The Cherokee faced a long, uphill battle spanning decades to secure the idyllic tract of land now housing a brand new K-12 school for the tribe.
The 143-acre parcel was part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park until a few years ago and required persistence and political maneuvering on the tribe’s part to wrest it away from the park service. Ultimately, the tribe brokered a land swap by giving the park service a 218-acre tract along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Waterrock Knob in exchange.
Leaders of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians had sought the flat, valley-like tract near Big Cove to expand the small stronghold of tribal lands hemmed in by steep mountains and federally-owned land. The Cherokee say they were promised the tract in the 1940s as compensation for construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway cutting through tribal lands. The tribe never received the promised tract and were never compensated for land taken for the parkway construction.
The land swap was pushed through Congress by then-U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor, R-Brevard. At a dedication of the new school last week, speaker after speaker recalled the ordeal of the land swap and paid homage to the support from Taylor and credited him with making the land swap a reality. Taylor could not be there but sent his son to speak instead.
To the tribe, however, it wasn’t so much a land swap, as “getting our land back,” said Chief Michell Hicks.
“We had to go back and rebuy it. That describes who we are as a people. We are survivors,” Hicks said. “When you step on this land, you are on sacred ground.”