Since 2015, Mary Crowe has watched as mountain peaks across the country have been renamed. That year, Mount McKinley in Alaska became Denali, an Athabascan word meaning “the great one.”
Later, in 2021, Squaw Mountain in the Colorado foothills was formally recognized as Mestaa’ėhehe, named after a prominent Native woman in Colorado history.
And more recently, Doane Mountain in Yellowstone was renamed as First Peoples Mountain.
Inspired by these changes, Crowe put out a message on Facebook calling to rename Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The current name honors Thomas Clingman, a North Carolina native who served in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate; he was also a Confederate general in the Civil War.
Lavita Hill, a Cherokee activist and treasury specialist for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, joined Crowe in her mission and suggested reclaiming the name, Kuwohi, which means “the place of the mulberries.”
In July, Crowe and Hill wrote a proposed resolution and presented it to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Tribal Council. The tribe supported the resolution, as did other local governments, including the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners and Asheville City Council.
Crowe sees this endeavor as a way to heal. She says, “By having this conversation now, we can talk about [our historic trauma]. It’s still lingering today. And we’re trying to break the trauma cycle.”
Xpress sat down with Crowe to discuss her personal history, the next steps in the renaming process and her favorite activities when visiting the sacred mountaintop.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Can you speak to the history of Kuwohi and your personal connection to it?
The prophets met at Kuwohi and prophesied that our people would go west. The old settlers [Cherokee who left WNC before the Indian Removal Act led to the expulsion of an estimated 16,000 Cherokees in 1838] picked up the fire from Kituwah [the original Cherokee settlement] and went to Oklahoma first. They were there at least two years before the rest of the Cherokee Nation was moved there after the Indian Removal Act.
But some of us did what we had to do to stay here even after the Civil War. We had to work to stay here in North Carolina.
My dad used to work for the [National] Park Service. He was a trailblazer — walking and keeping the trails clean for the hikers. And I would go with him, as would my brothers and sisters sometimes, though not all of us at once. But one or two of us would go with him, and we would hike from Kuwohi all the way down to Deep Creek.
My dad also was a tower watchman. He was up in the smoke towers in the mountains where he watched out for forest fires. And I was up there in those towers with him. We had them on Mount Noble and up here on Dobson Ridge.
To be able to walk to Kuwohi, to be up there with my father and my brothers, to sit up there and look for smoke and to give them coordinates and stuff — that was growing up.
What would renaming the peak mean to you?
This is real for us. Because [historically] if we participated in any of our traditional ways, we would be condemned to hell. Christianity was used against us, to make us feel condemnation by God himself, let alone the community or the church. And that was forced assimilation and acculturation. We had to learn the dominant white way. And so, by having this conversation now, we can talk about it. It’s still lingering today. We consider it historic trauma that gets passed down through generations. And we’re trying to break the trauma cycle.
Talk to me about the process of getting the peak renamed.
First of all, we’re grateful for the incredible support that we got from our local community. My sister, Lisa Montelongo, and I got a donation from Friends of the Earth to get T-shirts made. We bought 200 shirts with “Kuwahi” on them, and they went like wildfire.
So, we used those funds to open up the conversation. Though a lot of our people had heard [about the renaming effort], some had not. The shirts opened the door for us to learn, to understand and to just transition back to who we really are as Aniyunwiya, which is what we originally called ourselves — it means “the principal people.”
These funds also enabled us to then go to our Cherokee Elders Council who check the language, and they corrected us. Kuwa is a mulberry, and Kuwohi is a mulberry place. We had to allow ourselves to understand.
So, when we look at what we’re doing right now, all Lavita and I did was present it to council and made it more public. From there, everyone else has stepped forward and has more or less volunteered and provided their support for this change. We’ve got [support from] a couple of businesses, especially The Appalachian Adventure Co., and Drew Reisinger, the Buncombe County Register of Deeds. We also have the support from Cherokee Nation relatives.
We plan to go back to the tribal council with an official resolution to have the Eastern Band, as our nation, forward it directly to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names in D.C.
When you visit Kuwohi, what do you like to do?
If I have the energy to make it all the way to the top of the dome part, I say my prayers because when I look out, I’m looking at where my people went — my mom, my mother’s mother, my family. Some of them are still out there. They want to come home.
For more information on the Kuwohi initiative, visit kuwohi.org.