Living on Culture

By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer, Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015

They’ve spent over 50 years of marriage, art and living cultural practices of the Cherokee people in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains in western North Carolina. This is where Butch and Louise Goings (Eastern Band of Cherokee) connect with everything and stay balanced in life. It’s what they teach. It’s the way they live.

When Louise was growing up, she watched her mother weave baskets and snip off bits of white oak. In the room scented with walnut and bloodroot dyes and white oak splits, Louise picked up the bits and was mindful where she stepped. If she cracked one of her mother’s white oak splits, she got a scolding.

Bit by bit, Louise wove little bread baskets. Her mother stressed that when she grew up and married, it would be her place to make baskets to help pay the bills. That would be her job.

But that was a long way off. Louise bought sodas and candies with the money she earned in those early years.

Louise’s bread baskets sold along with her mother’s to the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual Inc. (known as “the co-op”). They must have thought the bread baskets were her mother’s, which was quite a compliment. Louise’s mother was selected by the National Art Council to travel abroad and demonstrate her basket making.

Her mother taught Louise and her seven siblings the Cherokee ways. She took them into the woods and showed them how to harvest materials they needed to make baskets. Her mother always emphasized that if they found a straight white oak with no blemishes, cut it down, made splints, gathered the dye plants, dyed the splints, and wove the basket, they were basket makers. If they used splints someone else made, they were basket weavers. Louise is a basket maker.

And she did marry. Butch and Louise have shared love and laughter for 52 years.

Butch is a carver. He started in high school, and carves figurines in buckeye, cherry, butternut, holly and black walnut wood. Later, he added stone carving. He studies a stone for awhile, and eventually sees the shape of an animal, object or person, and he knows what that stone will be.

Butch joined the co-op in 1960. Through the years, he’s volunteered on the board of directors, serving 14 years as president. The artists go through a rigorous process to become members. The co-op now has over 300 Cherokee artists, and Butch still encourages others through the membership process.

He learned about the needs of Cherokee basket makers from Louise’s mother. He helps them gather materials from their original homeland to weave with.

Her whole life, Tonya Carroll has seen Butch and Louise make her community a better place, and she wanted to give back to them. Nothing measured up except nominating them for the First Peoples Fund Community Spirit Award. When Tonya thinks of people who keep their community spirit alive, Butch and Louise are the ones that come to mind.

At stomp dances, Louise is cook, shell shaker, and Wild Potato clan mother. Butch keeps the grounds clean and ready for the next stomp. They donate art for local fundraisers. They teach at the schools and for the Cultural Summer Sessions. In these things, they help their people heal.

Too often, Butch and Louise see a focus on the tragic aspects of their history, but those represent only a small part. When the children ask about past injustices, prejudices and pains, Butch and Louise teach the positive that has come from their Cherokee roots. The Cherokee people are strong, intelligent and resilient.

This is what they passed on to their son and grandchildren, who are now weavers, carvers and weapon makers. Butch and Louise themselves continue to learn more about the artwork, history, culture and language. They believe you never stop learning and everyone is a teacher.

They ask nothing in return. They are happy just knowing their culture will live on.

Butch and Louise Goings are 2016 Community Spirit Award Honorees. Join us in celebrating Butch and Louise and the other honorees on October 8, 2016.