Film explores Cherokee cultural identity issues

A documentary film on Cherokee aired nationwide on public television stations last week. The 90-minute documentary, produced by an all-Native American team, explored cultural, social, education, economic and health issues that are central to life in Native American communities through the lens of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.


“Your experiences are a mirror throughout the country of Native Americans in the 21st century. The Cherokee people stand in for that,” said filmmaker LeAnne Howe following a screening of the film “Spiral of Fire” at LIFT coffee house in Cherokee on Monday (Nov. 13). Howe is part Choctaw and part-Cherokee.

One of the opening scenes of the film shows Howe confronting Henry Lambert, known as Chief Henry, who dresses up in a feathered headdress along the side of the road in Cherokee and charges tourists for pictures. Howe told Lambert she was disappointed in him for propagating stereotypes of Indians that weren’t real, since the Cherokee never wore feathered headdresses.

“Have you every thought about dressing like a Cherokee?” she asked.

“I dress the way people expect me to dress. It’s a way to support my family,” Lambert replied.

Lambert agreed tourists in Cherokee have serious misconceptions.

“Every day people ask me ‘How do you get to the Reservation? We’ve been here two days and you’re the only Indian we’ve seen,’” Lambert said.

The film focused on Cherokee efforts to preserve their language by teaching the younger generation to become fluent speakers.

“The only way language can be preserved is through immersion,” Bo Taylor, a tribal cultural preservation officer, said in the film.

“If we lose our language, we will not be Cherokee,” said Laura Pinnix, a tribal employee in the youth language immersion program.

The film was shot in the fall three years ago when Cherokee High School football team beat the Swain County High School for the first time in 20 years.

“To say the word rivalry between Cherokee and Swain might not be a strong enough word,” Scooter McCoy, a Cherokee football coach, said in the film in the run-up to the game. For the tribe, even football games are tied to cultural identity, he said.

“We don’t represent a high school, a town or a community. We tell our boys every day, ‘You represent a nation,’” McCoy said.

The film briefly touches on the spiritual conflict some Cherokee have with gambling at the casino. But the film focuses on the positive ways the tribe has used their new-found wealth to improve the quality of life for residents and to preserve their culture.

“Because of the casino we are seeing a sense of independence we have not seen in over 200 years,” Joyce Dugan, former principal chief who works as an executive at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, said in the film.

LIFT coffee house prepared a traditional meal of corn bread, soup beans, peach and berry cobbler along with mustard greens and potatoes that had been grown at the Kituhwa site.

For information on ordering a copy or watching interview segments from the film on-line, go to

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