To those who knew him, Will Moreau Goins — Columbia’s Native American ambassador, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack Saturday at the age of 56 — was an activist, artist, writer, editor, poet, scholar and storyteller.
Also, according to at least one friend, he was a bit of a trickster.
“He could shape-shift in so many ways,” says Stephen Criswell, director of Native American Studies at the University of South Carolina-Lancaster. “He was talented in so many art forms, as an actor, a singer, traditional artist and painter. He always seemed comfortable in any group.”
He never lacked for audiences, whether elementary school children or adults. As CEO of the Cherokee Indian Tribe of South Carolina, and president of the South Carolina Traditional Arts Network, Goins made it his role to remind audiences of the traditions of Native Americans, as well as their treatment at the hands of settlers.
“The American Indian Holocaust and genocide is a continued battle in South Carolina,” he wrote earlier this year in an article for the S.C. Progressive Network, citing the resurgence of white supremacist groups. “We have the ‘traditional’ perspectives of the descendents of Confederate white soldiers, 20-year-old [University of South Carolina] students, who have seemed to embrace, understand and find solidarity with the collaborators of our persecution and disenfranchisement.”
Goins spoke often in schools, worked with USC’s McKissick Museum in establishing Native American exhibitions, and led the Cultural Arts Ensemble, a dance troupe that performed Native American ceremonial dances.
He took great pride in being the genuine article: a descendant of the Eastern Band Cherokee Indians who learned the ancient chants from childhood, and often performed in native dress that he created himself, following the tradition — passed on through generations of ancestors — of stringing and stitching beads together by hand.
He also founded the Native American Film Festival of the Southeast — and died just two days before the annual event wrapped up its 20th year.
“I had a wonderful opportunity to work with him on this year’s festival,” offers Nickelodeon Theatre Director Alison Kozberg. “I feel very lucky to have met him and was in awe of his tremendous investment in finding opportunities for the presentation of indigenous-made media.”
Also, as a former member of McKissick Museum’s Advisory Council, Goins recently worked with Executive Director Jane Przybysz to reimagine FOLKFabulous, the museum’s annual celebration of regional folklife, off campus as part of the South Carolina State Fair.
He also provided the museum with numerous Native American relics — from rattles, rosettes and dream catchers that he made by hand, to rugs, dolls and rings and many other crafts made by his family. He also worked with Przybysz in commissioning a beaded buckskin coat, made by Choctaw Nation artisan Roger Amerman, for the museum’s collection.
“I don’t know anybody any more passionate about advocacy on behalf of Native Americans — history, culture, ways of knowing, ways of being — than Will,” she says.
SC Humanities Executive Director Randy Akers says Goins – whom he describes as “probably the most beloved member of our speaker’s bureau” — was committed to getting the state to recognize the contributions of the Eastern Cherokee.
“He fought very hard to get the state to understand and be aware they had a long Native American history, before the European settlers,” Akers offers.
Goins spoke on a wide range of topics, addressing both Native American culture — from cuisine to arts and crafts to healing (he was the descendant of medicine men) — to thornier issues like Indian participation on both sides of the Civil War.
When Goins received the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award in 2008, the citation noted that he “reaches 25,000 youth annually in performances and outreach.”
Goins was also 2016-17 president of Interfaith Partners of South Carolina, which noted in a statement Monday “his understanding of the American Indian’s deep connection with the earth.”
For Goins, who never married, telling the Native American story was a fulltime job, according to his sister-in-law Mindy Goins.
“He really put his whole life into his work, his beliefs, and developing something that’s kind of going by the wayside in this world, which is tolerance for other people and cultures,” she says.
Even when he wasn’t on the job, Goins was still working, according to his friend Jaysen Buterin, an online creative designer who has frequently contributed to the Native American Film Festival of the Southeast.
“I don’t ever use the word ‘effulgent’ to describe anybody, but he always had a smile on his face,” Buterin recalls, “because his brain was going about a thousand miles an hour. I’m fairly convinced he was always telling a story, it just may not have been out loud.”