Renowned potter dedicated to saving Cherokee culture
Amanda Sequoyah Swimmer was born in North Carolina at a time when Native American children were forced to attend boarding schools, as part of a national effort to assimilate them into mainstream culture.
But as a child in fourth grade, she grew tired of being punished for speaking her native Cherokee and forced to use English, and one day she jumped her school’s courtyard fence and ran away. She never returned.
Instead, she fashioned a life devoted to the preservation of Cherokee culture, keeping its language and pottery traditions alive. She was revered in the mountainous tribal lands of western North Carolina — honored there as a “Beloved Woman” — and renowned as one of her people’s most skilled potters.
Swimmer’s work has been shown at the Smithsonian in Washington, the North Carolina State Museum and at local museums across North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.
In 2005, as an octogenarian, she was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters degree by the University of North Carolina, Asheville, for her work in preserving Cherokee heritage and her role in founding the Cherokee Potters’ Guild.
“I know how to subtract, I know how to read,” granddaughter Melvena Swimmer quoted her as saying. “Common sense will get me the rest of the way.”
Swimmer died Nov. 24 at her home in the Big Cove community in the federal land trust known as the Qualla Boundary of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. She was 97 and was one of the last surviving fluent speakers of Cherokee.
Swimmer took up pottery as a child after discovering a clay deposit close to her home. Her mother suggested that she try making something with it.
Soon, mother and daughter were selling pots to tourists and park rangers who would pass by their home. After she married Luke Swimmer, who taught her how to build a fire pit, her skills expanded.
One reason her pottery stands out was her technique. After collecting the clay from the mountainsides of the Great Smoky chain, she would mold it by hand, without a potter’s wheel. She would fire the pots over different types of wood, to achieve different colors: A hard wood burned hotter, resulting in red; a soft wood would lend itself to darker colors. And she would add traditional designs pressed upon the pottery using a paddle board.
Amanda Sequoyah Swimmer was one of the last surviving fluent speakers of Cherokee.