Barbara R. Duncan: Folklorist, Festival Organizer, Writer, and Musician
by Adrienne Hollifield
Barbara Duncan’s interest in folklore stems from her own heritage in the Appalachian Mountain region of Pennsylvania. Duncan moved to North Carolina 26 years ago. Since that time, she has been researcher, director, consultant, and instructor for a variety of projects promoting both Appalachian and Cherokee folklore.
As Coordinator of the Blue Ridge Teachers’ Network for the Foxfire Program, she taught teachers how to involve their students in pursuing the folklore traditions of their own families and communities. As project director for the Macon County Folk Artists in the Schools Program, Duncan researched and presented folk artists from the white, black, and Cherokee cultures. Although Macon County is relatively near the Qualla Boundary, the schools had never invited Cherokees to share their traditions. To ensure the continuation of the program after she left, Duncan developed folklore and folklife curriculums for teachers in the county, and created an archive for the research.
Since 1996 Barbara Duncan has been the Education Director, fundraiser, and folklorist at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, North Carolina. Her work there is multifaceted. She researches aspects of Cherokee tradition; educates the public via festivals, exhibits, and classes; promotes educational activities for the public and for the Cherokee community; writes grants to continue research or start research on new topics; writes books and articles on Cherokee traditions; and creates outlets for booking speakers and performers from within the community.
In all of these activities, Duncan tries to listen to the priorities and concerns of the Cherokee people in shaping her work, following their agenda rather than her own. She has used her connections as a scholar to be a collaborator and a facilitator, while she stays in the background. In 2002, in response to a request from Cherokee potters, Duncan wrote grants to research the 3000-year-old tradition of stamped pottery. As a result, the Cherokee have now reconnected with a long-forgotten technique, and they are now producing that pottery themselves. In addition, students in the Cherokee schools are learning the stamped pottery technique. She was also helped reintroduce this style to the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, reinforcing connections between the two groups.
In 2003, Tribal Council Member Marie Junaluska asked Duncan to help with research on traditional Cherokee dances that could be used to welcome visitors. Duncan worked with Museum Archivist Bo Taylor to find a description of Cherokee dance written by Henry Timberlake in 1762. She also discovered old wax cylinder recordings of related Cherokee songs at the Library of Congress. The dancers that were drawn to these descriptions and recordings realized, from their experiences with other traditional dance, that they were the old Cherokee War Dance. Inspired by these discoveries, they became the Warriors of AniKituhwa, designated Cultural Ambassadors of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), who are sponsored by the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. Duncan started booking them at festivals and events in 2004, and the group did more than a hundred dates from 2005 to 2007. In addition to workshops in the Cherokee community, which inspire Cherokee children to take part in their dance traditions, last year they took these uniquely Cherokee traditional dances to the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, to share the songs and dances. They have danced at Colonial Williamsburg, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, and at events in Berlin, Quebec, and throughout the Southeast. Additionally, they have appeared in films and are the focus of an award-winning advertising campaign that promotes heritage tourism in Cherokee. They are bringing back dances that haven’t been done in a generation or more, based on research into the songs, descriptions, and the dancers’ own reflections of their experiences as children dancing with elders like Richard Crowe and Johnson Sequoyah.
Along with Bo Taylor and Bullet Standingdeer, Duncan also researched eighteenth-century Cherokee clothing for the AniKituwah Dancers. Their project provided various examples of historically accurate clothing styles that were adopted not only by the Warriors of AniKituhwa, but also at the Oconoluftee Indian Village, in the newly revised outdoor drama Unto These Hills, and by the Miss Cherokee Pageant. Workshops in both Oklahoma and North Carolina now educate Cherokee seamstresses about these historically accurate styles, so that they might incorporate them into their ongoing traditions.
Another exciting area of Cherokee culture that Duncan has been exploring has to do with the Cherokee language. Duncan sought funding for, and is director of, an NEH project for Documenting Endangered Languages at the museum. The project has digitized more than 8,000 pages of Cherokee language materials, which will become part of a permanent digital library at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. Other language projects include her coordination of the Yonaguska Literature Initiative through the museum, which produced a Cherokee language translation of Thirteen Moons, a novel by Charles Frazier translated by Myrtle Driver Johnson. This is the first novel translated into any American Indian language. In a similar vein, when Duncan discovered that only two people in Cherokee could still make traditional river cane baskets, she set out, with the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, to revive the tradition by setting up classes so that others could learn and carry on the practice.
Barbara Duncan has written a number of books that will be of enduring interest to Cherokees and those interested in Cherokee folklife and culture. Her Living Stories of the Cherokee and The Origin of the Milky Way and Other Living Stories of the Cherokee capture not only the prose stories of the Cherokee tradition, but its cadence as well. By putting prose into lines like poetry, she shows the rhythm of the storyteller’s speech and language. Freeman Owle, a storyteller presented in both of the books (who is himself a Brown-Hudson Award-winner, whose citation was written by Barbara Duncan), said that Duncan’s book “gave us a lot of credibility” as keepers of the storytelling tradition. He credits Duncan with also starting a Cherokee Artists Directory, a resource of authentic Cherokee people doing authentic arts. Owle speaks in awe of Duncan’s “unselfishness,” saying that “her hand is always aimed in the direction of empowering native people.” Another book by Duncan, Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook, coauthored with Brett Riggs, was pivotal to Western North Carolina being designated as the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area. Her most recent book, The Origin of the Milky Way, presents traditional Cherokee stories organized by themes explained in her brief introductions with illustrations by Eastern Band artist Shan Goshorn. It was “highly recommended” by Oyate, an organization dedicated to eliminating stereotypes of American Indians.
Even more than her long list of credits and accomplishments, it is her good-heartedness that has endeared her to the people with whom she has been working for so many years. Bullet Standingdeer said that Duncan proceeds with a real love of the people and with great humility. “She has done this in such a silent manner,” Standingdeer said. He says that Duncan makes little show of her work: “She gives so much to the people without them knowing it was given,” he said. Freeman Owle gives, perhaps, the best testament to Duncan’s work when he points out that Native Americans are the smallest minority, being about 1% of the total U.S. population. Barbara, he said, has “taken a very small voice and made it into a voice that can be heard.”
Adrienne Hollifield teaches English at McDowell County High School and helps edit the school’s award-winning student newspaper. Her research on the Sodom Laurel ballad singers of Madison County, North Carolina, was published in the Winter-Spring 1995 issue of the North Carolina Folklore Journal.
Hollifield, Adrienne. “Barbara R. Duncan: Folklorist, Festival Organizer, Writer, and Musician.” North Carolina Folklore Journal 55.2 (Fall-Winter 2008): 32-36.