Taylor made sure to show the large, sunlit classroom where Cherokee people can learn how to make the mats and pottery their ancestors created, and when walking down a hallway hung with framed photos of past Cherokee chiefs, Taylor introduced each one, as though they were a long receiving line of hosts at a party and we their fortunate guests.
“I’ve been tied to the museum in some form or fashion since college,” Taylor explained. “I have an affinity, a love for this place. The culture saved me.”
Saved by the culture
Born and raised in Cherokee, a college graduate with a major in anthropology and a minor in Cherokee history, a founding member of the Warriors of AniKituhwah Cherokee dance group and now director of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian at age 44, Taylor by all appearances seems to have had a pretty straight path through life. But that’s not really the case.
He grew up amid poverty, was raised by a single mother and lived in a family affected by alcoholism. Those experiences didn’t spur pride for his culture.
“I’ve been looked down upon. I’ve felt racism,” Taylor said. “I tried real hard not to be an Indian. I kept my hair short, stayed out of the sun. I did everything not to be an Indian.”
After graduating high school, Taylor enrolled at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk as a biology student. But he was floundering, unsure of what he wanted in life. An encounter with a campus bully shook him awake.
“He said, ‘Hey Mex, how ya’ doing?’” Taylor recalled. “I said, ‘I ain’t no Mexican. I’m an Indian.”
Taylor has plenty of friends who are Mexican, and a respect for their culture. But this was the first time that Taylor had stood up and proudly declared himself Cherokee. The experience sparked a fire within him.
“I use that term ‘fire’ because fire in our culture is representative of so many things,” Taylor said. “It’s essentially the fire in our soul. It made me want to know who I am, what that means.”
“That guy, right now if I saw him today, I’d say thank you,” he said.
The incident caused Taylor to start to finding his purpose. He’d done Indian dancing as a boy, so he went back to that and started powwow dancing. He began hanging out with men he calls “the real heavyweights in our culture,” learning from the likes of Robert Bushyhead, an expert in language preservation, Jerry Wolf, the only person to have been recognized as a “beloved man” of the tribe since the early 1800s and Walker Calhoun, the man who, until his death two years ago, taught Taylor the songs, dances and stories of his culture.
“He was my best friend,” Taylor said.
Taylor also began volunteering at the museum when home on breaks, and as he floundered from biology to business to who knows what else during what would become a seven-year bachelor’s degree, he had another pivotal conversation. This time it happened at the museum.
“I talked with one lady one time and said, ‘I don’t know what I want to do with my life,’” Taylor said. “I was kind of spinning my wheels.”
She asked him what it was he actually liked to do. The only thing he could think of were topics related to his Cherokee culture, so she asked him why he didn’t try to get a job like that. Taylor then got himself into a history and culture program at college and soon began earning As and Bs.
“That sparked me,” he said. “I wasn’t an underachiever anymore.”
He transferred to Western Carolina University and graduated in 1994. Since then, Taylor has spent two years on tribal council, worked for 12 years as archivist and Cherokee language instructor for the museum, been a leadership training consultant and community action coordinator and worked in various capacities for Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort. He’s traveled the world as an ambassador of his culture, visiting places as diverse as Germany, New Zealand and Costa Rica.
“I’m not a scholar,” he said. “I am a Cherokee.”
Taylor can only describe his success through a Cherokee word, duyukdv, which he defines as “the place where there’s a synergy in your life that is the good flow.”
“Me being in that place, I have achieved many great things,” he said. “That’s not me. That’s a God thing. Duyukdv.”
Finding the base
It’s a result of living life grounded both in God and in culture. And by “culture,” Taylor means something far more encompassing than wearing traditional garb, eating dinners made from freshly killed deer or spending afternoons carving out a dugout canoe. It’s important that those skills survive, Taylor said, but less important than that his people continue to be Cherokee at the core — Cherokee in their stories, in their language and in their souls.
“If our culture is to survive it has to adapt and change,” he said. “One of the reasons we are still here as Cherokees is that we can adapt and change.”
