In my recent travels through Western North Carolina while scouting locations for a movie, I happened to be heading northbound on Route 19 out of Bryson City at the crack of dawn. It was an off-day for me, and I wanted to explore the eastern slopes and hollows of the Smokies around the town of Cherokee and maybe hike a bit.
As I came around a curve in the road, I immediately sensed something special about the flat valley to my right, bordered sharply by steep ridges on all sides. This is no exaggeration or silly wordplay: I felt it as strongly as if someone had intentionally led me to this place to point out its beauty and uniqueness. Without knowing anything about the dew-covered fields before me, I photographed a decaying roadside farmstead now overgrown with weeds and vines and marked with Qualla Boundary signs.
Continuing on my way, I pulled over upon spotting a historical marker that jutted prominently from the shoulder of the road. Most such markers are placed at eye level for easy reading, but this one was twice the normal height, and to read it, you hand to stand almost in supplication with your head tilted back, looking up toward the sky.
I stood in awe as I realized where I was: "Kituwah. Cherokee mother town. Council house stood on mound here. Town was destroyed in 1776 by Rutherford expedition." A painfully brief overview for a piece of ground that had enormous importance for the Cherokee people.
The sun’s first rays were now slicing across the ridge while the valley floor remained in shadow. There was little traffic on the road, and for a few brief moments I stood and gazed eastward in silence. A small flock of songbirds alighted from some shrubs hundreds of yards away before quickly disappearing into bare, distant treetops.
Many images flowed through my mind as I mentally removed the railroad track, the barns, some fences, a power line, several pieces of farm machinery arranged in a row out in the open, a few modern homes behind me with their asphalt driveways, metal awnings, tarped lawnmowers and assorted vehicles. And finally, as was only fitting, I removed myself, my car and the highway that had brought me here. For an instant I glimpsed this sacred bottomland as it perhaps looked for thousands of years.
The clouds were now become aromatic streamers of wood smoke, mainly chestnut but also oak, hickory and perhaps other hardwoods, rising from domelike lodges and earthen structures built low to the ground in a circular pattern. Children could be heard laughing, maybe heckling a playmate or just getting rowdy.
Meanwhile, dark adult figures moved about, perhaps beginning preparations for the Green Corn Ceremony, when debts and other minor offenses were forgiven, or for some other ceremony now long forgotten. Then again, the village may simply have been going about the mundane tasks of daily life in this sheltered valley, far from hostile neighbors.
It was only later that I researched Kituwah and learned about its ancient past and profound significance for the Cherokee. Regrettably, I also read up on the recent controversy with Duke Energy, which had planned to build an electrical substation within this sacred landscape, generating considerable opposition both among the Cherokee and Swain county officials. In August, Duke agreed to move the project to an alternate location, but the original site has already been bulldozed, and at this writing it’s unclear what will be done to restore it.
My own selfish preference would be the Teddy Roosevelt approach: “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.” A good start would be removing all the infrastructure (as I did in my mind's eye).
At the same time, I confess that the next time I flip a switch in my Virginia home, or need some clothes washed, or want to watch a football game on my wide-screen TV, I'll be reminded that such modern luxuries don't just magically appear. Most have their origin in countless blighted landscapes where mountaintops are leveled, minerals extracted and voltage moved. As long as I'm "on the grid," I suppose I don't have a leg to stand on when it comes to complaining about power companies.
But this internal conflict in no way diminishes the reverence that came over me on that calm but cold November morning. Nor does it downplay the importance of protecting special places of great historical and religious significance.
As a political cartoon on the Save Kituwah website pointedly notes, most Americans would be outraged if a power plant, dam or factory were going to be built beside Mount Rushmore, atop Ground Zero, on Liberty Island in the shadow of Lady Liberty, in the wheat field beneath Little Round Top (where many a North Carolinian shed his blood and drew his last breath), or directly across the Potomac from George Washington's bucolic Mount Vernon.
This glaring cultural double standard helped create the totally avoidable Kituwah controversy. After 234 years, it appears that the Rutherford expedition is still on the march.
— Charlottesville, Va., resident Tom Trigo is a freelance location manager and actor who’s worked on a number of projects filmed in Western North Carolina, including Hannibal, My Fellow Americans and Alone Yet Not Alone.