Cherokee Travel & Tourism photos
Bob Reed was born in the Big Cove Community in Cherokee, N.C., on July 21, 1944, deep in the home turf of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, right in the center of the Qualla Boundary.
Though many boys play cowboys and Indians, few get to be the real thing. But Bob Reed, at the age of 15, learned from a family friend that he was a full-blooded Native American after spending most of his childhood unaware of his heritage.
Reed was born in the Big Cove Community in Cherokee, N.C., on July 21, 1944, deep in the home turf of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, right in the center of the Qualla Boundary. A swath of l56,000 acres entrusted to the Native American tribe, the Qualla Boundary, whittled away by two centuries of broken treaties, is less than half its original size.
Why the Cherokee blood that flowed through his veins was a secret to him for so long is something that Reed doesn’t quite know how to answer, except to say that being identified as an “Indian” at the time of his youth was not exactly a romantic prospect. After all, he points out, Native Americans weren’t granted U.S. citizenship until just two decades before his birth. But he does know that his blood ties his heart to the land of his people, and that Cherokee is where he intends to finish his life.
A family friend and mentor, Ray Kinsland, helped young Reed learn the truth of his lineage.
“As I grew up, I just didn’t know I was Cherokee until I left Big Cove and came to the Cherokee Central School in 1955, and he told me at that time.” Reed says in his slow, Southern drawl. Kinsland’s Cherokee name is Di-sde-li-sgi-a-ni-wi-ni, a mouthful that translates roughly as “Helper of Young Men.” Kinsland was a mentor to many other boys of the Cherokee nation before and during his tenure as the general manager of the Cherokee Boy’s Club—a position he held for 53 years before his retirement earlier this year.
Revelation of the elders
It sounds like a scene from a movie, really. A Native American elder takes a young boy under his wing, ostensibly teaches him how to how trap animals and build fires, eventually revealing that the young boy is, in fact, just like his teacher. “He looked at me and said, ‘You are a plain, red-blooded Cherokee,” Reed recalls. “He said, ‘You’re nothing else. You were born a Cherokee.’”
While it’s easy to envision the boy immediately embarking on a vision quest, clutching a knife and wearing eagle feathers in his hair, the revelation brought nothing quite so dramatic. The young Reed took the news in stride and with a surprising amount of basic acceptance. He simply went to school the next day, then came home and tended the chickens on the family farm. “People ask me all the time what that was like,” Reed says. “I just don’t know. I’d never had another life. I’ve always lived the life of the Cherokee, because that’s how I was raised,” he says. His childhood, and that of his nine younger brothers and little sister, was, by his telling, no different from that of any other child growing up in a rural environment. For Reed, Cherokee life, perhaps, was just life as he understood it.
And for 67 years, Reed has lived that life in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains, just east of the North Carolina-Tennessee border, “excepting for those two years I was in the military,” he says. For as long as he can remember, Reed has fished the streams that flow through and out of the verdant wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park using flies he ties on his own. He carves bows out of sturdy but pliant branches of yellow locust and hand-twists the sinew lines that form the strings. Now, more often than not, it’s his 12-year-old grandson who stretches those bows taut using his younger, more limber hands. “I always call him Jarvis,” Reed says of his young protegee. “But his name is Xavier.”
With Jarvis at his side, Reed searches the banks of the rivers that he fishes, looking for flint- and hammer-stones to make arrowheads. “I make the arrowheads from flint, doing it the way that I was taught as a kid,” he says. “No metal tools or nothing—just your bare hands and a big old river rock for a hammer-stone on a piece of flint.”
This is the practical wisdom he’s learned from tribal elders like Kinsland, wisdom he crafts into simple maxims to pass on to the younger generations. “I’ve got an old saying that the larger the stone, the larger the flake, the smaller the stone the smaller the flake,” he says, explaining how to select the perfect tools for the job. “Then, you get that arrowhead chipped out to look like one, and then use the point of a deer antler to press the small edges off the flint, work the shoulders in and sharpen it.”
Honoring a tradition
Reed says that, for him, the art of making bows and arrowheads is simply a way of honoring a tradition; what he crafts won’t likely end up embedded in the flanks of a buck any time soon. In fact, he spends much of his workday on Antique Row in Cherokee, “across from the KFC,” he says. There, he vends his wares and makes crafts that he sells to tourists.
“They’re more or less just to hang around tourists’ necks,” he says of the arrowheads. And the bows he and his grandson fashion out of yellow locust wood during their afternoons together—do they make for an accurate shot? “I don’t know because I’ve never shot them,” Reed says.
