Goingback Chiltoskey was born into a Cherokee-speaking family in the Piney Grove community of the Qualla Boundary. Given the name James at birth, he was renamed Goingback while still a young child. Like most children born at the start of the 20th century, Goingback's parents made many of the things they needed at home. He grew up watching his father carve wood implements used by his family. Even before he went to school, Goingback was making his own toys, assembling toy waterwheels from cornstalks and setting them up in the rushing water of nearby streams.
“I never had any store-bought toys, so I made things to play with. My dad made things that were needed around the house—spoons, handles for tools—most everything we had had to be made. I watched him make things; I guess I just grew up with it.” While still very young, Goingback learned how to use a pocketknife from his older brother Watty, ten years his senior. In 1917, at age ten, Chiltoskey was sent to the Cherokee Boarding School. There, children were not allowed to speak Cherokee, the only language that they knew. He recalled those first years at school, driving home a political point. “I had to learn the English language, which is the foreign language. It is not an American language.” Attending through ninth grade, Chiltoskey’s Cherokee Boarding School experience included a half day of academics and a half day of industrial training. Chiltoskey did carpentry and made repairs to the school. While he did learn some rudimentary skills in the classroom, woodcarving became the focus of his free time, spending Sunday afternoons in the forest surrounding the school where he carved small animals and walking sticks from native rhododendron. “That was actually how I got my start,” he said. “We had no tourists then, but I sold my carvings to teachers for twenty-five cents each. I was rich when I got that much. I’d hoed corn for fifty cents a day—ten hours. So when I got twenty-five cents for a carving, that spurred me on.”
In 1927, when Chiltoskey was twenty years old, he moved to Greenville, South Carolina to attend school. He had learned that the Parker District High School was known for its woodworking program and enrolled. “I heard that Parker was the best industrial school in the South,” he recalled. Living with a local family, he attended school there for the next two years, paying his room and board by making the family a mantelpiece and cedar chest. Besides woodworking, Chiltoskey learned other important skills that would serve him well in later life. He mastered mechanical drawing and learned to draft and read blueprints. In 1929, Chiltoskey went to the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas. His story is testimony to the fact that, in the 1930s, the Cherokee community remained self-sufficient and self-contained. “At the end of the school year, I came back and gave my mother fifty dollars. Then I stayed away from home for three years...When I came back, my mother still had some of that money.” Goingback continued his education, traveling to Sante Fe, New Mexico to learn silversmithing and jewelry making. After returning home in 1935, he taught woodworking at Cherokee High School and continued to attend summer school—including Oklahoma A&M, Purdue University, and the Art Institute of Chicago—where he studied carving, handicrafts, industrial arts, and sculpture.
In 1942, Chiltoskey left for work near Washington, DC. He was employed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Engineer Research and Development Laboratories at Fort Belvoir, where he made three-dimensional scale models from blueprints. Chiltoskey worked on a variety of war-related secret projects, creating terrain maps for invasions, scale models of strategic bombing targets, and a model of an atom. It was at Fort Belvoir that Chiltoskey gained experience working in fiberglass and plastic. With finely honed skills and a network of colleagues, Chiltoskey and five engineers formed a model-making company. Calling their company “Imagineering,” the group went to Hollywood where they made models for film and architecture companies. At the close of the war, Chiltoskey returned to the Qualla Boundary and began teaching woodcarving to returning GIs who attended school on the GI Bill. This work lasted as long as there was funding, but in 1953 Chiltoskey found himself out of work as the veterans program expired. To qualify for retirement, he returned to Fort Belvoir to complete more time in civil service.
During the 1940s, while Chiltoskey was living and working in Cherokee, he and his brother Watty were among several Cherokee craftsmen who met to form Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual. Known also as “G. B.,” he was one of fifty-nine charter members in the artisan cooperative. It was also during this period that Chiltoskey met Mary Ulmer, a teacher from Alabama who came to work at the Cherokee Boarding School. Married in 1956, the couple changed the spelling of their last name from “Chiltoskie” to “Chiltoskey,” noting they owned the “key” to each other’s hearts. Mary continued to teach in Cherokee while Goingback worked in DC, where she joined him during the summer months. In 1966, Chiltoskey retired and returned to the Boundary where he and Mary built a house on the banks of the Oconaluftee River. An avid blowgun competitor, Chiltoskey was four-time champion at the annual Cherokee Indian Fair.
In 1972, the Indian Arts and Crafts Board and Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual hosted an exhibit of Chiltoskey’s work, showing thirty-one pieces carved from native woods. His favorites were cherry, walnut, holly, apple, and buckeye. Showing realistic sculptures, the exhibit brochure noted his “trademark” being a smooth finish with a minimum of fine detail. “Sandpaper, steel wool, lacquer, wax and endless amounts of elbow grease are used to get the finished effect.” He was a lifetime member of the Southern Highland Craft Guild.
Excerpted from Cherokee Carvers: From the Hands of our Elders, 2013
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