For the past 65 years, the Western North Carolina Historical Association (WNCHA) has awarded the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award to authors of printed works that focus special attention on Western North Carolina. The Association is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to preserve and promote the history and legacy of Western North Carolina.
Candidates come through different sources.
“Nominees apply through the WNCHA website. However, the (nominating) committee also makes note of publications from authors from WNC or about WNC throughout the year and invites nominations from authors and publishers,” said Anne Chesky Smith, executive director of the WNCHA. She further commented that “we usually have between 20 and 30 nominees. This was a banner year for excellent publications about Western North Carolina.”
In fact, there were over 40 nominees for the 2020 Award. The winner, “Eastern Cherokee Stories” by Dr. Sandra Muse Isaacs clearly meets the criteria of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award.
The book “helps the reader see the oral tradition of the Eastern Cherokee as both an ancient and contemporary means of expressing culture and identity. She allows us to see the ways in which stories continue to have the power to educate and motivate a people rooted in a deep respect and understanding of all living things,” said Catherine Frank, chairwoman of the selection committee.
Isaacs comes to the study of the Eastern Cherokee culture naturally. Both her heritage and her education uniquely qualify her in this field. She is of Eastern Cherokee (Ani-tsisqua, Bird Clan) and Gaelic heritage (Clan MacRae), a professor of Indigenous Literature and a President’s Indigenous Peoples Scholar at the University of Windsor in Canada.
Isaacs holds a Ph.D. from McMaster University in English and Cultural Studies, and was the first recipient of the Harvey Longboat Graduate Scholarship for First Nations, Inuit and Metis students. In addition, she received that honor three more times while living in Cherokee, North Carolina, conducting her research.
One of the challenges of the book was putting the stories in context for the Eurowestern culture reader, Isaacs explained.
“These aren’t legends or myths, words which have such a fictional or magical connotation. They’re not concocted out of someone’s imagination and brought to life in the telling. These aren’t fairy tales that are told to children. These stories are indeed truths and realities for the Tsalagi people,” Isaacs said.
In other words, they are not Aesops fables or embellished legends such as the midnight ride of Paul Revere. This book is not a collection of stories, but rather an examination of some of the best-known teachings that make up the foundation of this indigenous culture and society.
As Cherokee writer Thomas King said, “The truth about stories is, that’s all we are.”
“This project came about because I’ve long been fascinated by the power and vitality of spoken word stories,” Isaacs said. “As listeners, we embody them ... they stay in our memory much longer than stories we have read. Many of us have childhood experiences of listening to someone telling us bedtime stories, which are so vastly different than reading them. Sitting and hearing a story is comforting and nurturing for the spirit.”
There are a number of unique characteristics of Cherokee stories. For one, the storytellers don’t tell you how to interpret a story or explicitly tell you what it means. That is for the listener to decide. In addition, there are no real conclusions to Cherokee stories. Sometimes, when one story ends, another begins.
Finally, Isaacs concluded, “In these times of a pandemic and climate change, ancient Cherokee stories are even more important and are a tool to correct and repair these dangers to the Earth and all existing beings who live upon her. Indeed, all Indigenous stories are valuable for learning how to once again live in a respectful and reciprocal manner with the rest of Creation. As humans, we’ve lost the close connection with our eco-systems around us. Humans continue to take and take and take with little care to the death and destruction our actions wreak upon Earth who sustains us. If you listen to and read stories from any indigenous nation across Turtle Island, and truly absorb the teachings …. you will learn what we all have to do. Live in harmony and balance, like our ancestors did because all peoples of the world, no matter your ethnicity, came from tribal societies.”
Isaacs has committed to donating all of her proceeds from the sale of the book to the Snowbird and Qualla public libraries.