And that, in a way, reveals the modern truth of the proud and storied Cherokee tradition. The once-vital weaponry now finds its place as a showpiece on the wall, the tips of arrows once used to bring down invaders or dinner are now a souvenir from the Indian village tourists visited on summer break. The full-blooded Cherokee is employed as a mentor and historian to the curious, a possessor and maker of curio.
But to Reed, the passing on of these traditions is like story-telling—it’s his way of preserving his heritage. He sometimes speaks to classes of school-age children and shows them what he knows. For Reed, it’s natural to follow in the footsteps of his own mentor and teacher, showing younger boys the way of the natural world and the history of the Cherokee. “I enjoy teaching the younger ones,” he says. “My grandson now is learning to shoot the blowgun, and I’m trying to teach him everything I know. He’s trying to make arrowheads and doing woodcarvings and fishing—that’s what I love to do, too.”
When Kinsland revealed Reed’s heritage to him, he tethered the boy’s future to it with unequivocal strength. “My uncle Johnson Bradley—poor fellow, he’s at rest now—he and Mr. Ray Kinsman, in 1957, got me a job as a guide for visitors coming here to Cherokee,” Reed recalls. “And when I got older, I went to work at the Oconaluftee Living History Village as a guide and a craftsperson.”
It was at that time that Reed began to really hone his traditional skills, the arrowhead-making, woodcarving, hand-crafted blowguns and blowgun darts, all of the skills that still sustain him today. “I’m good at just about all of it,” he says. He still makes an adept guide, he adds. “I talk to the visitors about the heritage of our people, the Cherokees. The way of life then and the way of life today.”
But when it comes to shooting blowguns in particular, Reed was a bit of a hotshot in his youth. An elder, known simply as G. B. for “Going Back,” was the undisputed master of the blowgun when Reed was just a young upstart, and once skilled in the art of the blowgun, Reed made it his mission to beat the best. “Then when I finally came along and competed against him, I did beat him,” he says. The success, it seems, gave him a bit of a swagger among his tribe, though he wishes he’d reeled it in a bit, he says.
“I really wished I’d listened to the old people more than I did then,” Reed says. “But you know, kids always think that old people say crazy things—I thought they were all stupid. But now, after all of these years, I really wished I’d listened instead of being a know-it-all.”
But every champion’s reign must come to an end. Reed was finally defeated 15 years ago by a boy known to the tribe as Juggy Swimmer. “He beat me. I came in second, and now when I shoot I still come in second to him,” he says. “I guess I just ain’t got it like I did when I was younger.”
The stuff of heroes
It was about the time that Reed became an expert with the blowgun that he tried his hand at another form of sharpshooting. From 1965 to 1967, he served the United States in the Vietnam War.
“When I went into the military, it was a whole different world,” he says. “I had never been out of Cherokee, out of the Smoky Mountains. I think the furthest place I had went growing up was Christmas shopping with a school group. Our principal teacher, we called him Mr. Hatcliff, took us on the bus to Asheville to let us shop over there.”
Reed’s own father had served in the Korean War, and the young man, wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps, enlisted in the army. First, he was sent to Fort Jackson, S.C., then to Fort Bragg, N.C. He trained a bit more in Fort Raleigh, Kansas, before finally getting shipped out to Vietnam. “And I don’t want to see or hear Vietnam no more,” says Reed with great conviction.
On Feb. 18, 1966, Reed and the other soldiers in his division were ambushed as their truck bounced on a road cutting through the steamy fields of Vietnam. “The truck I was in was hit by a mortar and blew it up, and I wound up with shrapnel in the arm and in the leg,” Reed says. Gravely injured, he found himself shipped to hospitals in Japan, and then Korea, where he got the chance to see the country that his own father once described to him. “I loved Japan and Korea,” he says. “But flying back home from Tempo, Korea, when I got home—it was just something to see the Smoky Mountains again.”
It’s an experience he wouldn’t like to repeat, but seeing other parts of the world is something he appreciates. “But, like I said, Vietnam, I don’t care nothing for that,” Reed says. “That’s why when people ask me if I’m full-blood Cherokee, I say ‘Not any more. I went to Vietnam and left a lot of my blood over there, so I can’t be full-blooded no more.’”
Despite his sacrifice, Reed does not consider himself a hero. “I’ve also wondered, what is a hero?” he says. “To me, it’s somebody I’ve learned something from, like Mr. Ray Kinsland. I learned right from wrong from him—the difference between a good life and a bad life. He told me that I had to make that decision myself.” Reed pauses in consideration. “I’ve learned a lot from Mr. Kinsland.”