Special to Indian Country Today
Over the years, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians tribal member Reuben Teesatuskie was a newspaper editor, a police officer, Ceremonial Grounds manager, tribal council representative and artist. An uncle, father, grandfather and great-grandfather, he was also a friend to many in the Cherokee, North Carolina, community.
Teesatuskie died Oct. 19 from COVID-19 at age 68, the fourth tribal member to die in the pandemic as cases surge again in the area. His sister, Rosalee Teesatuskie Smiley, of Cherokee, also died from the disease.
The son of the late Jonah and Estella Arch Teesatuskie, Reuben Teesatuskie was editor of the tribe’s weekly newspaper, The Cherokee One Feather, from 1974 to 1977. He kept the community informed and held tribal government accountable, said Robert Jumper, the current One Feather editor.
“He was charged with being a gatekeeper of the news and a watchman for the Cherokee people,” Jumper said. “His contributions to the continuing work of his fellow journalists made its mark in the years he served as editor, and its impact will be felt for many years after his passing.”
Gail Toineeta Parker, a reporter for the paper at the time, said the easy-going Teesatuskie didn’t cause much of a ruckus and focused the paper on stories of community interest.
“I was 17 when I started working for him,” Parker said. “I liked him. I’ve never had any hard words with him. He was just who he was.”
Learning carving, silversmithing
Born in the Cherokee area where his father was a pastor, Teesatuskie was also a wood carver, silversmith and storyteller. According to the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, an organization that seeks to protect and promote the culture unique to western North Carolina, Teesatuskie learned silversmithing and wood carving as a teenager.
He studied wood carving from the late Amanda Crowe, an award-winning wood carver, who was honored with a Google doodle in 2018. The first bowl he made won first prize at the Cherokee Indian Fair, an annual event that celebrates Cherokee culture. After high school, he studied silversmithing at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Fellow Eastern Cherokee wood carver Sonny Ledford said he looked up to Teesatuskie, who was his cousin. He described him as an all-around wood carver.
“I used to go by his house all the time,” Ledford said. “When you have someone like him give me a compliment, that’s how you know you’ve hit it.”
Teesatuskie presented programs on Cherokee language and culture, and taught Cherokee traditional dances, according to the Blue Ridge Natural Heritage Area. He and his brother operated a craft shop in downtown Cherokee.
But he had underlying health conditions that made him vulnerable to COVID-19. While Ledford didn’t know all of those conditions, he said, “I knew his health was getting bad a couple of years ago.”
Teesatuskie also served on the Eastern Cherokee tribal council. Vice Chief Alan B. Ensley said he was a close friend.
“There’s so much that can be said about Reuben Teesatuskie. Reuben selflessly served our tribal community in many capacities,” Ensley said.
Teesatuskie worked as a police officer for about 10 years and had served as a police commissioner since 2009, according to his obituary that ran in the Cherokee One Feather. He had also served as a volunteer firefighter and worked the Barnette Fire Tower for the U.S. Forest Service.
“Reuben dedicated so much time to the community even when his health was declining,” Ensley said. “Above all his civic duties, Reuben was a great friend. Reuben was a loyal friend that would give you the shirt off his back. His presence will be missed by many in the community. His friendship will be missed and forever cherished by me.”
To help prevent future spread of COVID-19, Ensley urged tribal members to do their part and wear a mask.
“It’s important to take COVID seriously. If you have been deemed a direct contact, follow the quarantine orders,” he said. “Stay home. If you’re a positive and in isolation, stay home. Our tribe does not need to lose more of our people to this virus. I am willing to support whatever measures necessary to keep our people safe. Each of us must do our part to protect our culture, our traditions, our language and each citizen of the (Cherokee Indian Reservation).”
Teesatuskie leaves behind his wife, Maxine; three daughters and a step-daughter; two brothers; two sisters; 12 grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; and numerous nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by his parents; an infant son, Jason; two brothers and his sister.
Ledford said Teesatuskie wasn’t a boisterous person.
“He always listened and gave advice. I learned a lot from him,” he said. “He was a big inspiration to me. He’s one of the good ones we lost. He still had a lot to share. Now it’s gone.”
Joseph Martin is a former editor of the Cherokee One Feather in Cherokee, N.C., and a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
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