The Great Smokies: a Cherokee land – Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee

Sylvia Stipe


Most people see Sevierville (suh-VEER-vil), Tennessee,

only through their car windows on the drive from 1-40 to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Few of them notice a grassy hump, barely higher than street level and perhaps 50 feet in diameter, sandwiched among the local fast-food stops, a shopping mall, and a new motel. But experts say the McMahan Mound (named for a town founding father on whose property it was located) was already the center of an Indian culture 3,000 years ago.

By the time of the early Christian era, prehistoric Sevierville had grown to include wood, thatch, and clay homes clustered around an open plaza, dominated by a large earthen mound used for the house of the chief and one or more public buildings. In the next several centuries, new earthen layers hauled in basket by basket increased the height of the mound more than 20 feet to enhance local prestige. By A.D. 1500, the homes were built entirely of clay. This peak of prehistoric Native American artistic and technological achievement would not survive European explorations into the interior Southeast. Epidemics devastated a vulnerable people, and by the 17th century, this and other Mississippian mound centers in the region lay deserted. The land became another people’s. But only with the trails the Indians left behind could early white explorers find their way over the high divides bridging these mountains and valleys. Hemando DeSoto and Juan Pardo “discovered” the Smokies in the 1500s by following the Great Indian Path along the French Broad River, a route for northern and southern Indians passing through east Tennessee.

Early English settlers used the same trails to cross the mountains and plant Scot-Irish communities in fertile valleys and coves throughout the haze-hung Smokies. The same paths were the basis for many present-day roads. They wind lazily around the feet of the slopes and rise steeply to cross them, like Highway 441 from Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to Cherokee, North Carolina, the only route over the mountains through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Near the summit, the view from Newfound Gap seems infinite. For as far as it is possible to see, ridge after ridge disappears into the haze. This is the old Cherokee country.

Modem scholars regard the Cherokee as the direct descendants of the mound builders. A solitary half-breed Cherokee, Sequoya, produced the only written Indian equivalent of the alphabet. In the museum in Cherokee, his feat is chronicled, and the language preserved for visitors to hear. A push of a button, and the 121st Psalm, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills,” is recited in the soft syllables and guttural sounds of the Cherokee tongue.

The Cherokee of the Great Smokies were divided, but not conquered. Seventeen thousand of their members were rounded up in the late 1830s and marched 1,200 miles to a new home in Oklahoma. One-fourth of the exiles died on the infamous “Trail of Tears.” Other tribe members went into hiding in the vast coves and hollows of the Great Smoky Mountains, where they clung to their ways, often with the knowledge of sympathetic whites. In succeeding decades the fugitives reemerged, clan by clan, to buy back and regain tribal control over 56,000 acres. The Qualla Boundary-their land, not a reservation-was then given in trust to the federal government to prevent any further transfers to non-Cherokees. The Smokies town of Cherokee lies in this district.

Today the Cherokees’ descendants reenact the Trail of Tears saga during the summer months in an amphitheater in Cherokee. At the entrance, an eternal flame commemorating the Trail of Tears has burned since 1951. The flame was lit by coals from a Cherokee Indian Council fire burning in Oklahoma since 1839 and in turn ignited by coals carried westward on the Trail of Tears. Each night the hillside arena, under myriad stars against a jet sky, the fragrance of pines scenting the summer air, rings with the perfidy of the white man’s betrayal of the American Indian.

Because the Smokies were for so many centuries the crossroads of Indian trails and paths, nearby Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, will be the site of the 1990 National American Indian Pow-wow. “Countless pow-wows have been held on that very spot through the ages, so why not ours?” an organizer says. From May 4 through 6, thousands of tribal representatives from all over the country will gather in Old Mill Park on the banks of the sparkling Little Pigeon River, the marker for one fork of the Great Indian path, for traditional Native American activities-sports, arts and crafts, and dance. The public is welcome.

The Great Smokies National Park itself is another echo of prehistoric North America. It too was once imperiled by the encroaching white nation. At the turn of this century, lumbering interests began stripping the mountainsides of vast stands of virgin timber. Only the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1926 stopped the ravishment and gradually restored more than a half-million acres in Tennessee and North Carolina to a wilderness state similar to that trod by the Indian. Immense forests of virgin timber still loom over “Sha-conage,” the Indian “land of blue smoke,” its blue mists curling up with the same indolent motion as chimney smoke.

In 1990, more than 800 miles of hiking trails, many following Indian footsteps, crisscross the park, including a stretch of the famed Appalachian Trail. Even in this most-visited of national parks, it is no problem to find a solitary spot where the silence is broken only by the sounds of nature, where you feel yourself in harmony with Mother Earth and experience a kinship with those who silently walked the paths centuries before you.

-Sylvia Stipe

COPYRIGHT 1990 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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