Native Village Youth and Education News

September 1, 2009 Issue 199 Volume 2


Oconaluftee Institute graduates first student
Condensed by Native Village

North Carolina: When Henrietta Heeter received her associate degree in fine arts from Southwesten Community College, she also became the first graduate of the Oconaluftee Institute for Cultural Arts.

“Through the years I tried to go back to school but I never found anything that interested me. Plus, with three little kids I didn’t have much time. But now they are grown, and I have time for myself, and when I heard mention of the new fine arts institute, I knew right away that’s what I wanted to do,” Henrietta said.

The OICA program is a partnership between Southwestern Community College and the Eastern Band of Cherokee. SCC provides the instruction and accreditation; the Cherokee provide the funding.  Study includes both traditional Cherokee art and foundations for modern interpretation. Students can earn an associate’s degree in fine arts, then transfer to Western Carolina University and pursue a bachelor of fine arts degree. Or, they may transfer to any other public university in the state with up to 65 hours of credit.

“I like to learn and create,” said Heeter, “but there is so much I didn’t know, even about our native Cherokee crafts, that I have learned in my courses. For instance, I didn’t know how to gather the river cane to make baskets, but Ramona Lossiah taught us. She told us there was a special time of the year to gather and she showed us how to shave it and get it thin enough for weaving. I used to think, ‘Okay, now I’ll make a basket’ but I never knew it took so much time and effort. I certainly respect the craft a lot more now.”

She also learned how to fire pottery. Even though Heeter received training on the pottery wheel, she prefers  working the clay by hand. She also likes polishing the pottery with smooth river rock from the Oconaluftee River.

“I’ve found with my art if it’s in my hand and not in my heart, it’s not right and I can’t create. It has to be right in my hand and in my heart,” she said.

One thing she especially likes about the program is how students receive a solid foundation in Cherokee arts. “But we go one step further,” she said, “and expand that knowledge and compare Cherokee art to other art forms.”

“This program has really changed me,” said Heeter. “I’m more outgoing than when I first began. I was very quiet at first, but I’ve learned to open up more. I was self conscious as to whether I could do it or not because it has been so long since I’d been in school. At 51, I’m older than some of my teachers. But it’s been a wonderful experience, and I encourage others — young or old — to take the program.”

OICA is the only Native American Institution of higher education east of the Mississippi River dedicated to Native American arts. It is housed at SCC.

Rivercane basket made by Emma Garrett



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