“I had no intentions of ever coming back here to live,” Yona Wade says of the Qualla Boundary – though it’s hard to imagine, post-return, a more perfect union of a homegrown talent and a community.
The Qualla Boundary, an hour’s drive west from Asheville through the mountains and valleys of Western North Carolina, is home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Wade spent his early years here on the boundary, then returned to pursue a career and serve his community.
For the past 13 years, he’s worked for the Cherokee Central School district, leveraging his master’s degree from the North Carolina School of the Arts in performing arts management and his considerable communications skills to introduce his students to the broader world and the broader world to his students.
Wade has served as the school district’s cultural arts and public relations director, development director, and director of community affairs. Then in April, he began his new job as secretary of education and recreation for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
“Yona has served as a true public servant,” says Jae Winchester, the school district’s deputy director of community affairs. “He’s bringing in opportunities – opportunities that most people would never even think to bring to Cherokee, for our kids, and for our community.”
“I’ve been lucky since I started working professionally,” Wade says, “that I’ve been able to create every job that I’ve had, or I’ve been able to play a role in what that job was.”
That certainly seems true – aside from the lucky part.
Strong women in Wade’s life helped mold him into the person he is today. His father died two months after his birth. His mother worked in factories and fast food while earning a degree in social work from Western Carolina University. She then took a position with Save the Children, where she ran a foster grandparent program she’d created while still in school.
His grandmothers were likewise significant influences.
Wade spent his high school years in Oklahoma, where his stepfather was from. During those years away, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort arrived, and the Qualla Boundary experienced enormous change.
Harrah’s features 150,000 square feet of gambling space and a 21-story hotel. Half of the casino revenues received by the tribal council is allocated to enrolled members; the other half is invested in tribal operations and infrastructure. Quality of life has risen significantly on the Qualla Boundary.
But Wade has fond memories of his youth here. He grew up in the low-income Adams Creek housing development; few families seemed to be thriving. But there was plenty to keep a kid entertained. The town of Cherokee was dotted with curio shops and mom-and-pop motels catering to visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“The town seemed really, really busy, and we enjoyed, as kids, having people here in town,” he recalls. There was traditional dance and lots of music. “Tourists and the folks staying in the campgrounds would come and bring their lawn chairs. A lot of clogging.”
Clogging isn’t per se a Native American art form. But, Wade says, “Clogging is part of the mountain culture.” For many here, the line between Appalachian and Native American culture is indistinct, or nonexistent.
“You can’t talk Cherokee without talking Appalachian culture. They’re one and the same,” he says. “Many people who live near the boundary here would say Cherokee culture is a part of their culture, whether they’re Cherokee or not.”
“If you’re Appalachian, it’s all here to remember,” Wade says.
“We’d walk into my grandmother’s house, and she would have leather britches hanging or peppers drying. Those are Cherokee culture and mountain culture combined.” Likewise, how to preserve food for the winter.
Or basketry: “We do an Appalachian-style egg basket, or butt basket it would be called here,” he says. “That’s the style that my family makes, and it’s uniquely Cherokee in the way it’s created.”
At the North Carolina School of the Arts, in Winston-Salem, Wade earned an undergraduate degree in voice – he sings opera – and his master’s in performing arts management. To make ends meet while in school, he sang and played piano in local churches.
He then returned to the Qualla Boundary to do an internship in marketing with the Cherokee Historical Association, which produces the summer outdoor drama “Unto These Hills.” And he was back to stay.
He next moved to the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, the nation’s oldest Native American cooperative – of which his father’s family had been members, as basketry artists, since its inception – serving as its first outreach coordinator. There he created the Cherokee Friends program: ambassadors of history and culture for visitors to the Qualla Boundary.
Then, in 2009, the Cherokee Central School district opened its new school: a half-million-square-foot campus – elementary, middle, and high school – which features a performing arts venue, the Chief Joyce Dugan Cultural Arts Center. He applied for the job to manage the center – having helped define the nature of the job while at the cooperative – and got it.
The center is actually a number of small venues across the campus – including a dance studio and a theater in the round – and a 1,011-seat theater. “The center is designed to provide a cultural experience to our campus, students, staff, and community,” Wade says.
Winchester cites as examples of the cultural experiences Wade has afforded students a current exhibit of traditional masks and visits by the North Carolina Symphony.
“I think they don’t always see the appreciation now,” she says. “But when they hit a couple years later, they’re, ‘Oh, I heard a jazz band when I was in third grade. I recognize that.’ That’s what we’re trying to instill.”
“Being able to provide this programming for them,” Winchester says, “it just opens their world a little bit more – that there’s more outside of the boundary.”
Wade is also active in the Qualla Education Collaborative, the objective of which, he explains, is “to look at indigenous-student growth as a whole; what it looks like to be a Cherokee student.” Among the initiatives they’ve sponsored is a partnership with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.
As Dr. Beverly Payne, interim superintendent of the Cherokee Central School District, put it in a video recognizing Wade for his selection as a 2019 Indigenous Excellence Award recipient, “Yona is a great person to have in a collaborative such as this because he has so many connections already out in the community – and he’s involved in so many things inside the school and outside the school – that sometimes he can make those bridges and connections that the rest of us can’t.”
During the thick of the pandemic, levering those skills meant coordinating with the school system’s IT director to distribute hotspots so that students could attend remotely – a considerable task in these mountains – and working with local grocery chains to bring bulk items into a makeshift food pantry.
He now brings those skills to his new role as secretary of education and recreation.
Wade takes the same approach to his social life as he does to his work, surrounding himself with collaborators, with whom he travels frequently– to Atlanta, Savannah, New Orleans, and beyond.
“I create what I need,” he says. “If you’re that kind of person who’s just gonna take what you get and be like, ‘Well, that’s all I got,’ that’s all you’ll ever have. If you want something more – you want something better – then you work to make that happen.”
His community benefits each day from that philosophy.