Cleo Deerinwater

2 06 2008

We lost one of our Cherokee elders to a heart attack this morning. He is Cleo Deerinwater and it was my privilege to meet him last week. He called one of the producers around 4:30 this morning and told her he was not feeling well. She told him to head for the lobby where our first assistant director met him. It was there that he had a heart attack. Our first AD did CPR until the EMTs arrived. He did not make it.

On Tuesday. he sat in my chair and we made his hair into a hairstyle that would pass for 1820. This required a blow dryer and a curling iron. After he realized that we were really going to curl his hair with an iron, he grinned and said, “This is a first.”

In the short amount of time that I spent with him, he told me that he had served in the Navy. He told me about where he met his first wife. They married and lived together in Baltimore, Maryland for 18 years. Then they moved back to Oklahoma, where his family is from now. She passed away last year. Cleo was engaged to be married this September. He was 72 years old and sharp as a tack with a spry sense of humor and a deep humility. His adopted brother and a cousin came with him to do this project too.

One of the reasons that Cleo came to this documentary is that he spoke the Cherokee language. This is not as common as I thought. We have about 10 Cherokee elders on this project who speak the language. Each man is unique in his own personality and these men stick together like glue. Our production company, very thoughtfully. offered to send anyone home right away if they felt that they should not continue working. They all decided that it would have been important to Cleo to finish this project. This place, the Georgia mountains, is where their story began. This is the land they were forced off of. It is an important part of their history. of all of our history really, and the story needs to be told and taught.

In our sadness at the loss of this Cherokee elder, there is a comfort in knowing that he passed here. One of the last things a nurse heard him say was, “I am home.”

I am grateful for Cleo that he did not suffer from a lingering illness. He was not stuck in a hospital bed or a nursing home. Cleo enjoyed being a part of re-telling history in this documentary. He was active and his mind was sharp. Most of the time I saw him on or around set, he was smiling.

We had an impromptu memorial in the motel at 5 this evening. Every one of the Cherokee brothers here got up and spoke one by one about Cleo. He touched many lives and was an example to some of the younger men here.

Since I only knew him for a short time, I did not think I would need tissues. His cousin spoke first and I was a sniffling wretch for the rest of the time. It was humbling to hear how this man touched lives without having to say much at all. Our oldest member of the Cherokee elders, 84 years old, got up and began to quote the 23rd Psalm. He offered a prayer in Jesus name and finished the prayer in Cherokee. After each one had their say, they all stood up together and sang Amazing Grace… in Cherokee.

Cleo has left a legacy. He was a good man, gentle, kind and honest. He knew how much to love himself and he was able to love others. Please pray for his family and his fiance’.

editing note: This was supposed to post on June 1. Cleo passed away on Sunday, June 1, 2008.



One response

14 06 2008


You certainly gave Cleo a lovely tribute. Job well done my sister.


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