He’s seen war and peace. A Navy veteran who saw action on Normandy Beach during
D-Day, a stonemason who laid rock through the Smokies, Wolfe is one of the last
elders fluent in Tsalagi – the native language he grew up hearing in the Big
Up in Big Cove, there were no paved roads, only footpaths or wagon trails. In
the 1930s, the Blue Ridge Parkway would come right across Wolfe’s birthplace,
forcing the family on down the mountain.
father, Owen, spoke no English – only Cherokee. His mother, Luciana, had gone
through the fifth grade and knew English, which she often spoke with her
“I learned by listening to my dad. And I often asked my mother, what did he say?
Back in those days, we didn’t have the tube to watch. My dad would build a big
fire to keep us warm, and he would start talking.”
He told of Spearfinger, the terrible witch who could impale your liver on the
sharpened nail of her finger. He talked of the stickball game that the little
mouse won over the big bear.
But mainly, his stories were of great stickball matches – the native pastime
that evolved into modern-day lacrosse.
Each of the towns – Big Cove, Wolf Town, Paint Town, Bird Town, Snowbird and
central Cherokee or Yellowhill – fielded a team. The rivalries were bloody, the
exploits remembered for many winters.
“No helmets or shoulder pads. Just two sticks and a lot of wrestling. We still
play it today,” Wolfe said.
As a boy, Wolfe heard of the exploits of his uncle, Standing Turkey, the
strongest man on the boundary, never defeated in wrestling or stickball.
A European wrestler once came to Qualla, challenging Standing Turkey to a bout.
“Send that man to the center ground,” said Standing Turkey, who had a stickball
game to play first.
“He body slammed all the opponents, cleared the field. He didn’t run. He just
walked over to the goal to score,” Wolfe said.
“OK, I’m ready to wrestle,” Standing Turkey announced to the cheering crowd.
“Where’s that man?”
But after witnessing the carnage on the field, the European was long gone.
“They found him a mile down the road to Bryson City,” Wolfe said. “He took a big
bank roll out of his pocket. ‘Give this to Standing Turkey.’”
went on to attend the Cherokee Boarding School. His mom and dad dropped him off
at the dorms when he was only 7. His mother had waited a year until he was big
enough to take care of himself.
In the strange dorm, the little boy sidled up to a circle of other boys in the
strange dorm. Naively, he asked a question in English.
The other boys glared at him. “Nuneltiwoni,” they said. “Why you talk so ugly?”
But speaking Cherokee was strictly forbidden in the school. English was imposed
with a military discipline.
The boys and girls woke to a bugle sounding Reveille and went to bed to Taps.
They marched up and down the knoll to the dining room and to the classroom. “If
you didn’t salute the flag, you’d get a strapping,” Wolfe said.
All that drilling came in handy when war rolled around. The teacher came in and
told the children that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. “I didn’t know there was a
Pearl Harbor,” Wolfe recalled.
Overnight, the big boys dorm emptied out as Cherokee went to fight for their
country. In 1943, Wolfe completed the 10th grade and volunteered for the U.S.
It was the first time other than a couple of trips to Asheville or over to
Bryson City and Sylva, that Wolfe had left the Boundary or been out of the
Wolfe served on a tracked landing vehicle, ferrying troops to storm Normandy
Beach on D-Day in 1944.
Later, he led a crew of sailors by train that pulled into New York on the day
that Victory in Europe was declared. The train stopped on the tracks as the
whole city celebrated. They came back with armloads of whiskey and vodka, but
under Wolfe’s command, he got all his sailors safely to Rhode Island.
He would ship out to Pearl Harbor – the place he had never heard of as a boy –
when the Japanese formally surrendered that summer.
Wolfe still carries the memento of his sailor day, sporting the profile of a
feathered Indian Princess, the initials U.S.N. and his service number inked on
Warriors run in Wolfe’s family.
Ask Wolfe for his favorite story, and he’ll talk about his grandfather, Joe
Stout Wolfe, who had fought for the Confederates across the mountain in
Among the Southern troops mustered, there was a bully who challenged everyone to
wrestle. “Then he’d put an extra hurting on them,” Wolfe said. “Everyone hated
Jerry Wolfe holds two stickball wickets in 2013.
Finally, he called out Joe Stout Wolfe. “I’m no wrestler. I just play stick
ball,” Joe Stout insisted. But the young Indian turned to a pair of Cherokee
elders who were visiting the camp. They went into the woods, gathered medicine,
herbs and formulas to prepare their warrior to wrestle.
Joe rushed the bully and lifted him overhead, and body slammed the bully.
Everyone cheered. The bully, who lay on the ground, calling feebly for water. No
one lifted a finger to help the man they all hate. He slowly crawled to the
nearby spring and died.
The elders then asked to take Joe up into the mountains for healing rituals
after he had killed his opponent. “They had to cleanse his soul so he wouldn’t
worry about what had happened,” Wolfe said.
Respect for elders is a long Cherokee tradition. Wolfe followed it when he was
learning his trade in construction, calling on old men to help him learn how to
lay brick and rock.
After he returned from the war in 1949, settling into married life with his
wife, Juanita, he earned $3 an hour laying rock up in Heintooga in the Smokies.
“We built Cades Cove, Deep Creek, Greenbriar.”
He can still see his handiwork across the mountains and in Qualla. “I did the
bank, the post office, the Teepee Restaurant, the Drama Motel.”
In 2013, the Tribal Council showed appreciation by naming Wolfe the tribe’s
Barbara Duncan with the Museum of the Cherokee Indian researched the records and
found that the tribe’s last Beloved Man, Little Turkey, had died in 1801.
Having lived through war, the Beloved Men and Women served as trusted advisers
to the war and peace chiefs of the nation, Duncan said.
In 1783, the Beloved Woman, Kattuea of Chota, wrote a letter to Benjamin
Franklin, enclosing some tobacco as a sign of peace. “I hope you can smoke this
with your Beloved Men and Women,” she wrote.
The tribe has honored Beloved Women in recent years, conferring the title on
Myrtle Driver and Ella Bird of the Snowbird community.
Bo Taylor hopes the tribe doesn’t wait another 200 years to name a Beloved Man,
but adds “Jerry has set the bar high.”
Now the museum’s executive director, Taylor was the Big Cove representative on
the council who nominated Wolfe for the honor.
Taylor pointed to Wolfe’s war record, his work in the church and for the
Cherokee Lion’s Club, his long years as a mason and his championing of the
Cherokee language and culture.
“We are a tribal nation and we have to live in a world interacting with a
dominant culture,” Taylor said. “It’s important to remember we are a native
people with unique traditions.”
Wolfe is proud of his culture and quick to show you that Bible he studies at the
ticket counter. “We have the Old and New Testaments, written in our language.
We’re the only tribe on the whole globe with our own written language. Think of
And long ago, listening to his dad by the winter fire in Big Cove, and through
the years telling stories to different audiences, Wolfe learned to move between
two worlds, between two languages.
“You can tell a story in Cherokee language to a bunch of people and they all
have a big laugh. I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s strange but if you
tell in English, there’s no punchline,” Wolfe smiled.
© 2015 Cherokee Phoenix