A Visit to Cherokee and the Blue Ridge Mountains

While I’ve loved the Triangle area so far, I jumped at the chance to drive out to the North Carolina mountains on a long weekend this semester, searching for early leaf colors up in the hills.

Both mountains and fall are somewhat foreign concepts to me as a lifelong Houstonian. The only major hills I’m aware of along my segment of the Gulf Coast are salt domes, the byproducts of road construction, and a decommissioned landfill south of the Astrodome that was covered over and converted into an unusually hilly golf course. Meanwhile, autumn weather doesn’t really start to stick around Houston some years until some time in late December (or even early January). And the local fall colors are usually limited to a few stray maples and the highly invasive Chinese tallow trees gradually taking over the East Texas landscape.

My partner and I didn’t have much time on our move up from Texas to explore the scenery in our new state, so this was our first chance to get to know a little more about the landscape we’d just moved to, and learn some of the rich history it carries.

We drove past Asheville toward the western border of the state, where thousands of members of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation live in or around the town of Cherokee, near the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The community was hosting its 105th annual festival, and we decided to check out the area and spend the night camping nearby.

The festival had started earlier in the week, and included everything from art contests to dance performances to stickball tournaments (an important sport related to the Iroquois game from which the game of lacrosse was developed) to pop country music concerts. It was interesting to see contests geared not just toward keeping Cherokee artistic methods and styles alive, but also competitions based around keeping traditional knowledge alive for younger generations. Natural dye demonstrations, native crop cultivars and history essays were nestled among the meticulous weaving and carving samples that dominated much of the showcase room. Other tables were devoted to more modern art and photography, showing how the Cherokee fit into an ever-changing landscape, including extensive displays honoring Cherokee veterans of all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.

The highlight of the trip for me was the morning we spent in the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, which documented the history of the Cherokee in the Southeast. This included the pre-colonial history of a number of the native groups in the area, and the complex relationships that initially developed with the British colonists (including creeping economic dependence on industrial goods and diplomatic missions to England by representatives of the Cherokee nation).

It also included a detailed account of the political fractures leading up to the Treaty of New Echota, in which a small group of tribal leaders sold all Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi to the US government – entirely against the wishes of most of the community. This treaty, despite other legal complications, laid much of the groundwork for the brutal forced migration of most of the Cherokee tribe (and other tribes throughout the Southeast) toward Oklahoma under President Andrew Jackson; this became known as the Trail of Tears.

The Cherokee still living in western North Carolina live largely within what is known as the Qualla Boundary, land that was eventually purchased back from the U.S. by Cherokee descendants who had managed to stay in the area when the remainder of the tribe was forced toward the Great Plains. These are known as the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians today; the Cherokee living in Oklahoma may belong to either the United Keetoowah Band (the “Old Settlers” who moved voluntarily to the area in the early 1800s, prior to the passage of the Indian Removal Act) or the group formally known by the federal government as simply the Cherokee Nation, which was expelled from the mountains of the Southeast by force.

The Cherokee leader Sequoyah (whose statue, carved by a Native American artist, stands outside the museum) created the written alphabet adopted by the Cherokee in the early 1800s. Streets are labeled in both English and Cherokee.

Each symbol that makes up the Cherokee syllabary stands for a whole consonant-vowel combination, instead of a single sound; the Cherokee name for the tribe itself is actually ᏣᎳᎩ, which is transcribed in Roman letters as Tsa-la-gi.

The time we spent in the area was misty and rainy for the most part.

We camped within the Qualla Boundary, in a campground operated by tribe members; rain put out the embers of our fire late that night, and we woke up to more mist weaving through the mountaintops above us.

We then headed into Asheville for an evening, then up the Blue Ridge Parkway toward Virginia to visit some family. We caught a little sun along the way.