Oct/Nov 2011  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Shawn Crowe

Interview by Kimberly L. Becker

Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (ECBI) tribal member Shawn Crowe is Instructor of Cherokee Youth in Radio and Cherokee Youth in Sound Production at the Cherokee Youth Center in Cherokee, North Carolina. A veteran of television and radio, Crowe has more than 30 years of experience in the broadcast industry as a voice actor or talent, including professional sports announcing for the NBA and MMA. His host and spokesperson credits include working for Paula Dean and Craig Morgan and sports talk on WWNC Asheville. In addition to his work for Cherokee Youth in Radio, Crowe is also the video and audio coordinator for Cherokee High School Basketball, editing all audio and video for the coaches and the arena, as well as coordinator for Play On Sports, in conjunction with the North Carolina High School Athletic Association. He has also served as public address announcer at Harrah's Cherokee Casino and Hotel since its inception.


KB     Shawn, thanks for taking time for this conversation. From the time we met in Cherokee language immersion class, I have so enjoyed learning about Cherokee Youth in Radio. It's been an honor to work on adapting some of the Cherokee myths into audio plays since you are, in a sense, returning the stories to their original oral form. Could you explain the significance of these stories in the life of the Aniyvwiya (Real People) and of the Eastern Band in particular? The stories certainly are "medicinal" in that they can render an effect on the reader and especially the listener. I'm thinking of "Why the Opossum's Tail is Bare" as a cautionary tale against pride and vanity. Do all the stories serve a teaching purpose and if so, is that part of what the youth learn, in addition to production skills?

SC     Stories have always been how the Cherokee passed traditions down from generation to generation. History of our people has always been passed down orally as well. When John Gregg who was with Native Radio Theater first approached me with the idea of doing the Cherokee legends as a radio play, I agreed to do it only if the plays were kept as traditional as possible. I began the script for "Why Opossum's Tail is Bare," and then with the help of Kevin Norris, who was the theater teacher at Cherokee High School, we finished the play. We kept it as I had always heard it growing up, and we were able to add the family aspect into the play as well. I personally think that a lot of the books you see in print now take way too much liberty with the stories, and I want anything we record here to be as close to original as possible. Why? Because when the stories are told in the winter around the fire, they are told to teach lessons and pass on the history or why something is as it is today, and if we change it, it isn't Cherokee anymore. The history of how the Cherokee became who they are and where they are, is told in these stories.

KB     Storytellers are held in high regard as tradition-bearers. Different storytellers have their own styles, with variations on the same story. In selecting scripts, how do you negotiate the tension between respecting tradition while engaging contemporary listeners, especially young people? How much latitude is there before there is a risk of jeopardizing the integrity of the original?

SC     When you change the legend to fit you or your interpretation of the story, it is no longer Cherokee! It becomes your story. Now I'm only speaking for myself, but I think that when you take liberty with a traditional story, you might as well go ahead and rewrite the history of the Cherokee as well, because you have changed the stories that were told around the fires in the winter lodges by the elders. These stories were what the people heard and held on to as fact, and they held them close to their hearts. If you listen to the stories in the original form, it doesn't matter if you are a traditional listener or a contemporary listener—the stories will appeal to you. It also doesn't matter your age—it will appeal to you no matter who you are if you will just listen.

KB     Is it fair to assume that what people shared with James Mooney, author of Cherokee History, Myths and Sacred Formulas (Myths of the Cherokee was 1st published in 1900; Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees was 1st published in 1891) and what he recorded might not be the "real" version, especially when it comes to sacred material? Does a story in the oral tradition lose its potency by being written down, especially in English?

SC     I think most of the legends in the Mooney book are very close to original. The formulas in that book may not be. Talking with some of the elders, a lot of them didn't even know that the Mooney book existed until the last few years. The elders who did know about the book say that the sacred formulas that were told to Mooney were not the real formulas. Just like the Bible lost some of the true meaning when it was translated from the original, the legends are the same way when translated from the Cherokee. The Cherokee language is so literal; even in general conversation it is literally talking in specifics, and Kim, you have studied the language, so you know this to be true. So yes, I think in some of the translations of some of the stories, the real potency is lost in the translation.

