The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians played an integral role in the creation of the Parkway. The Parkway was envisioned as a scenic motorway connecting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
To reach the doorstep of the Smokies, the Parkway needed right-of-way across tribal lands, but securing the route in the 1930s was not easy.
“The battle for this right-of-way started in 1935, and it did not get settled for five years,” said Ray Kinsland, the director of the Cherokee Boys Club, who shared a brief history of the Parkway’s arrival during a torch passing ceremony last week.
Many in Cherokee were resistant to the taking of tribal land to make way for the Parkway.
“A lot of people did not trust the federal government because of history,” Kinsland said. “I don’t know of any other people who have struggled for their land and freedom as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.”
However, some Cherokee leaders at the time recognized the important role tourism would play in the tribe’s future.
“And for tourism, you needed roads,” Kinsland said.
A tug of war ensued within the tribe over whether to give up land for the Parkway, and if so, what the tribe was due in return. The chief and vice chief at the time were on opposing sides of the debate.
What is known is that the Cherokee Reservation is not a reservation in the true sense. The government did not grant the block of land to the Cherokee people. Instead, the Cherokee people pooled their resources and purchased the land over time and placed it in a trust, known collectively today as the Qualla Boundary.
“We had to buy this land with our own money after it had been taken away from us,” Kinsland said.
So when the Department of Interior wanted Cherokee to deed land to the federal government for the creation of the Parkway, the tribe resisted. Their land was taken once, they bought a small sliver of their once vast homeland back, and many balked at giving up even an acre.
But tribal leaders advocating for the benefits tourism would bring eventually won out.
The federal government at first wanted the tribe to give away the land for nothing, but ultimately agreed to give the tribe two other parcels known as the Boundary Tree tract and Ravensford tract in exchange for the Parkway right-of-way. The tribe signed the pact for the right-of-way in 1939.
Two years later, however, Congress decided not to give the tribe the Ravensford tract after all.
More than 60 years would pass before the tribe eventually got its hands on the long-promised Ravensford tract. The tribe negotiated a land swap in 2003 with the park service to gain title to the Ravensford tract to build a new school. The tribe bought 218 acres bordering the Parkway near Waterrock Knob and swapped it for the Ravensford tract, a flat piece of land close to town.
Tribe members were frustrated that it took three tries to buy back a tract of land that was rightfully theirs to begin with, Kinsland said.
The tract now houses the campus of a new $140 million K through 12 school, which opened this fall. Kinsland said the government going back on its word 60 years ago during the Parkway right-of-way negotiations was a blessing in disguise. Under park service control, the Ravensford tract had remained free of development. If it had belonged to the tribe all these years, “it would have been campgrounds and motels,” Kinsland said. “We wouldn’t have had anywhere to put our new school. We see it as a win-win-win.”