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Land as story: a road broken and the tragic undoing of the Cherokee Nation

Feb. 12, 2010

My novel Broken Road is set against an historical backdrop of the events leading up to 1838 Removal of the Cherokee Nation from their ancient tribal lands in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee to Indian Territory beyond the Mississippi. The Cherokee called this event the Trail of Tears and it ranks in my mind as one of the most shameful episodes in American history . . . and one of the most telling.

For the purposes of this blog, which is based on a talk I did at the University of Western Ontario for the Centre for Environment and Sustainability, I’m going to focus on the way the Cherokee viewed their land as opposed to how those white Americans responsible for the Removal and other, similar acts viewed that same land. This difference in viewpoint is key. It explains not only how the fledging US could, without, as my mother would have said, a burp, uproot indigenous peoples from tribal lands held for millennia, but also why many Americans have such a hard time wrapping their minds around efforts to become more sustainable today. It has to do with what the land has meant to them throughout their history on it.

Trail of Tears

Let me give you a little historical background on the Cherokee.

When the white man made first contact with the Cherokee around 1540, their lands encompassed some 140,000 square miles throughout 8 present-day states. Over first 200 years post contact, the Cherokees gradually ceded big chunks of this land to the Americans until, by 1838, the time of the Removal, that homeland had been reduced to land held in the mountains of western North Carolina, North Georgia and Tennessee.

The Cherokee were considered one of the “Five Civilized Tribes” and with good reason. Among native peoples they were the poster children for early adopters: in large measure they adopted European farming methods and embraced Christianity. Moreover, through the invention of the Cherokee syllabary by Sequoyah, Cherokee became a written language, capable of being written and read. The nation even had its own printing press and newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, written in Cherokee. There was also a great deal of intermarriage between whites and Cherokee and it was not uncommon for wealthy Cherokee to own slaves and have peacocks strutting across the lawns of their plantations.

If the goal of white Americans vis a vis the Cherokee was to convert them to European ways, to assimilate them, you’d have to say that they succeeded royally. And the Cherokee counted on that to save them. That was their first mistake.

Enter Manifest Destiny.

Manifest Destiny is the religious belief that the United States should expand from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean . . . and that it does so in the name of God. Of course, once America actually did extend from shore to shore, there has been a bit of what you might call ‘Manifest Destiny’ creep or, perhaps, ooze, but that’s more the story of modern times. For our purposes, we’re back in the days when ‘west’ meant west of the Smokies.

Here’s an 1872 painting by John Gast entitled Spirit of the Frontier. I apologize for not being able to find this image on anything but the cover of this card driven strategy game of the same name, but, as it was a strategy game the US was playing, the context seems not unapt.

If you click on the image to enlarge it, you will see heroic American settlers moving west, driving the savages and the bison before them. You’ll notice that they are protected and guided by this goddess or angel figure, a.k.a. Manifest Destiny, and that she is very graciously bringing the light of civilization from east to west. Quite the juggernaut. And, wouldn’t you know it, the Cherokee were right in the way.

The Cherokee made a miscalculation when it came to the Americans. Although they adopted many of their ways, they nevertheless chose to remain a sovereign nation, something the ambitious US was ultimately unable to tolerate. Moreover gold was discovered in Cherokee territory in 1829 – not much, as it turned out – but the Americans wouldn’t figure that out until after they’d managed to get their hands on their land.

The fight against Removal went on for decades. The Cherokee fought removal, using every legal recourse available and, to be fair, they did receive a good deal of support from many Americans. That they not be removed was a real cause celebre, particularly in Abolitionist circles. However, in the end, the Frontier Party of Andrew Jackson prevailed and the Cherokee were driven from their homes and farms and moved to Oklahoma. (The Cherokee name for Andrew Jackson was 'Chicken Snake.')

Here is a map showing the route taken by the various Eastern tribes to ‘Indian Territory’. If you click on the image to enlarge it, you can see that the Cherokee weren’t the only peoples that were moved west, but the story of the Trail of Tears has special poignancy because of the intensity of the hardship endured by the Cherokee . . . that coupled with the staggering loss of life. 16,000 poorly provisioned people began the march to Oklahoma, which was conducted mostly on foot, much of it in the winter; only 12,000 finished. Approximately a quarter of the nation, died on the Trail.

Unto These Hills

Broken Road is not first book I’ve written about the Cherokee. Constant Fire, a collection of short stories published by Oberon Press, was also about them. In fact, I won the Journey Prize for best short fiction a decade ago for one of the short stories included in Constant Fire: Long Man the River. It featured an uktena, a horned serpent, the same mythical beast whose ulunsuti is central to Broken Road.

So, why am I, a white Canadian woman writing about the Cherokee? Well, in the first place, I’m not Canadian. I’m an Americanadian. I was born and raised in North Carolina, but came to Canada at twenty two and have lived over half my life in this country. I consider Canada my home and have been a Canadian citizen for many years.

