Oral History of the Cherokee
Walker CalhounWalker Calhoun

The stories that members of a tribe or a culture pass on to the next generation can hold that group together.

Stories can reinforce the group's shared belief system of the tribe's origins. Stories can personalize history by relating how it felt to live through historical and recent events. And stories can provide surprisingly accurate records of events that occurred before any written histories were available.

For instance, archaeological evidence shows that people were living in the southern Appalachian mountains at least 11,000 years ago. This was the end of the last Ice Age, the climate was colder than it is now, and the ancestors of the Eastern Band Cherokee would have encountered mastodons and other now-extinct species. The oral histories of the Cherokee still tell of those times. Cherokee elder Jerry Wolfe says, "My dad always said that when the Cherokees came into this country, into these mountains, that it was dangerous. It was a dangerous place because of all the monsters that lived here."

Hear some of the stories from the Cherokee oral tradition and three song verses that Walker sings from the Trail of Tears.

Click here to watch a video clip

Anthropologists have recognized the power of oral history for at least the last 150 years. In 1887, a young Irish ethnologist, James Mooney, began writing down many of the Cherokee stories, songs and medicinal plant formulas. Oral history became part of the "official" -- that is, written -- historical record. Mooney talked with the elders of the time -- men like Ross Swimmer, Ayasta, Suyeta, John Ax, William Holland Thomas and Will West Long.

Today, Will West Long's nephew Walker Calhoun is one of most respected and recognized authorities on Cherokee songs and oral history. Walker is featured in Spiral of Fire.

Walker grew up speaking only Cherokee in the Big Cove community on the Qualla Boundary, where he still lives. There was not much money in his household, but his uncle was a respected medicine man, singer and storyteller. Walker learned the ancient songs and stories from Will West Long, who had learned from Swimmer, who had learned from his elders. By the time he was nine, Walker Calhoun knew all of the songs his uncle taught him.

When Walker was 12, he went to boarding school in Cherokee, NC, and learned English. He served in the military during World War II in Europe.

In 1947, Will West Long passed away, and Walker began to pass on the traditions he had learned to his children and other students. He formed the Raven Rock Dancers with other members of his family. In 1988 -- during celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of the Trail of Tears -- Walker was honored at a gathering of the Eastern and Western Bands of the Cherokee and was asked to bring the sacred fire back from the Oklahoma Western Band to North Carolina.

He has received many awards including the National Folk Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1992. He also served as a consultant for the new National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.

Walker is one of the few living links to the ancient oral history of the Cherokee.