Beloved Woman remembered
Revered historian, teacher, artisan, storyteller, cultural specialist, linguist, language activist, and friend to all Shirley Jackson Oswalt (Dodie) of Robbinsville died Friday at age 62.
Her passing leaves a void that cannot be filled.
“Shirley will be missed by so many,” said her third cousin Brian Johnson. “She touched a lot of peoples lives with her native ways and with the teaching of the Cherokee language to both young and old. She was truly a ‘Beloved Woman’ of the Cherokee people.”
Capitalize the B and the W. In February, Shirley was named a Beloved Woman of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the highest honor a Cherokee woman can receive. When the honor was announced, Shirley insisted she didn’t deserve it. She did.
Shirley worked tirelessly to educate the Cherokee community about cultural traditions and language. She displayed an undying passion to preserve the Cherokee language.
The Graham County native who grew up in the Snowbird Community and attended Snowbird Indian School touched countless lives by speaking about and demonstrating Cherokee ways at festivals, workshops, museums, colleges, universities, and the Indian Springs Craft Shop she operated near Robbinsville.
“She is/was dearly loved by many” said clsoe friend Marsha Harwood.
A glossary of 1,700 Cherokee words she edited and annotated is part of the National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
She also promulgated and promoted Cherokee pottery and basket making, bead working, and gourd carving.
“I’m particularly pleased to be doing this because in my community nobody else makes pottery and it’s getting lost, so it’s important to me to learn to bring it back— not just so I can do it but so I can teach somebody else to do it,” Shirley told writer Barbara R. Duncan. “I’m just so pleased. And I guess it kind of keeps us in touch with our past, our heritage, to be able to see pots that have been made, the designs, and how hard they must have worked. This is who we are: our language, our pots, our baskets.”
Shirley founded the Cherokee Pottery Guild.
In 2006, she started the Cherokee Language Camp, an annual six-week program that immersed Cherokee youth in their history, language and culture.
She also contributed to the Cherokee Hymnbook, the result of seven years of study and translation of an 1830 Cherokee hymnbook that contains only words, no music.
“That original songbook wasn’t very useful to any-body because the tunes had been lost over time … so, now we can sing to modern tunes, but it worked out,” Shirley said at the time.
When the project came to fruition, Shirley credited God, which didn’t surprise anyone who worshiped with Shirley at Utugi Baptist Church, or was aware of her strong faith.
“Our almost 30-year friendship is something I will always cherish,”Harwood said.
Last month, while Shirley received radiation and chemotherapy in Atlanta, family and friends rallied behind Snowbird’s Beloved Woman with gospel singing and a poor man’s supper fundraiser at Robbinsville High School.
“She was definitely taken from this earth too soon, but God had other plans for her,” Johnson said.