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The right path: Beloved Woman Ella Bird reflects on life marked by family, tradition

The right path: Beloved Woman Ella Bird reflects on life marked by family, tradition

For the past 79 years, Ella Wachacha Bird has lived a life defined by seasons and relationships rather than months and days.

Bird, the daughter of Rily Wachacha and Ancy Walkingstick, was born in a log cabin in the remote West Buffalo area of Graham County’s Snowbird community in 1939. She was delivered by her grandmother Maggie Wachacha, a midwife at the time who would later become a clerk to Tribal Council and, like Ella, a Beloved Woman in the tribe. 

Beyond that, Ella doesn’t know a lot about the day she was born. She doesn’t even know for certain which day it was, or what her name was determined to be — her birthday is either May 18 or July 29, and she was christened either Ella or Ellen. As an infant she was registered “Ellen,” but the Social Security card she received upon entering school used the name “Ella.” She’ll answer to either. 

“We never found a birth certificate for her, but she remembers growing up with her birthday being in July,” said Ella’s daughter, Judy Bird, 47. “As she got older they used to celebrate her birthday in May, so she really don’t know which one is her real birthday.”

 

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Ella Wachacha Bird (center) stands outside her home in Snowbird with two of her 10 children, Judy Bird (left) and Lillie Bird. Holly Kays photo

 

“They had to walk or had to go so far to register, I think that’s when her dad and them registered her, in July,” said Lilly Bird, 57, another one of Ella’s 10 children. “But I always think she was born in May at home and they didn’t register her until July.”

Today, West Buffalo Road is a 20-minute drive away from Robbinsville, which with a population of right around 600 people is the largest community within 30 miles. Registering her as a tribal member in Cherokee would have required a 50-mile trek, an arduous journey in a time when few owned cars and the Snowbird community was infinitely more remote than it is today. The log cabin wasn’t even on a road, really. 

“There was only like four houses, four different families that were there on Buffalo where she was born back then,” said Judy. “Now there’s all kinds of houses.”

 

Growing up on Buffalo 

Ella now lives just a handful of miles from the creek where she grew up, in a modest four-bedroom house in the Snowbird community. She hasn’t gone far in terms of miles, but over the years she’s amassed a wealth of respect and adoration from her tribe. In 2013, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians named her a Beloved Woman, the highest honor the tribe has to give, and in 2017 the University of North Carolina Asheville awarded her an honorary doctorate degree. 

All that despite the fact that Ella is a distinctly quiet soul who tends to stay away from the spotlight. Nevertheless, she was more than willing to sit down for an interview about her life, the hour-plus of sitting and talking something of a sacrifice for someone who prefers to be on her feet, getting things done. But her words had to come filtered through her daughters, Judy and Lilly. 

“It’s all Cherokee to her,” said Judy. 

Ella can speak English, but not quickly or comfortably. So Lilly would translate the questions into Cherokee, Ella would answer them, also in Cherokee, and Judy would phrase the answers in English. 

“I really don’t know how to say this, but it’s like she understands what she’s really saying in the Cherokee language,” Judy translated. “If they have to talk to each other, she knows exactly what she’s saying instead of her talking the English language.”

Other Cherokee speakers, even those who speak English fluently, will say the same thing — there’s something elemental about the language, something that conjures meaning more specifically, that paints pictures more intimately, that elicits laughter more genuinely. To those who don’t speak it, the meaning washes overhead through sounds that nod to the forested mountains where the language grew up. In the words are the sounds of creaking branches, whispering winds and rustling leaves. 

“She said she could care less for the English language if she had a choice, because she’d rather speak the Cherokee language,” said Judy, translating for her mother. “But most of her English was taught from her kids learning from where they went to school.”

Ella went to school, too, but only through the seventh grade. She was a student at Snowbird Day School, a Bureau of Indian Affairs school established in the 1930s as part of the Indian New Deal, intending to bring a modern education to the Snowbird community, said Trey Adcock, director of American Indian and Indigenous Studies at UNC Asheville and a member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. He’s done extensive interviews with former students of the Snowbird Day School.

 

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Ella Bird (left, top photo) is 15 in this photo taken in October 1954 at the Snowbird Day School. She’s pictured with her half-sister Catherine Wachacha. The Snowbird Day School (bottom) was operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and taught an estimated 550 Cherokee children before closing in 1963. Donated photos

 

“Part of the reason why the community looked really favorably upon the history of that school is because many of them were able to retain their Cherokee language,” said Adcock. 

That wasn’t the case with many other federal attempts at educating Indian children, with a variety of infamous institutions set up as boarding schools that forced students to speak only in English and to act, dress and conduct themselves like members of white society. 

“From listening to the interviews and the work on the project, I think they take great pride in the fact that so many of them were able to retain their language,” said Adcock. 

Ella did more than simply retain her language — she maintained it as her only language. 