However, much of my misspent youth was spent on the Qualla Boundary in the mountains of North Carolina just south of Smoky Mountains National Park. The Qualla Boundary or The Qualla is an 82-square mile plot of land held in trust for the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. If you click on the thumbnail a map of the park will come up and you can see Qualla at its bottom right hand corner.

You’ll notice I said Eastern Band of the Cherokee. Wait a minute, you’re thinking, weren’t the Cherokee all removed to Oklahoma back in 1838-39? Well, not every last one of them. Some stayed. Some got away. Others came back. The ancestors of the modern-day Eastern Band – about 8,000 souls according to the 2000 Census -- were some of those wealthier Cherokee who held title to their land in accordance with U.S. laws; the estimated one thousand Cherokee who evaded the soldiers trying to round them up by hiding in the mountains (although initially branded as outlaws, to be shot on sight, they were eventually given amnesty and allowed to remain in North Carolina); and the surprising number of Cherokee who actually walked back from Oklahoma. For example, there was a renowned wood carver named Going Back Chitolske, who was named after one of his great grandfathers who had made the trek back.

Although the Qualla is supervised by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, it is not an Indian Reservation per se. It is made up of plots of land bought up by Yonagusta, one of the wealthy chiefs who had remained behind, and his adopted son, a white man named Will Thomas, and held in trust for the remnants of the nation. In other words, the Cherokee had to buy their own land back from the government in order to give their people a teensy tiny part of their patrimony in which to live. (Coincidentally, Will Thomas is the subject of Charles Frasier’s novel, The Thirteen Moons. Frasier is perhaps better known for his novel, Cold Mountain.)

So, what was I doing on the Qualla Boundary? Well, my family worked for the Cherokee History Association from 1966 to 2005. The Association ran several tribal businesses, including the Cherokee Museum, the Oconaluftee Indian Village, and Unto These Hills, an outdoor drama.

Unto These Hills opened in 1950 and played to an estimated 100,000 people a season. The theatre seated 3,000 and we were full most nights. Cherokee, the principle town on the Boundary, was a major tourist destination cum tourist trap and it is adjacent to a big national park, which meant busloads and campgrounds full of tourists. Tourists needed something to do at night and, at that time, there was not much of a nightlife in the mountains of North Carolina, which meant that they came to see ‘The Drama’.

My family’s association with the drama spanned three decades. My father, Bill Hardy, directed it; then my brother Peter directed it and Dad produced it; my mother, the fabulous Martha Nell Hardy, played the female lead – a salty old mountain woman – for a quarter of a century and I . . . I was a Corn Maiden.

Unto These Hills covered the history of the Cherokee from 1540 to the Removal in 1838. It was a big show, with a big cast and crew, and, along with professional actors and dancers, it included about seventy five Cherokee. In addition to being a profit centre for the tribe, the drama was a big seasonal employer in the area. Whole families would work in the drama, which meant that I got to know Cherokee of all ages, from very young children to very old grandmothers, Walkingsticks, Bushyheads, Owls, Sequoyahs, Hunters, Swimmers, Losiahs, Wolfes and Crowes.


For the purposes of this blog, I would like to reflect on how the Americans thought about land -- what it meant, what it was worth – and how the Cherokee thought about that same thing.

The Americans’ sensibility was born of the kind of muscular Christianity that brought Europeans to the shores of the New World and then allowed them to despoil it and to disenfranchise its inhabitants with such little compunction. Their idea of the New World was that it had unlimited resources, and that those resources existed to provide for white people whose gaze was fixed, not on this life, but on the next, not on this earth, but on some gated community in the sky. As a consequence of this mindset, they were not overly concerned with stewardship. Moreover, they thought of land as a commodity, something that could exchange hands and continue intact.

For Cherokee, however, their land was their identity; it was everything and all its features – its rivers and streams, its gorges and mountain -- were sacred. Not only sacred, but inhabited by all manner of spirits: with little people and star people and people who lived under mountain and underwater. Their landscape was replete with places where important things had happened that must be remembered – Ambush Place and The Place of the Lizard Monster and Where the Tracts are.

Toineeta, an old conjure woman and one of the principal characters of Broken Road, says it best.

"In my language there is a word for the land -- eloheh. It means many things -- land, the story of my people on the land, the way of my people on the land, the gods that inhabit places. . . . Eloheh! Eloheh! I cannot tear out my heart and live. In the same way, I cannot leave my land and live."

As far as the Cherokee were concerned, Oklahoma did not . . . could never compensate them for the loss of their ancestral home for the simple reason that it was not their tribal land.

As for the Americans, the U.S. and the world are still reaping the whirlwind sown by Manifest Destiny. If you do not consider nature to be sacred, if you are not grateful for and mindful of what you kill and eat or grow and eat, if you believe that this world does not matter as much as some other, distant one, then you are unlikely to spare time or dime to protect and preserve it. You just move on down the road, spewing exhaust.


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