In the Mountains: Cherokee culture has rich history and strong influence in Southern Appalachia

As the Native people of Western North Carolina, Cherokee communities are an integral part of Appalachian culture

The people of Appalachia have long been a vibrant collection of different ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, and traditions. Whether it be Scots Irish immigrants settling in the rolling Southern Appalachian mountains so like their homeland, or the historically Black neighborhoods in Junaluska and other communities in the region where Black Americans settled in search of economic opportunity, modern-day Appalachian culture is a conglomeration of a variety of communities all forging their own path here in the mountains.

While echoes of each of these cultures are still felt today, travelers and migrants who found their home here in the Appalachian Mountains were not settling on empty land. The Cherokee people are the original Appalachians, with evidence indicating a human presence in the current Cherokee territory in North Carolina for almost 12,000 years.

The Cherokee people have an incredibly rich and long-lasting connection with these hills and hollers, and despite attempts throughout history to disband their communities, eliminate their language, and destroy their culture, the Cherokee influence on the larger Appalachian culture can still be felt to this day.

Due to the Indian Removal Act of 1830 under President Andrew Jackson─which initiated the government-mandated transfer of Eastern Indian tribes to west of the Mississippi River via the Trail of Tears─many Cherokee people were forcefully removed from their ancestral lands here in the Appalachian Mountains and pushed west into what is now Oklahoma. According to NCPedia, Cherokee land, as well as the ancestral lands of other Southern Native American tribes like the Creek, Chickasaw, and Choctaw, were coveted by white settlers for use as cotton plantations and gold mining.

This map illustrates the removal paths of five southeastern Native American tribes under the Indian Removal Act. Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

While the majority of Native Americans in this region were displaced as a result of the Indian Removal Act, according to Lees-McRae Visiting Assistant Professor of History Mike Davis, small numbers of Cherokee were able to escape this persecution. Those people became what is known today as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI).

“The people in the Eastern Band are those who escaped Indian Removal and hid in the Great Smoky Mountains,” Davis said. “The Eastern Band are descended from the Cherokee who resisted Indian Removal like Chief Tsali.”

Today, the majority of Cherokee people who live in North Carolina live within this tract of land that they were able to hold, an area which came to be identified as the Qualla Boundary. Unlike traditional Native American reservations throughout the United States, the Qualla Boundary─which includes land in modern-day North Carolina counties such as Cherokee, Graham, Swain, and Jackson─is privately owned by the communities who occupy it rather than government mandated.

“The Qualla Boundary started expanding in the 1870s and grew from there as it was bought out by Native buyers. It’s not technically a reservation because it was actually bought by the people who live on the land directly,” Davis said. “This is land that they bought in the Euro-American style, and that they hold directly. They didn’t hold this land by treaty that could be aggregated, as has happened to other Cherokee.”

The Qualla Boundary is the largest swath of Cherokee land in the state, stretching across 57,000 acres of Western North Carolina. This plot of land has largely maintained the same boundaries that were established in 1876. Approximately 80 percent of this land is owned by individual tribal members and is held in a federal trust, barring it from sale except to other tribal members. 

While the Qualla Boundary land gave the Cherokee in North Carolina an opportunity to reestablish their cultures and communities following Indian Removal, this transition was not without significant difficulty.

“It’s always hard to reconstruct a lot of this given what happened to Native Americans after the arrival of Europeans,” Davis said. “Historians estimate that something like nine out of ten Native Americans died as a result of European conquest.”

While the Trail of Tears was a significant tool used to destroy Eastern Native American communities, European diseases like smallpox, measles, and flu also wiped-out large populations of Native people who had no immunity to fight the foreign infections.

Due to this erasure, and the inaccurate, often racist representation of Native Americans in television, films, and other forms of media throughout the years, many non-Native Americans are uneducated or misinformed about Native American culture and history. Overcoming this misunderstanding is an important step in the revitalization and expansion of Cherokee culture throughout the state.

This map shows the areas of land in Western North Carolina that are part of the Qualla Boundary.

“We have to banish any old Hollywood movies from our mind. The Cherokee were a settled agricultural community. They were sophisticated breeders of corn and other crops. They bred a variety called Eastern Flint Corn that was almost as big and productive as modern corn,” Davis said. “They lived in towns and villages, had complex societies with governing systems and the like. They would have been connected to regional trade networks that were all over the east coast. They were trading with people up into Pennsylvania, further south into Alabama, and elsewhere.”

Despite the deliberate and violent erasure of their culture, the impact that the Cherokee people have had on this area of North Carolina is seen every day. Art practices such as basketry, pottery, and wood carving that are often thought of as synonymous with Appalachian culture are originally Cherokee practices. Rivers, and mountains bear Cherokee names, and some modern roads in this part of the state, such as the Unicoi Turnpike, were originally Native roads.

According to an article about river names in Western North Carolina by the Asheville Citizen Times, the word Cheoah, which names a town, dam, and river in Graham and Swain Counties, is an anglicized version of the Cherokee word “cheeohwa,” meaning “otter.” Similarly, Swannanoa, a small town in Buncombe County, is an anglicized version of “Suwali-nunna,” a Cherokee word meaning “trail of the Suwali tribe.”

Even closer to home, the Tanawha Trail─which winds 13.5 miles parallel to the Blue Ridge Parkway─is a Cherokee word meaning fabulous hawk or eagle. “Tanawha” is also the original Cherokee name of the mountain which the trail encircles, Grandfather Mountain.

Communities throughout North Carolina and throughout the United States have made significant strides in rebuilding and expanding Cherokee communities, traditions, and cultures. Today, Cherokee, North Carolina is a sovereign nation with its own laws, elections, government, and institutions separate from the United States federal government.

In the United States, November is recognized as National Native American Heritage Month, a time each year set aside in recognition of the significant contributions that Native Americans have made to the nation. This year, take the opportunity to become acquainted with the Native American history that surrounds us here in Southern Appalachia.

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, North Carolina is open to visitors and operates on a mission to “preserve and perpetuate the history, culture, and stories of the Cherokee people.” The Cherokee Preservation Foundation there has spearheaded initiatives that focus on cultural preservation, economic development, and environmental preservation.

The revitalization of the Cherokee language, the passing down of Cherokee food and artistic traditions, and the observation of Cherokee celebrations are all incredibly important in the continued effort to rebuild the Cherokee culture and community that was taken away.

Learn more about the Cherokee language

Learn more about the government of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians

Explore the OsiyoTV YouTube channel to learn more from the voices of the Cherokee people

By Maya JarrellNovember 21, 2022