Before the National Park System existed, and certainly before any European foot stepped on North American soil, the Cherokee Nation sustained life in what is now considered the Southeastern United States. Their territory spanned present-day Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Kentucky—including The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Cherokee Nation carries an ancient relationship to this land, and it is vital that visitors to The Smoky Mountains, America’s most-visited National Park, understand this.
Like I said in the last piece in this series, Indigenous voices have been silenced for hundreds of years in this nation. The stories of Indigenous peoples in America have been habitually smothered in myths written and taught by colonizers. Our duty is to seek out Indigenous stories to learn the truth of our nation’s complex history, and do all in our power to support the autonomy and thriving of Native peoples in this country.
Today we will take a very brief look at the history of the Cherokee Nation from around 1830 to today. As someone without an ancestral connection to the Cherokee people, I cannot speak for the experiences of these people — I can only reflect on what I have learned from my own research. I hope this piece will inspire a deeper and wider quest to better understand the stories of the Cherokee Nation and better support their thriving in the context of American life today—a life that now also includes the devastating effects of a global pandemic.
In the early 1800’s, white settlers grew increasingly interested in the land of the Cherokee Nation. Georgia passed laws that encouraged the harassment of the Cherokee people, prohibiting them from mining on their own land, from meeting in councils, and from testifying in court.
The Cherokee people resisted, taking the state of Georgia to court and attempting to hold rightful claims to their land on which they had lived for millennia, until a small group of Cherokee went against the wishes of the larger Nation and signed the Treaty of New Echota. This treaty sold the Cherokee land to the United States government for $5,000,000 under the agreement that the Cherokee people would relocate to land west of the Mississippi river. The treaty was ratified and the Cherokee Nation was given two years to leave land that only a small portion of them had agreed to give up.
What followed was “The Trail of Tears,” in which 16,000 people were violently removed from their homeland, forced to walk 1,000 miles west at gunpoint, exposed to unbearable cold and disease for six months. Out of the 16,000 people, only 12,000 survived. The Trail of Tears was a genocidal event, clearing a people group from a land they shared with ancestors reaching as far back as the time of Christ.
Those 12,000 survivors continue to live in present-day Oklahoma, but they left behind some who managed to escape the violent removal. These three or four hundred people are said to have hid in the mountains of Western North Carolina. According to Cherokee oral tradition, a man named Tsali and his family were a part of this group of refugees. He and his family are said to have killed two soldiers who attempted to capture them, before being hunted down by other soldiers and striking a deal. He could live, and give up his people’s location, or sacrifice himself and ensure the safety of his people in hiding. Tsali is said to have insisted on his execution to protect his people. Because of Tsali, the Cherokee people survived and now call themselves the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. They are a tribe of 14,000 members whose land includes the border of The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Today, the city of Cherokee, North Carolina is operated by the Cherokee people and offers educational experiences for tourists to learn more about the history of the Cherokee Nation. Students attending the schools of Cherokee are required to learn their native language. Visit Cherokee’s website for more information on lodging, events, tourist opportunities, and a blog.
And when you find yourself in the Smokies, breath in the deep history, the millennia of Cherokee heritage, and the violence of their removal. The park is a physical reminder that the Cherokee people no longer steward this beautiful land, so it is important that we acknowledge this unimaginably painful truth while striving to join in movements for change.