By Emma Castleberry
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has a rich history of copper craft. Traditionally, artisans hammered nuggets of copper into thin sheets, then used stones to emboss images onto the sheets. Only fragments of these remarkable works remain.
Traditional crafts—basketry, pottery, carving, beading, and weaving—have been the mainstay of the Oconaluftee Indian Village since its opening in the 1950s, but metalwork was not originally included in the repertoire. In 2013, a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services funded a project at the Oconaluftee Village to revitalize metalworking on the Qualla Boundary. William Rogers, a master metalworker, started teaching classes to Eastern Band artisans in the village. “I am teaching and creating with metal and technology that existed in this continent as early as 3000 BC,” says Rogers. “Teaching, learning and getting hands-on experience with a material provides a connection and continuity with our past and our elders. Understanding the past helps us make better choices tomorrow.”
Two of Rogers’ students in the village, Nathan Bush and JR Wolfe, showed great promise in the medium and after many years of practice were accepted into the Qualla Arts and Crafts co-op. Rogers, Bush and Wolfe have worked together on a few projects in recent years, including an Eternal Flame sculpture in the Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center and a sculpture of Grandfather Buzzard for the new wing of the Cherokee Hospital.
In 2020, the team of artists was awarded the North Carolina Arts Council Apprenticeship Grant, which allows for master artist Rogers to work for a year as a mentor to his apprentices, Bush and Wolfe. “Everything Rogers teaches us is like magic,” says Wolfe. “It is unbelievable some of the stuff you can do with metal.” Wolfe is from Big Cove and has mastered several media as an artist, including pottery, basketry, carving and now metalworking. He is best known for his figurative sculptures complete with miniature weapons. “I’m proud of how far I’ve come,” he says. “It gives me a lot of pride and a sense of self-worth to be connected to my Cherokee culture in this way.”
Bush says there is meaningful significance to the revitalization of the hammered copper craft, which was a part of Cherokee culture long before European arrival. “When Hernando de Soto came through, he saw that all the Cherokee were wearing copper,” says Bush. “When I started working at the village more than five years ago, no one working here wore copper. In recent years, all the workers now wear something in copper. And tourists see this and know that the Cherokee and other tribes worked in metal before European contact.”
Sharing his craft with these talented artisans has been incredibly rewarding for Rogers. “The apprentices surprise themselves with their own creations,” he says. “They have helped me understand more about the relationship between metal and Cherokee culture, and how imagery tells Cherokee stories.”
The NCAC grant is providing the trio with time to work together and hone their blacksmithing skills. “Rogers is a national treasure for the Cherokee people,” says Bush. “He took a dying traditional craft and made it come alive again. And for that, JR Wolfe and I are very grateful.”