Juanita Wilson: Walking the Right Path


By Sandi Tomlin-Sutker


The path of professional ambition took Juanita Wilson away from home and people, but like all things in the Cherokee world, her path eventually led her back from whence she came. “In the end,” she says, “it all served the purpose of increasing the quality of life for our community.”


She was born and raised in Cherokee by her Cherokee maternal great-grandmother and great-grandfather.  “They raised me from the time I was a year-and-a-half old until age 13; after that I sort of made my way out in the world, working here in Cherokee.”  


She married in 1986, had a son in 1988, and in about 1991 decided to go back to school to get her Associate Degree.  “I felt like I needed to carve a way for my son to see there was more in life.  My husband and I struggled financially. I realized education was the key and my son would come to understand that too.   Our tribe had an education scholarship program that funded my tuition, fees and books so I went after it and got my degree in administrative office technology in 1994.  Then I was very, very lucky to pick up work with a new non-profit at that time called Region A Partnership for Children.”   This organization was begun during Governor James Hunt’s term with the purpose of “building brighter futures and ensuring that all of Region A’s children ages birth to five arrive at school healthy and ready to succeed. The Partnership serves Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon, and Swain counties as well as the Cherokee Indian Reservation.” (www.regionakids.org/)


Juanita was pleased that Region A Partnership funded Cherokee language immersion in the preschool center through Jean Bushyhead’s “Cherokee Language Project.” This was critical because of the pressures toward assimilation, such as the boarding schools (see WNC Woman, August 2012, page 47) where Indian children were forced to speak only English; native language was spoken only by a few elders.  


She was living in Sylva at the time when Ms. Bushyhead came to their board to demonstrate the Cherokee Language Project.  Bushyhead worked with her father Robert Bushyhead and a local videographer to record the sounds of their native language along with its grammar. “No other language sounds exactly like it, and we want to preserve this,” he said. “We have all of those sounds—there are eighty-five of them—and just a little inflection makes all the difference in the world. Cherokee has a flow, it has a rhythm that is beautiful. And once you lose that rhythm, then, of course, you’re lost.” (www.blueridgeheritage.com/traditional-artist-directory/)  


Juanita tellls me, “When Jean’s assistant began speaking Cherokee, it touched my soul and I said, ‘I have to go home.  I have to get back and help my people.’  I completed my undergraduate in sociology and was hired as Program Director for the newly-established Cherokee Preservation Foundation.  The Foundation was established through the second amendment to the Tribe/State Compact on Gaming and it gets funding through gaming revenues.” (www.cherokeepreservationfdn.org)


I would probably be there today but we elected a new principle chief, Michell Hicks in 2003; we went to school together and he brought his campaign to my house to talk about his vision and I was really, really drawn to it because it was all about making change and serving people and connecting with our neighbors and that was just what I wanted to do.  So when some positions became open I saw one that served community and people birth to death and I thought, you know that’s what I need to do. I need to be right there directly able to serve the people.   And we did some awesome things.   One of the things I am most proud of was working with the Land Trust of Little Tennessee to bring the Cowee mound [one of the few undisturbed Indian mounds remaining in Western North Carolina] back to the tribe.”


Over time the reality of “politics” became harder and harder for Juanita to take.  “A lot of the things I wanted to do didn’t appear to be a priority for the administration. So I actually ran for principal chief and you know I didn’t make the primary but I got to know the people better and I got to see their situations first hand.  


“So, what I did next was to take a position with Swain county schools… I was a site director in Cherokee with Project Today Not Tomorrow; it’s a drug and alcohol reduction program.  There were two folks hired… one was a Swain person and one was a Cherokee person.  So the two schools were working together and that was really awesome because Swain and Cherokee have always had a rivalry, but they collaborated on this grant.  Through that grant, I realized what a terrible drug problem we have.  Even working with the tribe in a community program, I hadn’t known there was such a drug and alcohol problem.


“I believe in connecting people with similar goals so I worked to build a drug prevention team around an incredible program called Project Lazarus, a community-based approach to reduce deaths by accidental overdose.  I managed to actually bring together a team of providers:  hospitals; the court system; the school system; the Cherokee youth council; the Cherokee youth center; the chamber of commerce; and also Smokey Mountain Center with their regional drug prevention co-ordinater; Patty Grant at ANALENISGI, the Health and Medical program of the Eastern Band.”


When she learned of a job opening with the Cherokee Preservation Foundation in a program called Right Path adult leadership, Juanita knew it was her next step.  “Now we call it the Right Way, Du-yu Dv-I.”   It reminds us how our ancestors led the people: in selfless service to those in need. They called it, “Ga-du-gi” or free labor.  When a home was damaged or burned down or if the crops didn’t come in for the winter we had to help each other. We didn’t have all this casino money, we had very little federal money, and we depended on tourism which was seasonal.”


There is a traditional Cherokee concept that still holds great power. It is expressed by the Cherokee word “Duyukdv” and is usually translated into English as ‘Truth’ or ‘Dignity.’ But it means more than that. It embodies the idea of balance, to be living your life “the right way” by traveling down a straight path. Duyukdv means balancing the rights of the individual with the good of the whole. It offers personal freedom within the context of responsibility to the family, clan and tribe.


Right Path began officially in 2010. They initially graduated seven young Cherokee adults and this year, 2011-2012, there are eight who will graduate this September.   “What we do, our purpose, is to develop leaders. Leadership that goes back to selfless service because we feel that we don’t have that now and have not had it… hence the politics. We want political leaders that think for the people; and having run for chief I see [the issues]. We don’t have a constitution to give us individual rights; we don’t have three separate branches of government.


“In our third year we are learning how to tell if Right Path is making a difference.  The participants in the program have to be nominated by someone in the community.  They take a skill survey to see what their knowledge level is in terms of language, culture, professional skills.  What have their experiences been; what do they think leadership is. We kind of get a picture of them, a benchmark of where they are at when they enter the program.”


There are various monthly modules focused on such things as gender roles, social systems, tribal nations, and of course language.  They bring in elders from the community; some speak Cherokee, others don’t, but all have great cultural knowledge and experience.  “You know this is a way of healing actually… going back to your roots and knowing who you are. These emerging leaders, although they are enrolled members of the Eastern Band, may have lived here their entire lives but there is so much that they do not know.


“We can’t teach them everything but we can point them where to go to learn what they need.  For example, we’re going to learn this month how we treat our children. It used to be penalty of death if you harmed a child in any way, shape or form. And women are sacred. You know we have all gotten away from it, we’ve forgotten it.  


“There is some school of thought that we need to move on; we are tired of being the Trail of Tears people.  I agree…  But you can’t ignore the lessons of the trail of tears. And here’s the thing our participants learned:  the trail of tears was a traumatic event and there’s no doubt about it.  But what isn’t taught or shared is that our leaders, brilliantly, with genius, made savvy political moves that provided a way for us to be here today. ”


Juanita talked about many tribal members who speak to groups about the basis, the structure of Cherokee culture.  One is Tom Belt who talks about the structure being fire, the most important; and then the individual, then the family and then community and each has to be connected. “You have to be a strong, full, competent, capable and stable individual and you are tied to that fire and what that means is that you are going to nurture your family from that and then your family is going to interact in the community with that stability and that balance.”  


Recognizing that this structure is the “circle we need to stay within” keeps Juanita Wilson walking the Right Path.  She fully believes her people will get there and she feels blessed to be part of that journey.



Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker