Cherokee Bear Project highlights local artists

By Scott Brings Plenty
Special to News From Indian Country 1-09

"Legendary Sunrise” Bear by Helen Smoker Martin
Make sure to watch for bears as you drive through the reservation town of Cherokee, North Carolina, home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. But, don’t be afraid, these bears don’t bite or attack, but they will enthrall you with their beauty.

The Cherokee Bear Project, started several years ago, has involved many local artists – all of which are enrolled members of the tribe. Each artist designed their own bear and contains their own interpretation of Cherokee culture and traditions.

Michell Hicks, Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, commented, “I am proud of the efforts undertaken by the EBCI Economic Development Office, and by the success they have had in working with this bear project. Cherokee is working to increase family friendly activities and attractions, so parents will see Cherokee as more of a family destination where they can spend a few days.”

“Bear Chief” by Billie Jo Rich

He continued, “While this is only one of many attractions being implemented in Cherokee, I think this Bear project gives us the opportunity to display our amazing artistic talent and teaches our visitors a little bit about our Cherokee history and culture.”

The “Children’s Mixed Bear” sits in front of the Cherokee Youth Center – Boys and Girls Club of America and was painted by the children at the Center.                

We were very pleased our children were included in the Bear Project,” said Denise Ballard, who recently retired as the Center’s manager. “Since we serve over 300 children in three Clubs, we had them present sketches of what they wanted to include in the paintings on the Bear. It was difficult for our members from the Snowbird Club (close to 50 miles away from Cherokee) to come up and paint because of time and distance so we wanted to be sure to include their ideas. That is where we got our name because it was a mixture of lots of ideas from lots of children.”

She continued, “We are all very proud of our Bear and think our children did a fantastic job!”

Helen Smoker Martin painted the “Legendary Sunrise” bear.

 “Cherokee Sunset” Bear by Joel Queen

“The bear that I painted represents the reawakening of cultural traditions. The Eastern Band is in a state of cultural renewal and we are seeking to strengthen tribal traditions that have lain dormant for too long. It is a good thing to see and be a part of and to be able to raise my daughter in that environment.”

Martin continued, “My father, the late Albert Martin, Sr., would have been so pleased to see this move. He was a very traditional man who left a strong legacy of service to his people. That is why I dedicated this bear to him.

“I have incorporated many design elements into my bear including: the Cherokee gorget designs, the spider, an adaptation of the ‘Road to Soco’ design by Roxanne Stamper, the ‘clan constellations’ in the sky, and mountain designs that were prominent in tear dress and ribbon shirt designs. They all tell of this reawakening, and it was an honor to be a part of this project, and I hope I have brought honor to my tribe with my artistic expression.”

The bears currently on display include: “Eagle Dance Bear” by Lora Powell; “Harmony of Life” by Nikki

 “Sequoyah Syllabeary” by Charles Saunooke

Nations; “Forefathers” by Tim Chiltoskie; “Cherokee Sunset” by Joel Queen; “Pottery Bear” by Melissa Maney; “Legendary Sunrise” by Helen Smoker Martin; “Patriot Bear” by William Harris Jr.; “Out of Hiber-Nation” by Kristy Maney; “Bear on the Little Tennessee” by Jenean Hornbuckle; “Children’s Mixed Bear” by Cherokee Youth Center children; “Sequoyah Syllabeary” by Charles Saunooke; “Fair Bear” by Marina Robins; “Fish Bear” by Faren Sanders Crews; “Trail of Tears & 7 Clans” by Mario Esquivel; “Winter Bear” by Jenean Hornbuckle; “Bear Chief” by Billie Jo Rich and “Legends Bear” by Henrietta Lambert.