'Cherokee, in the center': Asheville murals project paints way for an indigenous movement

ASHEVILLE - A few months back, Jared Wheatley was meditating on one of the five murals he had created in Asheville, something he did multiple times a week, when saw a man and his son standing nearby.

“You see that, son?” the man said. “Look over there.”

The white man, whom Wheatley, 37, and a dual citizen of the U.S. and Cherokee Nation, described has having a burly, country voice, was pointing at the mural, a simple white-against-black script in the Cherokee syllabary. It read “ᏣᎳᎩ ᎠᏰᎵ,” short for “Tsalagi Ayeli” as spelled out in the Latin alphabet, meaning “Cherokee Nation” or roughly translated, “Cherokee, in the center.”

Wheatley, overhearing the conversation, was wary, uncertain of what the man would say.

“I kind of grimaced a little bit in my head,” Wheatley said.

What came out of the man’s mouth, however, touched Jared, himself a father of two.

“That’s the Cherokee,” the man said to his son, gesturing to the syllables. “You got to respect them. They’ve been here since forever.”

In some ways, those words were the type of reaction Wheatley’s art is supposed to elicit.

“In that moment I realized that's the power of people having the opportunity to have the conversation,” Wheatley said.

Jared Wheatley, right, walks along the top of one of his Indigenous Walls Project murals with his children, Eze Kiel Wheatley, center, and Alexis “Nex” Wheatley, November 19, 2022.
Jared Wheatley, right, walks along the top of one of his Indigenous Walls Project murals with his children, Eze Kiel Wheatley, center, and Alexis “Nex” Wheatley, November 19, 2022.

Wheatley, a dual citizen of the United States and Cherokee Nation, is inspiring a conversation in Asheville that’s taken off in a matter of months.

In April he was putting up his first mural at 46 Aston St., kicking off a from-the-heart effort that now has an official name: the Indigenous Walls Project.

By October there were at least four more syllabary murals plus more graffiti-style creations around town, made by indigenous artists from around the country during an October “graffiti jam.”

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The art on Aston Street has become a gathering place as well, home to a Saturday market where folks from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians come from the Qualla Boundary ― the name of their tribal lands near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park ― to sell jewelry, carvings, oils, baked goods and prints.

Gathering people together, creating conversation, sharing stories, cultivating cultural heritage: Wheatley’s art has started doing this in Asheville, where 0.4% of the population or roughly 375 people are Native American or Alaska Native alone, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2021 estimates. The number of people with indigenous heritage is much larger, Wheatley estimated between 1,500-2,000.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, centered on the Qualla Boundary in WNC, has 14,000 tribal members, according to the National Congress of American Indians.

But in the end, he said, it’s actually not about the art, but how the art is paving the way for something bigger.

“The goal of the project, in the end, has very little to do with murals, and has everything to do with landback and empowering indigenous ways of being throughout our society,” Wheatley said.

A complex history

The “landback” movement is a longstanding effort to get indigenous lands stolen by the U.S. Government over the years back into indigenous hands.

Asheville, Buncombe County and Western North Carolina are no stranger to this issue. In a project titled “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow,” created in November 2021 by the Buncombe County Register of Deeds office, a deep dive into records reiterated a sobering truth.

“Buncombe County Register of Deeds humbly acknowledges that the land we are on is the ancestral land of the Anigiduwagi, more commonly known as the Cherokee,” that project stated in its first paragraphs. “This land was acquired through violence, oppression, coercion and broken treaties.”

More:Tough story to tell: Chronicles of Cherokee land cessions, broken treaties in Buncombe County

Wheatley was born and raised in Kansas City — not on ingenious land, he noted — in a working-class family and has made vocalizing that history and landback ideas a core part of his personal mission.

“Being raised in an urban environment, away from our nation, we really didn't have much cultural awareness,” Wheatley said of himself and his siblings. “You know, I had this strange card that says, 'certified Indian blood' from the Bureau of the Interior and Indian Affairs. It was strange to be raised in an environment where we knew we were native, but we really didn't know what that meant.”

Artist Jared Wheatley stands next to a wall of murals from the Indigenous Walls Project on Aston Street in Asheville November 19, 2022.
Artist Jared Wheatley stands next to a wall of murals from the Indigenous Walls Project on Aston Street in Asheville November 19, 2022.

Some in his family chose to embrace that identity, Wheatley said. Others didn’t.

A few generations back, however, some in Wheatley’s family didn’t have a choice but to be keenly aware of heritage.

His grandfather, Robert Lee Whitmire, was born in 1934 and sent to Seneca boarding school in Oklahoma at the age of 6.

“He was subjected to all the practices under the guise of the federal government, stating they wanted to ‘kill the Indian and save the man,’” Wheatley said, quoting an infamous line attributed to Union Army Brigadier General Richard Henry Pratt. “(Whitmire) was subjected to beatings for speaking our languages, practicing our culture. And nobody really knows what all he went through at that boarding school.”

Whitmire served in the U.S. Army and later settled in Kansas City. He had personal struggles that led to familial estrangement and, ultimately, indigeneity being looked down upon by some in his family, Wheatley said.

“I always try to explain to people that my family is what ethnic side and genocide looks like. We're tribally affiliated, and we're citizens of a separate nation,” Wheatley said. “But even our own family doesn't necessarily know what it's like to be proud of our indigeneity and to accept our indigeneity, and the complex history that overlays our existence.”

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Wheatley, like his grandfather, has embraced his indigenous roots in a way that is literally changing Asheville. He moved to the area 14 years ago, went to Asheville Buncombe Technical Community College, Western Carolina University for a degree in construction management and then Northeastern University for a master’s in economic development.

