As we gather around the fire, the sound of the Oconaluftee River warbles in the breeze. Dressed in traditional Cherokee garb, a statuesque man gestures expansively at the park that surrounds us. “You are in our church,” he says. “It is all around us. As long as we have grass, water, sky.” His eyes fill with a reverence for the land that rises to the peaks of the mountains and plunges to the depths of the valleys, encompassing everything.
Meet Sonny Ledford, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee and one of the speakers at the Cherokee Storytelling Bonfire, a free program designed to inform, enlighten and entertain.
The first half of the bonfire is educational and engaging, a time to address myths and assumptions about the Cherokee people. The second half includes marshmallow roasting, traditional Cherokee dances and the hypnotic spell of legends told fireside.
Ledford is one of the seven original members of the traditional dance group, Warriors of Ani Kituwah. He has taught the Cherokee culture for more than half of his life — an honor bestowed by his people, and one that he takes seriously. When he is not speaking at the bonfire or performing traditional dances, he works with the Cherokee Historical Association, and practices a list of arts and crafts which include beadwork, flint-knapping and woodcarving.
Standing in front of the group that has gathered for the bonfire, Ledford implores the audience to take to heart what he has to tell them.
“How long will you remember this?” he asks us, “This river? Me standing here. … We come here and share our stories with you so that you too will become teachers. So that you will take what you learn here and spread that knowledge.”
According to the Cherokee, their people have always been in these mountains. Archaeological findings date the civilization back for at least the past 11,000 years, since the time of the last ice age. Despite eradication from disease brought by European explorers, persecution and forced removal, the Cherokee people have persisted in making these mountains their home.
The wisdom they have gained over that time cannot be found on the pages of a book written by someone outside of their culture. If you seek this knowledge, look to the people themselves to tell you. They are more than happy to share it with you.
The Cherokee Storytelling Bonfire is one such opportunity. While you are there, be sure to visit the booths adjacent to the parking lot where you can buy beautiful beaded jewelry and artwork direct from the Cherokee artisans themselves. Many pieces mirror the legends you will have the privilege of hearing.
When Ledford finishes, long roasting forks and marshmallows are distributed to the children. They gather around the fire, and the storyteller of the evening, John Grant, Jr., or “Jon Jon,” introduces himself. Grant is an accomplished musician and storyteller, and is also a member of the Warriors of Ani Kituwah dance group.
He begins to play a Cherokee flute, known to his people as a “music maker” in what he tells us is “the original language of this land.” It begins quietly, melodic, then sharp and high-pitched, the rhythm becoming more complicated. It fades back into softer tones, interspersed with urgent high pitched trills. One senses that the melody tells a story of its own, and we settle in for the storytelling that we have gathered to hear.
As the sun sinks in the sky, Grant’s voice carries us back to a time when life was informed by stories told around a fire just like this one. The lights of modern Cherokee and the thrum of passing cars hover on the periphery.
Here in the circle however, we are carried away from all of this; drawn into the world he spins. His words echo the long ages over which they have been spoken, and his speech is charismatic and passionate. As he speaks the river slides past, as it always has. The fire dies down, and the embers glow orange like a heart in the center of the wood.
Under the sometimes commercialized face of Cherokee lies the purity and truth of this ancient place, as well as a wealth of genuine cultural opportunities for you to experience. While you are in town, be sure to also check out the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, the Oconaluftee Indian Village and the acclaimed drama, Unto These Hills. These attractions are designed to educate not only on the history of the Cherokee, but also on their living culture that continues to thrive to this day.
Come to the Qualla Boundary, and listen to the Cherokee people tell you their story in their own words.
what: Cherokee Storytelling Bonfire
where: The Qualla Boundary at Oconaluftee Islands Park, Cherokee
when: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 7 to 10 p.m. Through August 31. Free. More at www.cherokeesmokies.com.