Will West Long (Willí Westì)

Photo c. 1925 from The Museum of the Cherokee Indian

Native American (Eastern Band Cherokee), Autoethnography, Folklore, Crafts

Will West Long (Willí Westì)


Will West Long, recognized as a master mask carver, collaborated with multiple anthropologists over a span of 60 years to document the music, dance, drama, folklore, and medicinal/spiritual traditions of the Eastern band of Cherokee. 

Born in the back country of North Carolina in the community of Big Cove around 1870, Wilí Westì grew up in one of the most traditional and conservative Cherokee environments during a time that was less than fifty years after the federal government had tried to remove all Cherokee to Indian territory in Oklahoma. His father, John Long was a Baptist preacher, and mother, Sally Terrapin (Ayasta), a medicine woman. They had escaped and hid in the backwoods of North Carolina with other Cherokee families from several communities choosing to continue living a traditional life instead of trekking west. After much violence toward them, they bought the present reservation in the Qualla Boundary as communal land. 

Will West Long grew up traditionally, learning the Cherokee language and ways of life. At sixteen, he was sent to the Indian boarding school at Trinity College (now Duke University). After spending several lonely months there, he trekked 235 miles back to the reservation, sleeping during the day and walking at night. He would later return to the school for a year, during which time an older Cherokee student taught him to read and write Sequoyah’s syllabary while he was also learning to read and write in English. 

After he returned back to the reservation and his mother’s household, he took up farming and began the process of becoming a shaman. In 1887, anthropologist James Mooney hired Long to be a scribe, translator, and interpreter using the Cherokee syllabary. With Mooney’s  encouragement, Long pursued higher education, selected at age 25 to attend the Indian program at Hampton Institute, where he studied for five years. He then worked and attended various schools in New England for another decade before returning home in 1904 before his mother’s death. 

Long remained in the Qualla Boundary for the rest of his life, devoting his life to serving his community and learning Cherokee ways. He served as a tribal council member for 28 years and established the Cherokee Indian Fair. He continued to work with Mooney on a systematic study of Cherokee traditions until 1920. He also worked with numerous other anthropologists, as well, aware that his vast knowledge benefitted the white anthropologists with whom he worked, but also hoping that the knowledge he shared would eventually benefit his community. 

Under Long’s leadership, the community performed the full cycle of ceremonial traditions that had not been performed in the community since the 1880s for documentation and recording. For these events, he carved traditional masks. With U Penn anthropologist Frank G. Speck, Long worked to translate and interpret the restricted knowledge of Cherokee medicinal and spiritual practices. Long worked with anthropologists George Myers Stephens to write a Cherokee dictionary and with John Witthoft, he collaborated on a study of Cherokee ethnobotany. 

Although much of Long’s knowledge and scholarly contributions were not published under his name, his writings can be found in archives, and he was listed as co-author/collaborator for:

Speck, Bloom with Long. Cherokee Dance and Drama (1950)

Phyllis M. May-Machunda