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Oconaluftee and the Trail of Tears

Oconaluftee River, Cherokee, NC

My ignorance unfurled before me like a sail.

Recently arrived in North Carolina, I bought a topographic map of the state and let my eyes explore. My gaze went naturally westward into the crinkled, mountain ridges of the higher elevations, picking out interesting places to explore. The name "Cherokee" leapt out at me. “Huh,” I thought to myself, “Cool name, like the old Native American tribe. Wonder if they're related?”

Of course they're related.

It didn't take long to realize I was looking at the old territorial homelands of the Cherokee people. Reading up on the Cherokee, it all came back to me: how white settlers moving westward from the farmland of the eastern seaboard found the Cherokees inconvenient, how with the help of the U.S. Army the Cherokee people were uprooted en masse and forced westward to a new Indian territory consisting of the crappiest piece of real estate whites could identify, how the forced march – now known as the Trail of Tears – led to the death of probably 20% of them. The story worsened of course as I got into the details: the Cherokee were not bellicose, they built small homes of thatch and wood and tended gardens. They were literate and socially organized. Tecumseh produced a syllabary whose characters are available on any modern computer system in the 21st century; they had a newspaper; they strove to accomodate whites, whose ways were not so different from their own.

White could have conceivably left the Cherokee alone, lived alongside them, traded crops and goods. We did not of course, because the Cherokee had the misfortune of inhabiting valleys suspected of having gold and mineral deposits, and we neither wanted to share nor be denied riches we thought were ours for the taking.

I drove out to Cherokee to have a look around. The Qualla Boundary is now home to the small group of Cherokees who stayed behind and refused to be transported. It's home to a casino now of course, but as I sidled up to groups of dark-skinned men with straight black hair picnicking in the riverside park, I heard Mexican Spanish, not Cherokee. Maybe that's when the dismal understanding of what was left of the Cherokee began to sink in: the kitchy “Trading Post” stores at roadside, each offering shelves of every item possibly recognizable as Native American regardless of actual origin: Oaxacan (Mexican) woven blankets, Ojibwe dreamcatchers, Navajo turquoise and silver. It got worse on the outskirts of Bryson City, where signs advertised a weekly Indian dance performance: the venue was a sandy, flat space down by the river where three, large Plains Indian Tee-Pees had been erected (the Cherokee lived in wooden houses, for God's sake). That corresponded to the enormous statue back in Cherokee of a standing man with a feather headdress and one raised hand. You could almost hear the baby talk we ascribe to Native Americans: “How. Me Chief Silver Bear, come tell you heap good story about my people. You listen now.” I thought back on an old car I'd driven, the Jeep Cherokee. That got me thinking about the Jeep Comanches and the like: probably the same story. If you name a vehicle after a society whose land you've appropriated by force, does that make it any better? What now sells is the cheapest, most ersatz interpretation of a real culture that exists today. Nobody wants to see the reality of the Cherokee story, they want tee-pees and dreamcatchers and this Disnefied shit we spread in place of reality.

I read glumly about the Trail of Tears, how Native Americans were charged an outrageous price to make one river crossing by boat, how they walked shoeless through the snows to Oklahoma. I poked around in the mountain valleys of North Carolina, where the old military outposts are long gone from both the earth's surface and from any sense of memory that I could tell. I queued for months to read the library's copy of Even As We Breathe, a 2021 book written by a Cherokee author. I found a Cherokee vocabulary to look up words that interested me. What depressed me the most was how we tell this story. It goes like this:

Once upon a time the white man uprooted the Cherokee to Oklahoma. Many died. It was awful. Well, what can you do? Here's the current situation, which is unchangeable ...

Whites tell the story, and therefore the story meets its unalterable conclusion in Oklahoma. Nothing to be done. Too bad, but hey we've got Netflix now and running water and solar panels and isn't it great? No, it's not great. How absolutely telling, then, that the big battles of 2021 and probably 2022 are being fought over school curricula. If you teach young, white children this whole situation was a foregone conclusion, it perpetuates one of the many jointly-held lies of this nation. Turns out, you only have to scratch this surface before the offal rises: Noam Chomsky was right. And I was taught a version of this back in the 1970s. We're not making the kind of progress that we need.

Standing at the side of the waters of the Oconaluftee River as they clatter over the stones, you wonder if we ever will.

Even As We Breathe, by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle

The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears by Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green

Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook by Barbara R. Duncan and Brett H. Riggs

Cherokee History and Culture, by Helen Dwyer and D.L. Birchfield

Year 501: The Conquest Continues, by Noam Chomsky


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