Many traditional musicians and artists from North Carolina have received a National Heritage Fellowship, a lifetime achievement award given to master traditional artists by the National Endowment for the Arts. Walker Calhoun (1918-2012) is one of them.
Walker Calhoun was a Cherokee musician, dancer, and teacher. During his lifetime, he was honored for his work with the inaugural Sequoyah Award (1988), a North Carolina Folk Heritage Award (1990) and a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (1992). In celebration of National Native American Heritage Month, we are proud to share a revised version of his biography that was written for the 1990 North Carolina Folk Heritage Award Ceremony. We are grateful for his service to this state and his people.
Walker Calhoun received the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award for teaching and preserving the traditional culture of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Born and raised in the Big Cove community on the Qualla Reservation, Mr. Calhoun kept alive ancient and endangered ceremonial arts and customs. In addition, he was a respected medicine man and spiritual leader, who was highly knowledgeable of Cherokee history, lore, religious practices and herbal healing.
Since the arrival of British and European colonists in North America, beginning five centuries ago, American Indian culture has been under constant assault. Many tribes were annihilated, while many others suffered the loss of their native language and traditions. The majority of Cherokee people who inhabited the southeastern part of the United States were removed from their homes in the mid-1830s and resettled in the Oklahoma Territory. The infamous forced march west because known as the “Trail of Tears.”
A few Cherokee families evaded the soldiers by hiding in remote hollows in the Great Smoky Mountains, such as Big Cove. But even after the Removal, religious missionaries worked to eradicate what little remained of ceremonial practices, which they considered to be pagan in nature. Ritual dance and song traditions declined so rapidly in the nineteenth century that only remnants of the principal ceremonies of the Cherokee survived in outlying sections of the reservation in western North Carolina.
The preservation of elements of traditional Cherokee culture today are owed to the efforts of a few individuals such as Mr. Calhoun and Mr. Will West Long, who served as Mr. Calhoun’s mentor and teacher. Mr. Long has been credited with the rescue of much of what remains of traditional practices indigenous to Big Cove.
Following Mr. Long’s death in 1947, Mr. Calhoun and several of his relatives began to teach ceremonial dances and medicine songs to the younger generations. He also organized a dance group named the Raven Rock Dancers, which continues to perform at pow-wows and special events. At an historic gathering of the Eastern and Oklahoma Cherokee Indians, which took place for the first time in 1984, Mr. Calhoun was called upon to lead an important ceremonial dance. At a subsequent gathering of the Cherokee nation, he was honored with the first Sequoyah Award.
Mr. Calhoun visited Oklahoma as often as possible to share traditional songs and dances with his kindred to the west. He in turn was visited at Big Cove by a group of Oklahoma Cherokee, who worked to help him revive the ancient Stomp Dance tradition of North Carolina.