Cherokee Wrestler and Chief

An image of Saunooke from UNC LibrariesOn July 19, 1906Osley Bird Saunooke, super heavyweight wrestler and Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (ECBI), was born in Cherokee.

Professional wrestling was a natural fit for Saunooke, who served in the Marine Corps, stood 6 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed more than 350 pounds. During the Depression, he began wrestling and his rise in the sport was quick. In 1937, he became the Super Heavyweight Champion of the World, and he went on to hold that title for 14 years. When he retired from the wrestling in 1951, Saunooke had fought 5,217 matches all over the country.

After retiring from the ring Saunooke changed gears quickly. He was elected Principal Chief of the ECBI almost immediately, serving in that capacity from 1951 to 1955 and again from 1959 to 1963. Saunooke is widely credited with turning the Cherokee’s home in western North Carolina into a model reservation. He is also often praised for working closely with the federal and state governments to ensure greater autonomy for the Cherokee.

Respected for his leadership abilities, Saunooke was the first Indian east of the Mississippi River elected to an office in the National Congress of American Indians. He died in 1965.

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