Art is a term foreign in the Cherokee language and many other native languages because art does not exist in the Cherokee life view. However, the expression of creativity has long held deep significance and has transcended the mere construction of an art object.
The creativity expressed through cultural material in native communities does not reflect a single belief or story or tradition but is the embodiment of native philosophies in the design and use of a particular object.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee believes that art and its production is central to the continuation of our life way to another level. They have recently articulated this belief by collaborating with Southwestern Community College and Western Carolina University to create the Oconaluftee Institute for Cultural Art (OICA).
The new institute puts into practice applied theory, practical application and native sensibility to define art for a new century. The idea is not a new one. The OICA is roughly modeled after the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, N.M. The IAIA was developed as an alternative school for problematic native youths.
The congressionally chartered IAIA became a premier institution for the rise of contemporary native expression despite its original intent. The unforeseen impact on the local community was even greater. Santa Fe has become known as the art town of the Southwest.
The new art school is part of a long-held belief among tribal members that to survive we must be educated. Years before casino profits, our tribal leaders were making decisions to provide educational assistance as a priority over roads and housing. Those leaders had the foresight to understand that the education of our youths was an investment that was not optional, and we also were instilling that belief in those children.
The future of the art institute is also very much an economic prospect. If the Oconaluftee Institute for Cultural Arts has a performance record similar to that of the Institute of American Indian Arts, can we become recognized as a leader in contemporary art?
Our very existence is through collaboration with our neighbors and friends. By reaching out further to our close contemporaries at the Penland School of Art and the John C. Campbell Folk School, we can grow an art community that encompasses rather than alienates many differing art traditions.
If our best artists blaze the trail through diversity and comprehensive design in line with our concept of creativity, we can expect the continuation of our life way for centuries to come.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
B. Lynne Harlan is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and is the public relations coordinator for the Eastern Band of Cherokee. Harlan currently lives in the Big Y community in Cherokee and can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].