(This essay was first published in the June issue of "Talking Leaves," the newsletter of my Cherokee community of choice, the Mt. Hood Cherokees).
In April Penny and I returned to the East Coast and I once again had an opportunity to visit the “motherland,” with a climatic return to Kituwah Mound. It was a multi-purpose visit: family, friends, nostalgia, and research.
We began in my hometown, Charlotte, where we broke bread with my sisters and some of their children and had a wonderful visit. More than the Cherokee, it was the Catawba, Cheraw, and Waxhaw tribes (following generations of Iroquios, Sugaree, and other Siouan groups) that dominated the area now known as Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, sometimes called the Southern Piedmont Region. Later Penny and I divided our time so we could see as many friends as possible, except for a few we absolutely had to see together. By mid-week I joined her in Asheville, N.C., in the Western North Carolina Mountains. The Asheville area is where my mother was born and raised and the last place Penny and I lived before relocating to The Pacific Northwest. Asheville, according to Vicki Rozema in Footsteps of the Cherokees: A Guide to the Eastern Homelands of the Cherokee Nation, means “ashes place” and is of Cherokee (Unta kiyasti’ yi, meaning “where they race,” as Cherokees once held footraces in the area) origin.
On Friday I travelled up to Johnson City, TN, for visits with my former chaplain clinical supervisor, Dr. Larry Easterling, and my friends Jane, a chaplain colleague, and Pat, a member of the chaplain Spiritual Advisory Committee, all from my time at Mountain States Health Alliance. Larry, a native of Appalachia, was very interested in, and honoring of, my Cherokee heritage when we served together. Johnson City, by the way, is the site of the Tipton-Haynes Museum, in the area where the Battle of the State of Franklin took place, yet another reality of the theft of American Indian land during the late 1700’s. The museum has many Native American artifacts dating back to the early period. Due to time constraints, I did not visit the Qualla Boundary this trip, home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Penny and I rejoined, however, and on Saturday drove over to Bryson City, N.C., where my great-grandmother and grandmother lived, and where my father was raised. My plan is to be interred at Bryson City Cemetery where great-grandmother Estelle (Miller Roll #2991) and my aunt Mildred (Miller Roll #2992)—the last enrolled Cherokees in the family lineage—are buried.
Kituwah Mound is just outside of town and Penny and I arrived before noon. For the first time since I’ve visited the mound, trespassing signs were posted. I became distraught about this and we saw two men reclining in the shade of an industrial-type awning near the property, so we went over to inquire and “chew the fat” with them. One was clearly Cherokee (confirmed by the front license plate on his truck, sporting the Tsalagi letters for “Cherokee”) so I identified myself as a Mt. Hood Cherokee and my relationship to the Cherokee Nation and inquired about the signs. “Oh, just ignore that,” one of them said, “That’s just to keep people from picking from the garden.” To say I was relieved is an understatement as I had visions of Sunday’s local headlines: “Swain County sheriff’s deputies arrest man for refusing to leave ancient Cherokee site,” complete with a mug shot of my bald head and a separate photo of Penny’s startled expression.
Archaeological dating of Kituwah Mound indicates a presence of almost 10,000 years. It is only about four or five feet high, compared to suggestions of it once being nearly 20 feet tall. For a century or more the mound was farmed by private landowners and began to deteriorate in size and character until the Eastern Band bought it back in 1996. In 2009, the Duke Energy Corporation tried to build a substation on the site until tribal leaders and members from the Eastern Band, the Cherokee Nation, and the United Keetoowah Band stood against it. In 2010, Duke decided to put the substation in another spot, signifying a victory for tribal government, Cherokee spiritual expression, and Native American rights. If one has never visited Kituwah or has not returned since 2010 and an opportunity for sojourn presents itself, one might recall the dedication and commitment that took place to keep this treasured site intact for descendants.
