Don Manuel grew up on a small farm in Illinois, but his parents and grandparents are from the Coharie tribe in North Carolina. He began wood carving at the age of 13 because of his interest in music, learning the intricate art from a neighbor who made violins. During his 22 years in the Navy, Mr. Manuel made solid body guitars and played them in the ship bands. "Carving wasn't for ritual traditions for Coharie people," he explains, “but for enjoyment and out of the tradition of making for ourselves, of making things that were needed and also things for entertainment and pleasure."
About 30 years ago, Mr. Manuel and his brother took an interest in exploring their Native American roots. They traced their family back to the late seventeenth century and were reunited with relatives and accepted back into the tribe. Mr. Manuel describes his work in this context of cultural reclamation: "My carving shows respect for the trees and helps people maintain this tradition. Also, taking a tree that is dead and making something out of it is a kind of respect for nature, so my work sustains Indian values." He continues to explore the art of wood carving to this day.
Mr. Manuel is an active member of United American Indians of the Delaware Valley (UAIDV), and has had his work displayed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the UAIDV gift shop and gallery, and Fleisher Art Memorial, as part of the Philadelphia Folklore Project's exhibition "Folk Arts of Social Change."