Today he’s a successful owner of WTAPS x Construction Management where he has managed high-profile projects like the New Belgium Brewing facility in the city’s River Arts District.

Over the years he’s established close friendships with local entrepreneurs eager to back his cause. These include David Moritz, a real estate developer and the owner of buildings where Wheatley is creating his art, and Greg and Ashley Garrison, owners of The Hop Handcrafted Ice Cream.

Jared Wheatley, right, sits at the top of one of his Indigenous Walls Project murals with his children, Eze Kiel Wheatley, center, and Alexis “Nex” Wheatley, November 19, 2022 on Aston Street.
Jared Wheatley, right, sits at the top of one of his Indigenous Walls Project murals with his children, Eze Kiel Wheatley, center, and Alexis “Nex” Wheatley, November 19, 2022 on Aston Street.

Garrison has known Wheatley since they met 10 years ago playing soccer in the Asheville adult league. Now he’s leveraging The Hop as a way to promote indigenous education and form community around Wheatley’s mission.

“He's very passionate and his energy is contagious,” Garrison said. “And he is doing something that's really special. So it was natural for us to try and be even more involved than we were originally.”

For the Garrisons, that meant, among other things, reaching out to horticulturalists and forgers on the Qualla Boundary to develop a new ice cream flavor.

“Through that process, we developed tons of relationships, and our relationship became more solidified,” Garrison said. “We had lots of conversations where I was able to gain a lot of perspective.”

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Garrison said he’s also been challenged philosophically and culturally, learning to use language and ideas that decenter capitalist and colonialist-centric thinking. He recently worked on a press release, shared it with indigenous collaborators and then scrapped it.

“I had to apologize,” Garrison said. “I thought that I was doing something, being really supportive, and it just totally missed the mark … .  It was eye-opening and exactly what I needed to hear and have happened if we were going to really have The Hop be a platform for talking about indigenous culture issues.”

Now Garrison is on a board that is helping craft and support Wheatley’s vision.

Moritz has a similar story of using his resources as a literal canvas for Wheatley’s ideas.

Several of his buildings bear the Tsalagi Ayeli and buildings have a special, profound meaning for Moritz.

His father was a Holocaust survivor from the German municipality of Brechenbach, southeast of Frankfurt. Moritz’s father was forced to leave his home as a young child but returned years later to see his childhood home.

“We went there in 2010, with my kids, and he showed us the house,” Moritz said.

“‘That's my house,’’ his father said upon returning to Brechenbach with the family. “He still saw it as his house.”

This history has overlap with what the Indigenous Walls Project is moving to accomplish, Moritz said, and is spurring people like him to action.

“I think it's something that we should be aware of, at least be educated on and have an appreciation for it,” Moritz said. “I’ve definitely started thinking a lot more about that. (I’m) definitely much more aware of indigenous peoples here. I had no idea there were more than 500 recognized tribes in the United States. I think the United States sometimes hides some of our history.”

‘Still here’

History and the future collide in Wheatley’s work.

He’s the father of two children Nex, 12, and Ezekiel, 10, and when he uses the third person “we,” he means the three of them.

“Me and my kids are the ones who made the most sacrifice to bring this project to fruition. And myself and my kids are also the largest beneficiaries, because we are the ones who have received the most indigeneity, the most back into ourselves and our spiritual being," he said.

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"Without this project, I'm not sure that the city of Asheville would have ever been prepared to have the conversation about indigeneity in our city, and we're glad. We're not always the right people to step up and lead a conversation, but we're glad to have led the fight for the conversation.”

That conversation is blossoming from art to the Saturday market to the Graffiti Jam and potentially to something much bigger, which is why Wheatley says the murals are just a start.

“Our intermediate goal is to establish an urban Native Center here in Asheville,” he said. “Many larger metropolitan areas do have urban Native centers, but it's not common in the southeast.”

He and others are framing the murals project and everything radiating from it as a local reversal of indigenous erasure that happens everywhere in the U.S.

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At the Indigenous Market at 46 Aston St. Nov. 19, Usdasdi, whose name is also Hollie Stover, was selling jewelry made of bead and bone and recycled materials, some patterned with what she called the fire colors of the Cherokee: black, orange, yellow, white.

Hollie Stover (right) with her niece Ashley Sena sell jewelry at the Indigenous Market at 46 Aston St. in Asheville.
Hollie Stover (right) with her niece Ashley Sena sell jewelry at the Indigenous Market at 46 Aston St. in Asheville.

Stover is part of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. She started selling jewelry around the same time she started dancing, she said, more than a decade ago when she was pregnant with her daughter who was with her at the market.

“We need to raise awareness because a lot of people don't even know about the Trail of Tears and why we were marched out,” Stover said, using her art as illustration of that point. “The seeds that I use are corn beads. And there's a legend about that: When they marched our people out, everywhere, they cried, the plants that sprouted up were a gift from the Creator to let them know that he would look out for us. I try to put all of that in my work.”

Stover’s daughter, 10, sat beside her, drawing in a lined notebook. She and her mother both have been learning the Cherokee language and syllabary that Wheatley has made so prominent around Asheville, symbols that could play a significant part in the city’s future.

“We are still here,” Stover said.

To learn more about Wheatley’s work, visit his website at indigenouswallsproject.com or the Instagram handle, @indigenouswallsproject.

Andrew Jones is an investigative reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. Reach him at @arjonesreports on Facebook and Twitter, 828-226-6203 or arjones@citizentimes.com. Please help support this type of journalism with a subscription to the Citizen Times.

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Indigenous Walls Project sparking a cultural movement in Asheville