By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
Jerry Wolfe, the first Beloved Man of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in over 200 years, passed away on Monday, March 12 at the age of 93. A fluent speaker and traditionalist, he was always willing to share his knowledge of the Cherokee culture.
A proud veteran of the U.S. Navy, Wolfe served in World War II and was part of the famous Normandy Invasion on June 6, 1944.
“Father was always generous of himself and his time,” said Gerri Grady, Wolfe’s daughter. “He was happy to be useful to the community in any way he could: teaching about stickball, storytelling, visiting schools, and offering prayers and smoke. He was most passionate about the continuation of the Cherokee language and the culture and his wish would be a continued commitment to ensure that our Cherokee children learn the language.”
Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed commented on Wolfe’s passing, “It is with profound sadness that our Tribe acknowledges the passing of Mr. Jerry Wolfe. Mr. Wolfe was named a Beloved Man of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians after living a long life of service. Mr. Wolfe and his family gave their home so the United States could construct the Blue Ridge Parkway. He served in the United States Navy during World War II, he worked in our community as a stone mason, and he served as the Master of Ceremonies for our annual stickball games during the Cherokee Indian Fair where he told stories of our cultural traditions while providing commentary on the action.”
The statement continued, “He was a storyteller and later, into his eighties, he volunteered to rebuild homes in Haiti. Beyond all his public service, he and his late wife, Juanita, raised a family and built a home and served faithfully in the church. For me, he was a friend and fellow veteran who was always quick with a smile and laugh, generous with his knowledge of our people and encouraging to me. Our people have lost a connection to our traditions and the country has lost another of the greatest generation but I have lost a friend. Please join me in remembering the Wolfe family during this time.”
In 2013, Wolfe received the designation of EBCI Beloved Man. Prior to him, the last recorded instance of a Beloved Man was Little Turkey who died in 1801.
During the Tribal Council session on April 11, 2013 when Wolfe was named a Beloved Man, Myrtle Driver, EBCI Beloved Woman and fluent speaker, spoke of his importance to the language and culture of the Tribe. “Oftentimes, we may come across a word that we don’t remember or we need to know something about our history or our culture, and we can always go to Jerry, and he is always more than willing to help us. And, I really do appreciate all that Jerry Wolfe has given us.”
Wolfe was a noted storyteller and cultural ambassador, and for nearly the past 20 years he has been the official greeter at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian where he greeted visitors, told stories, demonstrated crafts including making stickball sticks, and even sang Cherokee lullabies to babies.
The Museum of the Cherokee Indian is hosting an event on Tuesday, March 20 at 5pm, on World Storytelling Day, dedicated to Wolfe’s storytelling legacy.
The Museum released the following statement on Wolfe’s passing, “The impact Jerry Wolfe has made on our organization and the Eastern Band is immeasurable. During his decades of service here at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, he shared stories, cultural knowledge, and genuine hospitality to tens of thousands of visitors to the Qualla Boundary. His contributions to the EBCI community through his work with Big Cove Stickball will have a resonating impact on the Big Cove community and the Tribe as a whole for generations to come. For all of us who had the privilege to hear his engaging stories and experience his friendship and laughter, we are all better people for it. He was a warrior, a friend, a family man, and truly one-of-a-kind. We will always love you Jerry, and all you did for each and every one of us.”
Over the years, Wolfe received many prestigious awards and served on many boards including receiving the Patriot Award from the Civilian Marksmanship Program in 2013 and the being inducted into The Order of the Long Leafe Pine Society, one of the highest awards given in the State of North Carolina, in 2017. He received the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award in 2003 for his work in preserving stickball.
Western Carolina University honored Wolfe in May 2017 with an honorary doctorate of humane letters degree. When he was given the degree, then-WCU chancellor David O. Belcher read a citation stating, “…you have served with exemplary distinction and dedication throughout your life as a member of your community and as a conservator and icon of Cherokee language and culture. You have been a tradition-bearer for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, preserving and teaching the Cherokee language, stickball traditions, knowledge of plants and traditional medicine, myth and legends, and oral history.”
Wolfe was called on many times to open meetings with a prayer or give words of encouragement at events. At the historic Tri-Council meeting in August 2015 at Red Clay State Park in Red Clay, Tenn., he gave an impassioned talk about the importance of the Cherokee language. “Our true identity is our language. We must save our language and teach the youth coming along. When a child is learning to speak, never make fun of them.”