural resources would be stretched thin. In addition, development, agriculture and tourism—all modern-day necessities—were taking their toll on the environment. As a result, shortages in quality river cane, and a serious blight impacting butternut, a dye plant for baskets, threatened the traditional way of life.

“At first the Foundation funded projects with Qualla Arts & Crafts, teaching people to create traditional art,” said David. “But over the years it’s expanded to include finding and preserving cultural resources like river cane and land care.”

Today, with the assistance of grants from RTCAR, 20+ artists have been trained to create these beautiful baskets.

Originally located at Western Carolina University in the Cherokee Studies Program, RTCAR is now part of the NC State University Cooperative Extension Service. Being a part of the extension service gives the program more visibility.

2017 Summer Arts Camp group

“To find and preserve these natural resources we must go further afield. We work with universities such as UT, NC State, and WCU,” said David. “We also work with local schools, focusing on awareness, education, and cultural appreciation.”

Although he works in the extension service, David is a programmer for the Foundation. He processes grants and requests funding from the Foundation Board.

“Any grant requested through RTCAR must have a positive impact on the EBCI,” he said. “Potential grantees need to do their homework, and it’s quite helpful if they can show us at least a 50 percent potential match, because that shows that the Foundation’s money is being leveraged.”

RTCAR projects sometimes take several years to fully realize outcomes, so two or more grants are not uncommon. Last summer Swain County Arts Center received a grant from RTCAR to conduct a traditional Cherokee arts camp. More than two dozen children in grades 3-5 participated; 60 percent of the children were Cherokee.

The Summer Arts Camp was a huge success, and the Arts Center has applied for another grant to conduct a weeklong camp this coming summer.

“Our summer camp was so much fun, and everyone learned many things about the rich culture of the Cherokee people,” said Rachel Lackey, Director, Swain County Arts Center. “Our students enjoyed learning native dances, some language, including their own Cherokee names, making baskets, and learning printmaking. On the last night we all enjoyed a traditional meal prepared by the Native American Indian Women Association. We hope this can become an annual event.”

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