[Editor’s note: The historic gathering of the Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation and Western North Carolina’s Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians April 16 to 18 unleashed a cascading array of images, memories and deep emotions. The following text and photos aim to convey something of the essence of the event.]
From the lush woods of Red Clay State Park in Cleveland, Tenn., the soaring melody of a six-hole flute beckons visitors onto sacred Cherokee land. “It has been 25 years since the two tribal councils and chiefs met here in Red Clay,” notes Cherokee historian Barbara Duncan, who helped organize this reunion.
“When they met here in 1984 it was very significant because, up until that time, the Cherokee people had been divided,” she explains. “The significance of [the 2009 reunion] is to commemorate that revocation 25 years ago and also to remember the council meetings that were held here in the 1830s, when the tribe was trying very hard to stay together as one people and to hold on to their land.”
Resplendent in beads, breastplates and skins, and bearing handcrafted weapons, the Cherokee bring their dynamic heritage to life. In a clearing nestled in the woods, storytellers address a crowd of eager listeners, relating how humans discovered fire, why the blue jay has a white tip on his tail, and why we must always respect our elders. Infused with metaphor and rich in traditional wisdom, each tale encapsulates a lesson about the Cherokee way, in which every living creature is honored and respected.
With painted faces and carefully crafted weapons, the Warriors of AniKituhwa exemplify the strength of the Cherokee people and their skill as hunters and fighters. Meanwhile, the Oconaluftee Village Dancers present traditional dances inspired by animals and nature. And all the while, the music of the wormy-chestnut flute and other traditional instruments creates a soothing soundtrack that seems to reach back across the ages. Vendors display beaded jewelry and quahog-decorated crafts, woven baskets, ceramics and clothing. Children splash in the Blue Spring and try their hand at such Indian games as blowguns and marbles.
The sweeping, beautiful land of Red Clay seems an appropriate place for the two groups to honor their history, share their traditions and celebrate their cultural resilience. The seat of Cherokee government from 1832 to 1837, it was here that Chief John Ross learned about the forced removal of his people from their ancestral lands in a westward mass migration that’s remembered as the Trail of Tears.
“Over 18,000 Cherokee people were removed,” says storyteller/re-enactor Robert “RedHawk” Eldridge. “On that journey, over 4,000 people died, and many disappeared along the way, vanishing into the Smoky Mountains. Red Clay was our last remaining holding before being forcibly removed, after the Indian-removal treaty was signed by Andrew Jackson.”
Among the three-day reunion’s diverse events are an “Eternal Flame Run” from Cherokee, N.C., to Red Clay State Park and a symposium of Native American scholars considering the Trail of Tears’ historical significance and impact on Cherokee society.
For many, the gathering is also a time to reconnect with family and friends. “While many miles may separate us from our Cherokee people in Oklahoma, we are still a united nation, and we will be recognizing and celebrating this relationship,” proclaims Michell Hicks, the Eastern Band’s principal chief. “As a people and as U.S. citizens, we have an obligation to educate our children and people about our ancestry and history. This event will assist us in moving the Cherokee people forward while remembering the trials and lessons learned from our past.” Despite those hardships, the Cherokee people are the largest Native American tribe in the U.S. today.
The reunion triggers powerful reactions in Cherokee participants and visitors alike. A tearful Martha “Windwoman” Esslinger declares: “I love my native heritage and am so proud of it. The reunion gives me a chance to connect with my heritage, and everyone has been so receptive to me and my story.”
As Chad Smith, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, observes, “We can never forget the emotional, historic and tragic events that resulted in the Cherokee Nation coming together on these grounds more than 170 years ago. The Cherokee government survives because our leaders exhibited great clarity, power and passion while seeking resolution to the conflict brought by the state of Georgia and the United States. Their courage and wisdom are the reason we have the enduring legacy of the Cherokee people, which is to face adversity, survive, adapt, prosper and excel.”