“There was English there and they probably still speak English, the ones that learned the English language back then, but she said back then all the Indian kids hung out together and that what they spoke is the Cherokee language,” Judy translated. 

Ella’s life was more focused at home, where she was given plenty of space to be a kid. Her mother died early on, when Ella was still too young to remember her, and her father married Lucinda Axe Wachacha, with whom he had three sons and two daughters. Ella wasn’t required to do many chores, she said — she spent a lot of time playing in the woods with the neighbors. 

Even when pressed, Ella maintained that she’d had a happy childhood with very little work required of her. But she wasn’t without responsibility, or tragedy.

“She’s told me a lot of stories about my side of the family, because she’s a half sibling to my dad and my uncle,” said Adam Wachacha, who is chairman of Tribal Council and Ella’s nephew. “I had another uncle who passed as a child. She remembers taking care of him with my grandmother and about how sick he was and how they had to hold him.”

In the summers, she’d go to school about two days a week and help staff member Zena Rattler cook and can produce from the garden. What they canned in the summer is what they ate at school. 

“She said it wasn’t that hard going to school back then like it is now,” Judy translated. “She didn’t have to go to school every day. Nowadays you have to go to school every day or you get in trouble, but back then she didn’t have to go to school every day. I guess just whenever she felt like going.”

As Ella tells it, after seventh grade she decided she no longer felt like going. She quit school and stayed home. 

 

‘They had love’

Ella was only 17 when she married William Bird, a logger who worked for her father. The two would eventually have 10 children together — five girls and five boys — a family that became, and remained, Ella’s greatest joy in life. 

“She loves to see all her kids together,” said Judy. “In the summertime, some Sundays when it’s pretty, most of the kids will come here on Sundays to eat dinner and they’re out in the yard throwing cornhole or playing games or something, and she’ll be out there sitting, watching her kids. They’re all grown up and whatever, but that’s her thing.”

Holidays are Ella’s favorite, said Judy. 

“At Christmas and the holidays this house is too full,” said Judy. “It’s not big enough for just her kids and their kids. Some come in and eat and leave because there’s no room for the others that’s coming in from Cherokee or coming late or whatever. There’s a Christmas tree right there and presents out to here” — here she gestured across the length of the small living area — “but that’s what she likes, so that’s why we come every year.”

In asking Ella about her life and her memories, no complaints come through — only good stuff. She had a carefree childhood, full of playtime in the woods and adventures with friends. She was blessed with 10 children, and when asked for stories of times when that bunch of kids drove her crazy, she had no answer — none of them drove her crazy, she said, because she loved them all. 

But in digging deeper, it’s clear that Bird’s life has included its share of hardship as well. She lost her mother as a child, a half-brother too, and the man she married at 17 turned out not to be the best provider. 

“He wasn’t a steady worker,” said Lilly. “He worked every now and then. More or less Mom and my grandma raised us, probably by themselves. He was there, but he wasn’t a steady income.”

Government assistance made up much of their income, and Christmases were sparse back then. They’d all pack a lunch and eat Christmas dinner at the church, which provided any gifts the kids received. 

Social services kept an eye on things, too.

“That’s one thing she fought for, was her kids,” said Judy. “They about took them away from her when she was younger, but she said, ‘You’re not taking my kids.’”

“They didn’t have a lot, they really didn’t have a lot growing up, the children didn’t, but they had love, and the love for their mother was just surpassing,” Wachacha said. 

 

Hallmark of humility 

Wachacha, together with former Tribal Councilmember Brandon Jones, co-sponsored the 2013 resolution that named Ella Bird a Beloved Woman, the highest title the tribe has to bestow. They did so at the request of Snowbird resident Shirley Jackson Oswalt, who would herself be named a Beloved Woman in February 2017. Oswalt passed away six months later after a battle with lung cancer.

“As long as I can remember, ever since I’ve known Ms. Bird, everybody loves her,” Oswalt told Tribal Council in 2013. “When I came up this morning I was thinking, because I told Adam (Wachacha) I wanted to say something about Ms. Bird, and I thought of the Proverbs 31:10 verses (in the Bible) about the virtuous woman. It says her price is far above rubies. This describes Ms. Bird. She’s rare, she’s decent, she’s nice, she’s pure, she’s slow to anger … We all love her dearly and everybody calls her sister or mom or grandma, because that is what she is to all of us.”

It is extremely rare for somebody to be honored as a Beloved Man or Beloved Woman — according to the tribe’s tourism website, only 10 people have received such a title since 1943, with eight of those instances occurring after 2000. Currently, Ella is one of only two living people named “Beloved,” the other being Myrtle Driver Johnson. Several others have passed away in recent years, with the tribe losing Oswalt in 2017 and in 2018 saying goodbye to Amanda Swimmer, Jerry Wolfe and Robert Youngdeer. Kina Swayney was given the title posthumously in 2018 following her death in 2017.

But Ella is surprisingly nonchalant about the recognition. 