Ascending the mound in bare feet on a sunny 80-degree day instantly put me in mind of my great, great, great aunt Mary and her family, who departed Hiwassee, TN (Trail of Tears) on October 11, 1838, arriving in Indian Territory at the Vineyard Post Office in Arkansas on January 7, 1839, and the juxtaposition of such a lovely day in 2017 to the horrors of removal. The grass was long and obscured the ground so we were wary of snakes but the ancestors were with us. As I got on my knees to begin the four directions, I was conscious of voices shouting to one another and two working vehicles in the adjacent farming field shutting down their engines. I tried to relax in the heat as I faced east. After a brief meditation I turned to face the west. I felt the tears coming. I reflected on the names of the women in my father’s line, those who died trying to survive removal, and indigenous people everywhere, and breathed deeply. Thoughts of the Rutherford Expedition, Andrew Jackson, and heavy-footed soldiers with bloody bayonets competed for my attention but I put them in their place. I pondered my father’s frustration at not knowing more about his Cherokee legacy. My face was soaked with tears by the time I faced north. Penny, the epitome of compassion in moments such as these, asked what I was feeling. I couldn’t respond. The names returned: Soniovee (Christian-imposed name “Susannah”), my fifth great-grandmother; Sarah, my fourth great-grandmother, Annie—my third great-grandmother and Mary’s youngest sister; Emma, the second great-grandmother; Estelle, my great-grandmother who helped raise my father; and my grandmother Aileen. I sensed their presence on the mound, surrounding me as I’m convinced they did when I had my second heart attack in 2008. I felt a distant breeze and could see the grass on the mound blowing to and fro as I faced south, the birds singing and cicadas chattering as they do only in the southeast.
It was when I went prostrate that I most felt the presence of the Great Spirit and my ancestors. Something about kissing the ground considered sacred to our tribe makes me new again, listening for the words of those so far away yet somehow always nearby. The message? “Be faithful, because the Cherokees will rise again in a way you have not considered. When that time comes, you will be called upon, and you will respond, and we will once again be with you.” Penny had been circling the mound, taking pictures. When I opened my eyes again I smiled as I thought about the theophany (a visible manifestation of God or a deity) I had just encountered. I considered my Mt. Hood family and smiled again. How I wished you were there! I also contemplated this year’s Remember the Removal bike riders, some of whom would be visiting Kituwah for the first time in the following weeks. I took a deep breath and exhaled, and rising to leave, I noticed the engines from the farming vehicles roar to life again. As Protestant clergy, I reflect on this moment theologically as well as philosophically. The various sacraments, ordinances, and rituals I’ve known in the church—Holy Communion (instituted by Jesus, or Tsi sa, prior to his own removal), baptism, marriage (established by God at creation in Judeo-Christian thought), ordination—none exceed the intimacy and profundity I enjoy through the sacrament of birthright celebrated via prayer and reflection on Kituwah Mound.
The Tuckasegee River runs parallel to the mound site and is about a three to five minute walk. We went down to the rapids and hung out for a bit. The first thing we did was “go to water,” stepping in and covering our faces and arms with the cold, brisk flow. We snapped a few photos and I took a video of the river that captures the sounds of the whitewater. A circular fire pit in some sand away from the water’s edge indicated many a picnic and get-together over the years. This was the second time I had gone to water at this spot and it was life-giving to be able to do it again, especially with Penny at my side. We took our time meandering and held hands as we headed back to the car and suffice it to say, it was a powerful experience and one that I hope to repeat. On one visit years ago, we tried our GPS to see if it would take us there and things went awry so it’s probably easier to know that Main Street in Bryson City is also State Road 19, and one follows this road out of the small town for a couple of miles at most and Kituwah Mound is on the right, next to a corn field, marked by a sign. Trust me: You will be led to it.
A na s gv ti A quatse li E qua A da nv do Wa tsi Ga wo hi lv do di Ni hi
(May Our Great Spirit Watch Over You)