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Dam politics and freedom of religion

bookThe growing threat of drought in the Southeast and the problems of “water politics” has prodded the memory of many legislators and ecologists to anxiously recall the snail darter controversy.

Over 30 years ago, a paper clip-sized fish in the Little Tennessee River halted construction of a $100 million project, the Tellico Dam. Before this battle was over, the people who challenged the TVA were left with a brutal lesson in pork barrel politics.  

Essentially, this arrogant, federally funded agency, which had already constructed more than 60 dams in Tennessee, proceeded to build one more. The snail darter was relocated and forgotten; the rights of a dozen entities who opposed the project (including the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Sierra Club, the Tennessee Conservation, the Tennessee Historical Association and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Trout Unlimited) all were ignored.

However, the Eastern Band of Cherokees decided to make yet another appeal based on their contention that the flooding of Tellico Plains would violate their religious freedom. Common Ground reveals the details of this final, audacious battle. 

Since the author served for 22 years as the tribal attorney for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (1970-92), he is admirably qualified to address the Tellico Plains controversy. However, Common Ground is a novel, but it is a unique one. Instead of utilizing the conventional format of a novel with descriptive details, Bridgers presents his characters in accordance to their role in this story. Personal names are rarely used. For example, the tribal attorney is identified by the heading, “THE ATTORNEY,” which is followed by a kind of monologue. So, the novel introduces a diversity of characters, THE SHAMAN, THE SECRETARY, THE REPORTER, etc. As a consequence, there is an absence of descriptive detail, yet we know a character’s physical characteristics when he is described by another. For example, the reader knows that THE ATTORNEY is red-headed and has a large nose when he is described by other characters, among them, THE GIRLFRIEND.

Much of the action revolves around a journey from Cherokee to Knoxville to present legal documents to the federal court. When THE ATTORNEY decides to develop a case based on freedom of religion, he discovers that many Cherokee people make traditional trips to Chota, the sacred town, and that they claim to draw spiritual strength from being there.  Medicine men find herbs that they use in rituals and they do not grow elsewhere. As a consequence, THE ATTORNEY takes an honored shaman with him to Chota. When THE SHAMAN travels across the Smokies on the way to Knoxville and Chota, he discovers that the trees are dying in the high elevations. THE ATTORNEY and THE PRINCIPAL CHIEF tell THE SHAMAN that this is due to acid rain and the poisonous smog emitted by the TVA  plants in Tennessee. THE SHAMAN (speaking in Cherokee) tells his companions that “the world is dying” due to “the unig’s (white man) ignorance” of the natural world and how it works.

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The details of the Shaman’s visit to both Chota and the federal court are provocative. When THE SHAMAN speaks or when he reveals his thoughts, it becomes obvious that he perceives this final fight as futile. He quickly appraises the federal judge’s remarks and knows from the judge’s prior decisions that he always supports the TVA. For him, the trial is a charade since the dam is complete and nothing remains but to release the water.[  Still, he wants to “bear witness” to the fact that the Cherokees have opposed this evil, destructive act.

Much of Common Ground resembles a chess game in which THE TVA ATTORNEY makes a strategic move that is countered by THE TRIBAL ATTORNEY. The outcome is inevitable. In time, the truth will become evident: The Tellico Dam served no significant purpose since the electrical energy produced by the dam is negligible. The true purpose for building the dam is “recreational” and is actually a part of a land development scheme to develop some expensive real estate. However, within a decade, the TVA’s hidden agenda becomes obvious. 

As THE ATTORNEY gathers evidence that readily demonstrates that the ancient grave sites in Tellico Plains and the Cherokee traditions associated with Chota are compelling evidence of the religious ties, he finds himself developing a growing awareness of “a spirit” that is alien to him. By degrees, he develops a vague awareness of a powerful presence that is waning. The trees are dying and a culture is on the brink of extinction. Shortly before his death, THE SHAMAN has a prophetic dream in which the same forces that brought the end of his world will offer the Cherokees a kind of solace in the form of what THE SHAMAN CALLS “the Big money.” The implication is that this final “gift” will prove to be the ruin of his people.

As Bridgers unwinds this dark tale of how a complex culture was undermined and destroyed by greed and political chicanery, he does an admirable job of sketching a series of Cherokee legends as well as some poignant history. Especially noteworthy is a tale about the final days of the Sandhill Cherokees in Macon County. In addition, there is a tale of a lost medicine belt and the significance of the swastika (the symbol that we associate with Nazi Germany) in Cherokee culture.

Finally, let me comment on the subtle depiction of romantic love. Common Ground contains four characters who do manage to find love and affection in the midst of all of this political intrigue.  Both THE ATTORNEY and the handsome young TRANSLATOR manage a bit of intimacy and affection, but there are no passages of smoldering passion. The details are left to the reader’s imagination. Both THE SECRETARY and THE GIRLFRIEND have dual roles since they provide transportation and transcribe legal briefs as well as being intimate companions. This reader was pleased to find a bit of spice and seasoning in this tale that might have otherwise been a bland concoction.

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Common Ground by Ben Oshel Bridgers. CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2014. 340 pages.

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