Jerry Wolfe: Cherokee Elder
by Roseanna S. Belt
Jerry Wolfe is a respected elder of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. He is a storyteller who recounts traditional Cherokee legends and stories about his experiences growing up in Cherokee. He shares his experience of attending the Cherokee boarding school and his knowledge of Cherokee stickball. He is a fluent Cherokee speaker.
He will explain that the Cherokee stories are not legends, they really happened:
“There really was a giant frog that sat above the family home on Sherrill Cove, flicking its tongue out and eating bears. There really are giant inch-worms masquerading as oak trees. At any time they can bend over and eat an unsuspecting person walking by.”
He has served as an ambassador between Cherokee people and outsiders for years, recently speaking at the dedications of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Waterrock Knob Visitor’s Center and Regional Destination Center and is featured as the “storyteller” in the film that is the centerpiece of that Destination Center. Presently, he works in the Outreach Program of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian where he greets visitors with his friendly, welcoming presence. He also worked tirelessly during the completion of the Cherokee Heritage Trails Project. Additionally, he has presented programs on Cherokee culture at High Point, Thomasville, Winston-Salem, Fort Bragg, and other North Carolina communities.
Jerry Wolfe was born in September 1924 in the Sherrill Cove community, which was eventually displaced by the development of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Throughout his lifetime he has seen not only the coming of the Parkway to his mountain home but many other changes as well. He grew up listening to the stories of his parents, Owen and Lucyann Wolfe. He attended the Cherokee Boarding School through the tenth grade, then enlisted in the Navy during World War II. He served for six years and participated in the D-Day landing on Normandy Beach. When he returned to Cherokee he married his wife Juanita and began learning building trades, including stone masonry. He taught building trades to young people for twenty years with the federal Oconoluftee Job Corps. After his retirement, he began traveling with Methodist mission teams to do building projects in Jamaica, Barbados, Haiti, and South Africa.
His wife Juanita was a highly skilled weaver of Cherokee baskets and he accompanied her as she exhibited her fine art. Jerry learned to carve Cherokee ball sticks as a young man when he played the traditional game and is often in demand still as a “caller” or announcer during ball games during the Cherokee Indian Fair.
At age 85 he is also still in demand for story-telling. He has a boundless knowledge of Cherokee culture. He shares this knowledge often at a variety of locations. Recently he was invited to Purdue University to speak with faculty and students about the importance of preserving Cherokee language. He has received the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award.
Jerry Wolfe is a pillar to the entire Cherokee community. He provides a strong connection to the past as he lives comfortably in the modern world. He is cherished by his family. One of his daughters eloquently summarized her thoughts about him:
Jerry knows his home. He has walked many of the trails that circle the nearby mountains. His head swims with stories of Uk-te-nuh, Kanoti, and the great leech. He has spent many hours walking the trails to gather delicacies such as wishee and ramps, medicines and dyes, teas and ginseng. From the river he catches fish while he watches the waters for other wildlife. He notices small things such as the mama Canadian goose sitting on a nest, a rare loon diving the depths for dinner, and a blue heron standing stock still, blending into the riverside. Jerry will seek out the new: a newborn elk, baby geese and ducks, a young deer trying shaky just-born legs. These are the sights that move him—the simple beauty and continuity of nature and life.
A native of Cherokee, N.C., and an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), Roseanna S. Belt has been director of Western Carolina University’s Cherokee Center since 2001.
Belt, Roseanna S. “Jerry Wolfe: Cherokee Elder.” North Carolina Folklore Journal 57.2 (2010): 19-21.