KB     Speaking of the language, the plays incorporate the Cherokee language. One of your advisors is Myrtle Driver, Beloved Woman and elder, who is fluent in the language. As part of the Yonaguska Literature Initiative (through the Museum of the Cherokee Indian), she undertook the daunting task of translating Charles Frazier's novel, Thirteen Moons, which you then engineered and edited into CD format. You are also proficient in the language, as are some of the youth (and that proficiency is likely to increase as more young children attend the immersion Academy). What does it mean to you personally that not only tradition, but also language is being perpetuated through the work of Cherokee Youth in Radio?

SC     Well, first I'm flattered that you think I'm proficient in the language, because when it comes right down to it, I'm not, but I continue to try to learn. It is my hope that our use of the Cherokee language in the program, as little as it may be, will inspire a kid to want to learn more. Myrtle and Bo Taylor have really inspired me to try to learn more Cherokee, but it has always been something I have wanted to do because I am Cherokee and our language is the one thing that really separates us from everybody else. I mean you see Cherokee people today with blond hair and blue eyes, and they are enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee. You can find people that can make a basket, a piece of pottery, or even tell a legend, and these at one time were things that a lot of people identified as being Cherokee, but the one thing that sets us apart is our unique language. It is a dream of mine one day to do either a sports broadcast or an entire news program in the Cherokee language, but that is a huge dream.

KB     In addition to the radio plays, I believe there is also a youth-produced news program based on articles from the local newspaper, The Cherokee One Feather. Do the students write up the stories along with the PSAs (public service announcements) that run instead of commercials? Are the shows live or prerecorded? What about sports coverage? What is the age range of the youth involved? Is this an afterschool program only or an extension of school classes?

SC     The stories are taken from Cherokee One Feather and the radio program is called Cherokee One Feather News. We rewrite the stories and about half of the PSAs, and the kids write all the promotional spots for the program. The shows are pre-recorded, and we do cover sports. We are working on a program right now in conjunction with the North Carolina High School Athletic Association and Play On Sports that will allow our students and students of Cherokee High School to produce broadcast-quality video programs to be streamed live or on demand on the Internet. We will be able to upload sporting events, graduations, programs, meetings, and basically any event that takes place at Cherokee Central Schools and in the community. The program for video and radio was originally set up for use just by our teen center, but I have opened the door to pre-teens and mature fifth graders, so basically 12 to 19 years old is the age group. Right now the program is an afterschool program, and we are working on re-establishing it as a vocational class with the school system.

KB     What are the benefits, beyond acquired technical skills, to the youth who participate in the Project? What about the benefit to the community? It seems like the Project is in part an intergenerational effort. You mentioned Bo Taylor in conjunction with the language. He is also a Native American Music Award winner and a member of the cultural ambassadors, the Warriors of Anikituhwa. Bo has contributed time and talent to the Project along with renowned storyteller Lloyd Arneach and other local artists. This must be a great inspiration to the youth!

SC     It is and always will be a way to go back to the tradition of including the young and old in an activity. It used to be because the Cherokee people were self sufficient that families did everything together, but in this day and time it is very rare to see the young and old work on something together. It was very special when Myrtle and Lloyd were both in the studio working on the Opossum project, and that was four years ago and we have yet been able to find a time to get all those same kids and adults back together for the Spearfinger play Kevin and I wrote as the sequel to the Opossum play. The other benefit for the kids is that the legends are not told in the home anymore, and some kids may never hear a legend except for the ones that are told in the schools. If we don't tell the legends, we will lose them because they are being watered down as mentioned earlier by writers who are putting their spin on them. Once we get them recorded, they will always be there for the community. One of these days—and I hope in the very near future —we can record every play that has been written for us. It is just so hard to do all things that we are trying to do here at the Youth Center due to limited access with the kids and time constraints.

KB     With an increasing interest in Native American spiritual beliefs and traditions, there are more and more works influenced or "inspired" by Indian culture and tradition, often resulting in a watered-down version of the original, but sometimes also with a view to monetary gain. Have you come up against this issue in your capacity as director of the Radio Project? You've alluded to it, but where is the line between respectful utilization and cultural appropriation?