Taylor is an avid fan of Mac products and has been known to enjoy a dinner of steak and escargot in Asheville. His travels have taken him across the globe, and he’s experienced myriad cultures firsthand. By no means does he shun the American culture that surrounds the Qualla Boundary. Times have changed, and Cherokee must progress as well. But adaptation, he stresses, is not the same as assimilation. Cherokee children can grow up to be architects, scientists, businesspeople — whatever they want to be, Taylor said — but meanwhile they must remain Cherokee.
“They need to remember that there is a base. There is a place, that fire that burns in your soul, that grounds you,” he said. “You can do all these things, but if you get too much in this world, you’ll get eat up. You’ll be part of the rat race.”
Stories, language and connection to Cherokee people are all part of that base. And the old ways, though they may no longer be part of everyday life, are as well. Taylor points to the 1700s, a time when Cherokee people had begun interacting with white people but still held their culture intact, as the era to emulate.
“That’s a time that we relate to now as a time of strength,” he said. “Now we’ve brought it into our modern day culture. We’ve got people that are learning to sing the songs and dances. They dress the old way. There’s a sense of pride, a sense of self. A unique identity is fulfilled there. I think that’s been good for our people. Where a lot of native communities have been in decline, we’re revitalizing ourselves.”
Vision for the future
Part of that revitalization has to do with the museum and the way its programming and resources for Cherokee people have expanded over the years.
“When I came on we only had the main museum and a gift shop,” Taylor said.
While he worked as an archivist, the museum launched a capital campaign to expand. And in 2010, it added an 8,500-square-foot research and education wing, which contains an art room complete with pottery kiln, classrooms, a conference room and a reading room for museum archives.
Now, Taylor said, “If you want to know about Cherokee history, this is the place to come. You want to start here.”
As his tenure as director unfolds, Taylor hopes to offer even more educational programming and genealogical services. He’d like to create a kid-friendly zone and add a traveling museum exhibit that changes every so often, giving people something to come back for. He’d like the museum — like the culture — to be a growing, living thing.
“Oftentimes, museums are set aside for things that are dead and gone,” Taylor said, “but as Cherokees we’re not dead and gone. We’re still here. We have a culture that needs to be shared. We have something to give back to the world.”
Taylor is working to instill the same conviction in his three daughters. Today, only about 200 native, fluent speakers of Cherokee remain, and their average age is 55. He wants his daughters to be part of a rebirth of Cherokee language.
“That’s what happened, the perception that the Indian people were considered backwards, they couldn’t achieve because you have to speak the white people’s language,” he said. “You have to give up your ways to succeed in the white people’s world. But I don’t believe it.”
His 9-year-old daughter Salalisi was a member of the first class to enroll in New Kituwah, a Cherokee immersion school that opened almost exactly 10 years ago. The school’s youngest students are infants, so the Cherokee language becomes part of their earliest language experience. Children learn to speak, read and sing in Cherokee as well as how to make traditional Cherokee crafts.
“I believe my kids are smarter because they can speak another language,” Taylor said. “My kids know the value of who they are.”
They know it so well, in fact, that they won’t accept cheap imitation. Taylor recalled a recent exchange with Salalisi when they were watching the Disney version of Peter Pan. The cartoon portrayal of Indians came on screen, and Salalisi asked her father, “Daddy, what are they?”
“And this is my daughter who has seen us decked out and painted,” Taylor said. “She didn’t know what they were because they were so ludicrous.”
By keeping the culture real, an integral part of life for himself, his daughters and his tribe, Taylor believes that Cherokee ways can do more than just stay afloat. He wants to see Cherokee people take pride in their culture, learn the old songs and stories and tap into the root of what it really means to be Cherokee.
Too often, he said, people look at the Cherokee history and see a tale of survival amid the horrors of smallpox, stolen land and expulsion down the Trail of Tears. But Taylor doesn’t see the Cherokee as survivors at all.
“Some say, ‘You guys are survivors,” he said. “I don’t even like that. I don’t want to be a survivor. I want to be a thriver.”