Before Harrah’s Cherokee Casino arrived on the Qualla Boundary, home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, in 1997, the area’s tourism was largely limited to restaurants — many with cartoonish facades, such as faux-tepee roofs — and trinket shops carrying inexpensive, and often inauthentic, tchotchkes.
“I think those offerings gave tourists what we thought they wanted, based on their limited understanding of our culture,” says tribal member and jewelry artist Alica Murphy Wildcatt.
But starting in the early 2000s, a Cherokee cultural revitalization began, with more authentic art and craft being produced, and efforts made to preserve the nearly extinct Cherokee language, from school curricula to prominent public signage.
“I believe the Eastern Band is experiencing a renaissance of sorts,” says Wildcatt. “We’re working to remove the stereotypical representations of our culture and put forward our language, art, and culture, to say, ‘This is us — we are still here.’”
Wildcatt drew from an early age, and later took as many high-school art classes as she could. Working at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian as a teen further fueled her creative journey, as she discovered favorite Cherokee artists, including Oklahomans Donald Vann and Diana Beach-Stamper.
“I tried working with beads on ear wire and head pins then, and sold those there for a couple years,” she shares. College and motherhood followed, and, as so often happens, Wildcatt’s artistic pursuits were back-burnered for almost 30 years, until her children were grown — her son Corbin graduates this spring from UNCA; daughter Delaney is a sophomore at Seattle University — and she found herself searching for What To Do Next.
A couple years ago, her family’s Christmas gift to her was a jewelry-making class at Haywood Community College, renowned for its professional-craft programs; there, she mastered cutting and soldering. Wildcatt kept taking classes with teacher/mentor Greta Lutman, and learned jewelry fabrication, metal enameling, and more. Eventually, she invested in a home studio, and Greybeard Metalsmithing — an homage to her great-grandmother Polly’s maiden name — was born.
Wildcatt’s designs include contemporary, organically inspired shapes such as paperclip chains and elegantly attenuated silver drop earrings, but a visit to her online studio reveals her mission to honor Cherokee symbols and language. Her favorite pieces to make now are customized Cherokee syllabary (alphabet) name necklaces. She’s crafted more than 200, “mostly for tribal members in this area and in Oklahoma.”
Wildcatt vocalizes the hand-sawn sterling characters, mantra-like, as she’s crafting. “This is how I keep our language alive, since we only have 200 fluent speakers in our community,” she says. “We make up just 1.6 percent of the country’s population. Sometimes our voices aren’t loud enough. I hope my work amplifies our collective voice.” The artist also crafts necklaces adorned with symbols of the seven clans. “The Cherokee was a matriarchal society,” explains Wildcatt. “Your clan was passed on through your mother, and each is known for different gifts. For example, the Bird Clan members were known as messengers.”
Her activism extended to designing a pendant necklace meant to raise awareness of the plight of missing and murdered indigenous women. Encouraged by her daughter, the artist donates 100 percent of these pieces’ proceeds to MMIWUSA.org, the organization at the cause’s forefront.
Wildcatt’s work is her therapy — “I’m happiest at the bench” — and she encourages other women to listen to their creative spirits, whenever they manifest. “I started doing this at almost 47. If you’re interested in something, pursue it. You never know what doors it will open.”
Alica Murphy Wildcatt, Greybeard Metalsmithing, Cherokee. Wildcatt’s jewelry is sold through the Qualla Arts and Crafts Cooperative Gallery (645 Tsali Blvd., Cherokee, quallaartsandcrafts.com); the Native American Craft Shop (1847 Tsali Blvd., Cherokee, nativeamericancraftshop.com); Indigenous Boutique & Spa (1655 Acquoni Road Suite 4, Cherokee, indigenousboutiquespa.com); and via the group Authentically Cherokee (authenticallycherokee.com). Find Greybeard Metalsmithing on Facebook and on Instagram: @greybeard_metalsmithing. For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.