Walker Calhoun (1919 – 2012)

Updated: September 26, 2012

Cherokee singer and ceremonial leader.

Walker Calhoun was a major tradition bearer of the old Cherokee ways, especially ceremonial songs and dances. Born in 1919 into the Big Cove community in western North Carolina’s Qualla Boundary, Calhoun was the nephew of Will West Long, who was the spiritual shaman and dance leader of Big Cove and a primary informant for ethnologist James Mooney, author of History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokee. From his uncle, Calhoun learned the songs and dances of his community. Despite being forbidden by a Bureau of Indian Affairs policy to speak Cherokee as a boy in school, Calhoun had a minimal knowledge of English when he entered the U.S. Army during World War II.

But English is not the medium for communicating traditional Cherokee songs, and some of the lyrics utilize non- semantic sounds (known as vocables) rather than words. These songs, some dating back three millennia or more, depict a natural order of things informed by a spiritual relationship among all forms of life and celebrate all aspects of traditional Cherokee life (the harvest, hunting, and everyday life in general). After the brutal removal of the Cherokees along the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma in 1838–39, songs became a means of cultural resistance and survival for those few who had escaped into the security of their mountainous homeland in the Great Smokies. Calhoun recorded many of these traditional songs for an album entitled Where the Ravens Roost, produced and distributed by Western Carolina University’s Mountain Heritage Center. As the leader of sacred ceremonies in Big Cove, Calhoun was respected among his people as a leader who endeavored to preserve their valued cultural heritage.

Calhoun died March 28, 2012.

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MLA Style

"Walker Calhoun," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2018, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 19 Oct 2018 <http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=44>

APA Style

"Walker Calhoun." (2018) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved October 19, 2018, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia: http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=44

Cover of “Where the Ravens Roost” by Walker Calhoun