SC     Well, fortunately for us, we have people like you and Robert Conley who are willing to donate their time and talents to our program, and we haven't had very many artists approach us looking for monetary gain, but we have had them. I like what you told me one time: that writing for us was your way of giving back, and you always have by donating your talents to this program and I respect you for that. As far as looking at that line between utilization and cultural appropriation, I guess that would come down to the individual. I have a lot more respect for those people who are doing what they do as a way to broaden that cultural aspect of the Cherokee people or any other Native American group. I have no respect for someone who is using the Native Americans as a payday. Enough said.

KB     How do you balance coaching young talent with upholding professional standards? You have your own children; I imagine your experience as a parent is an asset in working with the youth, especially when expensive studio equipment is involved. I'm sure there have been some amusing moments or close calls. Care to share any?

SC     Well, the close calls usually involve horseplay around the equipment, and we have a rule: one warning, and the second time you are dismissed from the program, so that took care of that problem. We have lost interviews; well, I lost an interview one time because I didn't save it correctly and the person would not come back and redo the interview. But as you said, I have kids, and working with kids, I just try to get them to do their best. We have a saying in the program: "Let's be professional in everything we do, and if you don't have the time to do it right, what makes you think you have the time to do it over?" We are always under a deadline in most projects, so I try to prepare them to succeed by practicing and knowing how to pronounce names and words and to work hard so we don't fail.

KB     Do you have umbrella organizations? You've participated in a Festival with Native Radio Theater and National Audio Theater. What was that experience like? Is that a regular occurrence?

SC     We haven't participated with the Native Radio Theater since John Gregg, who did a good job with the radio theater by the way, isn't participating with that program any more. Now we are mostly doing our own thing, but when we complete another play, we have an open invitation with Native Voice One that will play any projects we send them. As far as the experience with Native Radio Theater, they were usually a project we did in a week, and that was very stressful for all involved, which took a lot of the fun out of it, but it was productive and really showed the kids what it is like to look at real production deadline.

KB     How are sound effects generated? In-studio or live? Do the students invent and record them? In "The Bullfrog Lover," it is evident how important sounds are to creating the overall tone and ambiance. Given your training, when you read a script, do you automatically think in terms of auditory components or "show value"?

SC     Oh, we do all the sound effects, and we very rarely used canned effects that are pre-recorded. We generate about 95% of all our sound effects. For "The Bullfrog Lover," which was done before a live audience by the way, all of the sound effects were done on stage except for village noise and wildlife sounds, and they were pre-recorded at the Cherokee Indian Village and played that night. Everything else—from walking on dirt to pouring water and the frog splashes—was done on stage live! The sound is what brings Radio Theater, or what I like to call "Theater of the mind," to life. It is those sounds along with good actors that bring the life to a project.

KB     How do you decide which plays to produce? How many have been produced thus far? Walk us through the process of adapting a play from script to production. How long does it take? Are the plays presented live?

SC     "The Bullfrog Lover" is the only play that we have done live, and I would have to be committed if I did another one live! It is hard to do a play like that in a week, and I really don't know how we did it given the limited time we had the kids to do it. We have produced four plays since I have been here, and that is one a year. We start with the kids choosing what play it is that they would like to do from the scripts that have been submitted. We then have a casting call and auditions, and in that whole process, I, along with the production crew and sound effects engineer, start working up the script in terms of what equipment might be needed, how are we going to generate the sound effects, and what space will be utilized for the project. Once the performers have been chosen, we begin rehearsals, and then recording begins. A project done right will take a couple of months. It is a lot of long days and nights but very rewarding in the end.

KB     What funding do you have for Cherokee Youth in Radio? How might people contribute towards supporting your programs? What is the relationship between Western Carolina University and Cherokee Youth in Radio? Do college students mentor the youth?

SC     The Cherokee Preservation Foundation is the only grant contributor that has funded every program that we do. Susan Jenkins and Deb Mintz have been with the foundation for many years; they have my utmost respect and are the very, very best in what they do. They have helped us with every project and have never turned down any request. I can't say enough about them; without them and the Foundation's financial support, this program would not exist. In the past we have had students from Western Carolina University come in and help with a couple of projects, but that group's funding ran out and we have not been able to utilize them for a couple of years. However, the Youth Center is part of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and anyone can volunteer to help. We usually just put out a call, and we have people like Lloyd Arneach and Myrtle Driver who will come in and help. On that same note, if anyone would like to donate to the program, all you have to do is contact me and I will put you in touch with the folks who can help you set up a tax-deductible contribution.

