Cherokee Traditions: From the Hands of our Elders
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People: Amanda Swimmer

Amanda Sequoyah Swimmer (born 1921) learned a lot of what she knows about pottery-making through trial and error. While she did not have the benefit of being raised in an extended pottery family, she did learn some of her skills while working at the Oconaluftee Indian Village. Most of her skills, however, were learned through trial and error. She experimented with clay construction and firing and developed a method of using different woods to achieve color variation on finished pottery pieces. In 1994, Swimmer received a North Carolina Heritage Award, the state’s highest honor for those who carry on cultural traditions. In 2002, she was instrumental in the formation of the Cherokee Potters Guild. In 2005, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of North Carolina–Asheville.

Amanda Sequoyah was the youngest child born to Molly Davis Sequoyah and Running Wolf Sequoyah. The family lived in a log house in the Straight Fork community of Big Cove, a remote section of the Qualla Boundary. Although Big Cove is known for its craft traditions, Sequoyah family activities were centered on farming and providing for a dozen children. The family raised all of its own food, including corn, cane, and some tobacco.1

Married to Luke Swimmer and raising nine children, day-to-day life was a physical challenge. Amanda Swimmer recalled:

Me and my husband had to leave [Big Cove] by 8 o’clock to go to Cherokee to get some groceries. This road wasn’t nothing but a railroad track, and the train did not run on this track. We just walked…[and] we’d get to Cherokee by 11 o’clock in the morning. [On the way back] we had to get a taxi; just one taxi was running down Cherokee. He had to bring us there through the ford…cross the river, and go across that mountain there [as far as he could go]…we had to carry our groceries up here to the house—about a mile and a half, two miles.2

She recalled her first experiments with clay:

After I got married, I decided to hunt that clay right above where I lived. I made some small bowls and I told my husband, I said, “Let me try to burn them. Just make a hole right there in the yard.” We just piled wood in there and burned my pottery. And that came out pretty good. And I just kept on playing with that wood, off and on.3

Incising pottery
Incising pottery
Coiling pottery
Coiling pottery

Swimmer explained how she used different woods to achieve a variety of colors on her pots.

I use poplar, dried poplar mostly, and maple. Then if I want to make a light color, I just use hardwood. That’s oak and locust. If you use locust, it give you an orange color. Hardwood uses more flame and less smoke, and the soft wood makes more smoke than flame.

Her understanding of the mechanics of firing helped her achieve her personal aesthetic goals.4

Swimmer began to work at the Oconaluftee Indian Village. That first summer that she was employed there, she demonstrated finger weaving but soon moved to pottery. She learned mostly by observation, having “sat with the women that knew how to make pottery. I just learned more from that.” At the village, she became acquainted with the best of Cherokee’s potters, including Cora Wahnetah, who had helped establish the interpretive methods at the village. Swimmer worked as a demonstrator for approximately thirty-five years. Her son married Mabel Bigmeat, another village demonstrator.5

Swimmer received accolades from a variety of sources. Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual honored her with an exhibition of her work in the early 1980s. In 1994, she received the state’s highest honor, naming her a recipient of a North Carolina Heritage Award. In 2005, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of North Carolina–Asheville. What is most remarkable about Swimmer is that, even at age eighty-one, she expressed enthusiasm for her craft. She enjoys working with young children, teaching them to work with clay. She is careful to fire their pottery so that none of their pieces break. “Whenever they get kids that want to make pottery, they call me…They really want to learn. They can make some things I can’t make!” she exclaimed.5

M. Anna Fariello, 2009
Biography excerpted from Cherokee Pottery: From the Hands of our Elders
Published by The History Press, 2011

See More by Amanda Swimmer

1. Collins, Kaye Carver, and Angie Cheek, eds. Foxfire 12 (New York: Anchor Books, 2004) 399.
2. Collins and Cheek, Foxfire, 404–05.
3. “Amanda Swimmer,” North Carolina Folklore Journal 44 (1997), 95.
4. Juanita Hughes. Wind Spirit: An Exhibition of Cherokee Arts and Crafts (Cherokee, NC: Museum of the Cherokee Indian and Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, 1982), 27.
5. Collins and Cheek, Foxfire 12, 407–08.
6. Collins and Cheek, Foxfire 12, 407–08.

Cherokee Traditions:
A project of Hunter Library Digital Initiatives at Western Carolina University
Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual
Museum of the Cherokee Indian

With support from:
Cherokee Preservation Foundation logo Blue Ridge National Heritage Area logo