When it came time to select a new interdisciplinary learning theme, Western Carolina University didn’t need to look far. The heritage and tradition of a proud people permeate the very ground upon which the university is built. Thus the selection of the 2017-18 theme of “Cherokee: Community. Culture. Connections.”
An interdisciplinary learning theme fosters campus conversations and connects students with collaborative opportunities for an integrated campuswide experience. For the past seven years, WCU has selected a learning theme for such reasons. This marks the first time that faculty, staff and students were able to vote on a topic. Of the six choices, “Cherokee” received nearly a third of the votes.
In announcing the selection, Carol Burton, associate provost for undergraduate studies, said the learning theme “will afford us an opportunity to really dig in and not just articulate better our relationship with the Cherokee, but build on it, enhance it and, more importantly, educate our students and faculty and staff about the Cherokee and this beautiful place where we are and its importance.”
The tribal and demographic context for the theme of “Cherokee” will be largely in keeping with WCU’s neighbors, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and the portion of their ancestral home that they still retain, the Qualla Boundary. During the Indian Removal of 1838, the Cherokee who owned lands largely in present-day Swain and Jackson counties as a collective – with the deeds held by a white “chief” – were not forced to leave their homes, while others evaded capture by hiding deep in the Great Smoky Mountains. Today, the Eastern Band is a federally recognized tribe, and the 57,000-acre Qualla Boundary and numerous land parcels in Cherokee and Graham counties is a sovereign nation, with its own government, judicial and law enforcement system, schools and more than 15,000 enrolled members.
“The Cherokee people have a very rich history in Western North Carolina, some of it right here on our very own campus, something that many folks are not aware of,” said Lisa Bloom, chair of the learning theme steering committee and the Jay M. Robinson Distinguished Professor of Educational Technologies. “Even more importantly, they have a thriving culture that contributes in so many ways to our lives in the region. My hope is that, through the campus theme, our students, faculty and staff will explore the rich culture and heritage of the Cherokee people, understand and appreciate their contributions both past and present, and make connections with the Cherokee community.”
The ties between WCU and the Eastern Band are indeed deep and historic. WCU’s Cherokee Studies Program, with both undergraduate and graduate degrees, is renowned for its curriculum in the culture, language, history, health and environment of Cherokee and indigenous issues. The Sequoyah Distinguished Professorship in Cherokee Studies, fully funded in 1998, is currently held by Brett Riggs, a research archeologist who has worked with the Eastern Band on projects since the 1990s. In 2016, the university signed a memorandum of agreement with the Eastern Band and two Oklahoma-based Cherokee tribes to continue its commitment to the academic study and promotion of Cherokee language, history and culture.
WCU also is a lead partner in the ongoing Cherokee Language Revitalization Project, an initiative to provide broader, more comprehensive training and learning opportunities. For example, Project Songbird, a collaboration with the Eastern Band’s Kituwah Preservation and Education Program, recorded original songs in the Cherokee language. Another example is the work with the New Kituwah Academy, a Cherokee immersion school, where Bo Lossiah ’05, curriculum, instruction and community supervisor, has been a leader in those efforts. Last year, the preservation and education program and WCU’s Cherokee Language Program worked with the WCU Print Shop to create card games for learning Cherokee pronouns, as well as a Cherokee language board game created by WCU graphic design students. The games were given to Hunter Library’s Special Collections and the New Kituwah Academy.