“She said she still wonders why they picked her for Beloved Woman,” Judy translated. 

“She’s like, ‘Why did they pick me?’” Judy added. “Why is it me? Why am I special? Why are they doing this for me? I’m just being myself.”

 

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Ella Bird receives an honorary degree from the University of North Carolina Asheville. UNCA photo

 

Humility is a hallmark of Ella’s manner. She simply doesn’t brag on herself, leaving that task for others, should they choose to do so. When asked what she hopes her legacy might be, what others might remember her for over the generations to come, Ella replied only with a self-deprecating joke. 

“She said she really don’t know. Each one has their own opinions,” Judy translated. “But she said she was all hateful, that’s probably what they’ll remember her by.”

Of all the words people use to describe Ella Bird, “hateful” is certainly not one of them.

“It’s a real extension of family when you’re around Ella,” said Wachacha. “She doesn’t treat anybody different, and I think that’s what I love about her.”

“She’s so humble, and I think that spirit is a significant reason why I adore her,” Adcock added. “She’s just the kind of person that Cherokee people and young people should strive to be like. She doesn’t serve her community for riches or fame. She does it because that’s what she’s called to do as a Cherokee person. She doesn’t need to brag about it. She just does it.”

Adcock’s relationship with Bird began as an outgrowth of his professional life. UNCA had asked him to recommend names to potentially receive an honorary degree from the school. Adcock, knowing her status as a Beloved Woman, recommended Bird. She received her honorary doctorate in 2017, but Adcock’s relationship with Ella has continued — because of his Snowbird Day School project, but also just because Ella is someone he likes being around. 

“Just to be in her presence and to be around her, it’s humbling and it’s an honor,” said Adcock.

Adcock has an easy answer to Ella’s question as to why she was chosen for the title.

“To me that’s why she is a beloved woman, the spirit of service to the community and caring and being a mother and a role model and doing all that without needing the congratulations and the publicity of that,” he said. “I think that’s pretty special and unique.”

It’s also worth noting, said Wachacha, the apparent success of Ella’s parenting. Many of her children speak the Cherokee language, and they all know some type of traditional craft, whether that by hunting, quilting, gardening or something else. As others have pointed out, none of Ella’s children have fallen victim to alcoholism or drug addiction. 

Oswalt added an historical perspective to the question of “why me?” Traditionally, she said in 2013, the Beloved Woman would have had a seat at the table when the tribe deliberated whether or not to go to war. 

“She’s slow to anger. She would have made an excellent Beloved Woman in the past that we would have listened to before we would have said, ‘Let’s go to war,’” said Oswalt. “Because of that I don’t know of anybody that doesn’t have the highest respect for her in the community.”

 

Hooked on family 

Just like the Biblical “Proverbs 31 woman” to whom Oswalt compared Ella, according to those who know her well Ella certainly “watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness” and she “brings good, not harm, all the days of her life.”

Even now, at 79 years old with children who are all grown up with children of their own — she said she has “too many grandkids to count” but estimates there’s about 30 of them — Ella can’t quite turn the mothering instinct off. 

“She’s a lady that thinks she has to cook every day for supper so her family can eat with her at the table. That’s what keeps her going, because she loves to see her kids and her family,” said Judy. “We tell her all the time, ‘You don’t have to cook, Mom. You don’t have to cook. We’re old enough to do it on our own.’ But she still thinks she has to cook every day.”

So, the children — now ages 41 through 61 — came together to work out a compromise. Two of Ella’s daughters take her out to eat on Friday and Saturday each week, but she insists on continuing to cook Monday through Thursday. 

Like her language, Ella’s cooking is woven from the fabric of tradition — her accomplishments as a quilter, cook, gardener and keeper of the language were also part of the rationale for naming her a Beloved Woman. Her favorite meals involve pinto beans and fried potatoes, the same foods she grew up eating, and a good spread also involves dishes harvested from the mountains surrounding her home. There are mustard greens and turnip greens and sochan, her favorite, and polk salad too. In springtime the ramps come up, and a couple more cycles of the moon later the garden yields an abundance of veggies just waiting to be canned. 

Age has forced Ella to slow down some. She no longer goes into the woods herself to gather ramps, either accepting them as gifts or purchasing them from those who do gather. The produce comes from a garden planted by her daughter and son-in-law, rather than from her own beds, and canning is more difficult than it used to be due to reduced strength in her hands. 

“But she still tries,” said Judy. “She’ll still do what she needs to do.”

Which perhaps is a succinct summary of Ella’s life. Things aren’t always easy, but there is always a joy to be discovered and a virtue to be gained by simply pressing on, and doing what needs to be done. 

“She carries the language, she carries the art, she just carries the traditional family that basically in my opinion has carried this tribe around generations,” said Wachacha. “I think even with some of the atrocities that have happened to this tribe, like the Trail of Tears and everything else, the mere fact of love and being Christian and taking care of each other is what gets us through hard times.”

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