KB     On a personal note, I have heard you are quite the bibliophile. Tell us about your collection. How does your love of literature inform your work in the studio and your own script writing?

SC     First let me say I do collect and love books, and I am a true bibliophile, but I hate to write! My collection is not a lot of first editions, which a lot of collectors go after. I have a few first editions, but I am looking for stuff I like. My collection of Native American books is my most valued part of the collection, but I have history, religion, biographies and books on a wide scale of subjects—just whatever I am into at the moment. For example, mountaineering is my big thing right now and Mount Everest in particular, so I have added about eight books on the subject in the last two months. My wife hates to see me go to yard sales and flea markets, because I am looking for books to take up space, but since I found Amazon, I have stopped visiting those places, and the collections grows, so that she hates to see the postman coming now! I am not a writer; some people like you love to write, and I respect those of you who can. I can do it, I just don't like it, so it is hard for me to get motivated to do so.

KB     What is your vision for Cherokee Youth in Radio? What is the most rewarding aspect of directing this program? What is your hope for the youth who participate?

SC     Working with the kids and seeing their eyes light up when they get the understanding of what I am trying to teach them. When they hear themselves on air, and they say, Is that really me? is also satisfying. I hope this program will give them another option when it comes to making a life decision on what do I want to do when I graduate high school. I always tell them, Learn this and it will open another door for you in the future. Not only are we teaching radio, sound production, and video production, I am trying to teach them life lessons as well. How to work hard, do your best, and at the end of the day if you can look at yourself in the mirror and know you did your best, then it is ok no matter what anybody else thinks. We don't settle for second best in this program; we go for the gold!

KB     Who are your affiliates? What stations can we tune in to listen to Cherokee Youth in Radio? Are the programs available on line?

SC     Right now we are on WWCU 90.5 every Saturday morning at 8:30am and you can stream that at www.wwcufm.com.

KB     Tell us a bit about yourself as a youngster. Were you always interested in this type of work? Is this Project something you would have participated in had it been available? You have such a great voice. Have you had professional voice training, or do you come by it naturally?

SC     Radio DJ was what I started out wanting to be. I used to listen to 1500 WLAC out of Tennessee on the radio at night, and they had this DJ who called himself Spiderman, and he was the coolest. He had the late shift midnight until 6am, and I would play my radio in my room at night as a teenager and listen to this guy with his deep voice spinning the latest rock and roll hits; he was the best, and I wanted to be like him. I have had no voice training. It is a God-given gift. I used to ride around at night with my friends listening to music, and I would introduce the next song just like I had heard on the radio, and they thought it was cool so I kept doing it. In the 11th grade, Tom Frazier, my photography teacher, heard me doing the "voice" one day and signed me up to narrate a slide show they were putting together, and the rest is history. Funny thing is though, I have only worked one job where I was a DJ, and that was a weekend gig at a local station in Bryson City WBHN. I have always loved sports, so I got into sports broadcasting, which combined my two loves, sports and broadcasting, and for the last 30 years I can humbly say I have never had to go look for a job in broadcasting—they always came looking for me, and for that I thank God, because he gave me this voice and I am fortunate to have it. I also emcee a lot of live events, and I enjoy doing that as well.

KB     What is your favorite story? Which character do you identify with most?

SC     You are putting me on the spot now because I can't just pick one. I feel like they are all part of me, and being Cherokee it is a part of us as a people. But if you want me pick one, I guess the story of how the Bear who started out as a man and became a bear is one of my favorites. I identify with that character as well, because if you hear the story, the man just didn't fit in, and he went to live in the mountains and loved it, and he stayed there until he became a bear, and then he found his place in the world, and the Cherokee still to this day look at the bear as something they respect. I didn't fit at one time, because I was trying to be something I wasn't. So today I just try to be me, and I feel like as long as I do that, people will respect me and what I am doing.

KB     Shawn, best wishes for the success of the Cherokee Youth in Radio Project! It has been an honor both working with you on some of the plays and speaking with you about the Project as a whole. Any last thoughts you'd like to leave us with? Any advice for aspiring playwrights?

SC     Just remember "Theater of the mind!" Sgi! De-n-da-go-hv-yu! Till we meet again, and thank you for the opportunity to talk a little about our program.

KB     Sgi! I appreciate your time, and I look forward to seeing you again!