Famed hoop dancer Eddie Swimmer last year became the first Cherokee director of “Unto These Hills,” the Qualla Boundary’s outdoor drama—still popular at age 60. And over at Tribal Grounds Coffee, another Eastern Band tribal member, Natalie Smith, is likewise blending integrity with theatrics.
Smith and her partner, Leon Grodski—who roast their beans on site—offer a comprehensive array of organic espresso drinks at their socially conscious Cherokee cafe. But only the “Dragging Canoe,” named after an American Revolution-era Cherokee warrior, is as much a piece of performance art as it is a beverage.
“It’s our most notable drink, named after our favorite historical person,” says Smith. She describes the warrior as a rebel and his namesake drink as a frappe, but is reluctant to reveal in print the latter’s exact ingredients, only hinting that making this intense treat involves an allegorical infusion of “blood, sweat and tears.”
Happily, no real blood or tears pollute the custom blends served at Smith and Grodski’s almost five-year-old coffee shop. The couple did their homework and scoured the world to purchase beans from certified organic, fair-trade farmers, including Guatemala Chajul, grown by the Ixil people of that country “whose history in the 1980s is sadly similar to Cherokee history in the 1830s,” according to Grodski. Product is also culled from the Mexican co-op Indígenas de la Sierra Madre de MotozInternationala and from Sumatra, Bolivia, Tanzania and Ethiopia.
“We source our coffee only from indigenous peoples—growers who own their own farms or who are part of cooperatives. We want to embody what we are serving,” says Smith, who employs both Eastern Band members and non-natives. The menu is subtitled in the traditional Cherokee language, and Smith describes Tribal Grounds’ customer base as “pretty much a 50-50 split” between locals and tourists.
“We have a lot of return visitors who come from out of town,” she notes, “and I mean from way out of town.” Smith and Grodski traveled a far piece themselves earlier this year, when they went to Puerto Rico to tour a coffee farm and experience the java journey from the literal ground up.
But though the beans might have passports, once roasted, the coffee sticks close to home. Tribal Grounds wholesales its product—blends like Kuwahi Kawi (Cherokee for “mulberry place”) and Rattlesnake Mountain—to regional restaurants, including Cherokee’s iconic Peter’s Pancakes. It’s also packaged for sale at Native Touch Gallery, a gift shop in Murphy, N.C.
The coffee’s logo is a rendering of a dome-topped structure that Smith defines as a “pre-Columbian Cherokee summer dwelling.” And their product bears other native stamps that might require translation for the non-Cherokee costumer. The restaurant’s version of a latte breve is dubbed “Dok-shi,” after the Cherokee word for turtle. The “Uktena,” a vanilla-chocolate-caramel concoction, is named after a giant serpent—“one of our very important historical creatures,” says Smith.
The more recognizably named “Sequoyah” is, she says, the shop’s most-ordered drink—a hot cappuccino distinguished by chocolate and roasted chestnut, its foam inscribed with the syllabary for the word “Cherokee.”
“We created the drink based on the significance of that indigenous food,” explains Smith. “Cherokee people really hold their chestnuts dear.”
Other flavors featured in Tribal Grounds’ voluptuously rich drinks include blackberry, macadamia nut and ground ginger. Even so, Smith and Grodski ultimately seem more concerned with politics than with palate. “We don’t require that our employees love coffee as much as we do,” Smith says. “But we do require them to know and understand what we’re selling—how it benefits the farmer, the earth, the community and themselves.”
Tribal Grounds Coffee is located at 516 Tsali Blvd. on the Qualla Boundary, but will be relocating to Cherokee’s main downtown strip next week. For updates, call (828) 497-0707, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit coffeewithculture.com