Partner institutions reaffirm commitment to Native health

Western Carolina University, Wake Forest University and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have reaffirmed their partnership to promote Native health initiatives.

Since 2006, the three institutions have collaborated to support the Culturally Based Native Health Program, or CBNHP. The CBNHP has two components: a graduate and undergraduate Native health certificate offered through WCU; and a Native youth-to-health careers initiative summer camp that takes place at Wake Forest.

“We are recommitting ourselves to initiatives we started four years ago,” said Lisa Lefler, a professor of medical anthropology and director of the WCU component of the program.

Principal Chief Michell Hicks of the EBCI, WCU Chancellor John Bardo and Provost Jill Tiefenthaler of Wake Forest formally updated the agreement at a meeting Nov. 16 on the WCU campus. Provisions of the new agreement include an extension of the terms through August 2015 and for Wake Forest to support qualified EBCI applicants. WCU agrees to “provide in-kind technological support and consultation to promote these collaborative efforts and support of American Indian students in education and career development.”

Bardo stressed the partnership’s strength and value. Tiefenthaler, citing the economy, said institutions are “in the age of partnerships.” Hicks said the tribe is interested in expanding the relationship to include other fields, such as architecture or accounting, for example.

The Native health certificate was developed with tribal community members and health professionals to provide a curriculum based on culture to inform providers about the unique nature of Indian health policy and the historical and cultural contexts of heath. This 12-hour, fully online program is one of the first in the nation to include a partnership with a Native community.

The second component of the CBNHP, the medical career counseling and technologies program, also called MedCat, responds to the universal need for more Native health care workers by recruiting high school students interested in medical careers and related technologies.

The CBNHP works in other ways to heighten awareness of Native health issues. A public lecture series featured its second speaker this fall semester, and a concert and free symposium in October raised raise awareness of the intersection of environmental, health and indigenous issues related to the destruction of mountain land.

Tribe gets future say in state prioritizations of road projects

Recognizing that Cherokee has roads, too, a transportation-planning group for the state’s six westernmost counties opted to give the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians a voice in decisions being made about highways and byways.

The decision to include the tribe wasn’t unanimous. Robbinsville Alderman Jacky Ayers voted “no,” without elaborating why.

The tribe has lands in Swain, Jackson, Graham and Cherokee counties. The group — the Transportation Advisory Committee, made up of elected officials from those counties, plus Macon and Clay — met this week.

Ryan Sherby, who heads the group on behalf of the Southwestern Development Commission, a behind-the-scenes but vitally important state planning organization, initiated the addition of Cherokee.

Joel Setzer, a division engineer overseeing the state’s 10 westernmost counties for the state Department of Transportation, endorsed the proposal. He pointed out the tribe would, subsequently, be treated like municipalities. It will have a voice and a vote, but specific road-project recommendations must be tendered to the particular counties where the roads are located before being included for DOT review.

Ayers, while inarticulate on why he wanted to exclude the tribe, found his voice in a sudden burst of praise following the vote, characterizing Conrad Burrell as the “best board member in the state.” Burrell represents this region on the state board of transportation.

Burrell responded, after other meeting-goers had burbled their agreement, that he wanted the elected officials to note during his decade-long tenure: “we didn’t keep all the money in a single county. We try to equal it out, not just give it to one or two counties.”

The 1776 campaign against the Cherokee

By Lamar Marshall • Contributing Writer

It was a crisp, cold day with snow on the ground when I pulled my old 4-Runner to the shoulder of U.S. 441 near the north side of the gap at the top of Cowee Mountain between Dillsboro and Franklin. I was on the headwaters of Savannah Creek, on national forest land, looking at an 1850 map of the Western Turnpike, which identified the gap as Wilson Gap. Since then it has been known as both Watauga Gap and Cowee Gap. This was also the old Rutherford Trace, so named after North Carolina’s Gen. Griffin Rutherford, who attacked and burned the Middle and Valley Towns of the Cherokees in 1776.

Rutherford was to meet the South Carolina army under Col. Andrew Williamson at Nikwasi Town located at modern Franklin. From there the two combined armies would cross the Nantahala Mountains and burn the Valley Towns on Hiwassee and Valley rivers. As Rutherford marched across the Blue Ridge near modern Asheville and Waynesville, Williamson was burning the Lower Towns in South Carolina.

This nvnah, or trail, was an ancient and major thoroughfare of the Cherokee people. It, like most trails, connected important places by following a corridor of least geographical resistance, which meant utilizing the lowest and best mountain passes and the shallowest fording places along rivers. After the 1776 Rutherford invasion of Cherokee country, it was called Rutherford’s Trace and later became known as the Cherokee Road, then the State Road in the 1830s, the Western Turnpike by the1850s, and today is part of the corridor of U.S. 441.

See also: Ancient road signs

This point atop the Cowee Mountains was known to the first white traders as Seven Mile Mountain, being seven miles from Watauga Town on the Little Tennessee River. This was part of a major east-west Cherokee trail that connected the Catawba Indian country of central North Carolina to Tennessee and Georgia, passing through modern Buncombe, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Cherokee counties. The gap here can be identified easily by travelers today by the bright yellow Gold City mine located on its south side.

Both the ancient gap and its historical Cherokee trail had been blasted away by modern highway construction to make way for our modern “gasoline-powered wagons.” In so doing, they also blasted away the spot where Billy Alexander was shot through the foot by one of about 20 Cherokee warriors who boldly ambushed a thousand American troops in 1776. By the time the troops rallied and returned fire, the Cherokees, like ghosts, had vanished into the woods. Billie was carried on a litter for the rest of the expedition.


A path of destruction

I was tracking ghosts myself this day, on the trail of about 2,800 American troops who in 1776 found themselves not only at war with Great Britain but with the Cherokee nation. Finding themselves caught up in the War of Independence, the Cherokees sided with England, which promised to curb Western colonial expansion into their lands. The brutal Cherokee attacks on the American frontier were preceded by equally brutal atrocities committed by frontier riff-raff, no more than professional scalp hunters who made a living by either murdering Indians and collecting the government bounty on their scalps or selling them alive as slaves for British sugar plantations on islands around the Caribbean. The Cherokees attacked the colonial frontiers in July 1776, and by late summer and fall found three American armies totaling more than 6,000 men attacking from the north, the south and General Rutherford marching towards the heartland of their nation on this trail. The Cherokee fighters numbered around 2,000.

The trail ascended the Blue Ridge at Old Fort, where Rutherford’s army began its invasion on Sunday, Sept. 1, 1776. The men were inspired by Army Chaplain Reverend James Hall, who had preached a sermon the day before from 2 Samuel 1:10. “So I stood upon him, and slew him, because I was sure that he could not live after that he was fallen: and I took the crown that was upon his head, and the bracelet that was on his arm, and have brought them hither unto my lord.”  

Six days later the chaplain shot and killed an innocent black slave belonging to a British trader named Scott at modern Sylva. He is said to have claimed that he thought the slave was an Indian. It seems the American “Canaan” was about to be cleaned out by the Euro-American belief that the anointed white race was like the Israelites of the Old Testament and Rutherford’s troops were the “soldiers of the Lord.” The Cherokees had a different theological point of view. They argued that the Great Spirit gave them their land and the white man had no right to take it.

So it was on this wintry day I was following along, as near as possible, this Cherokee trail that became a path of destruction. At Webster, the little village of Tuckasegee was burned and 16 acres of corn destroyed by army horses within a few hours. In an attempt to engage the retreating Cherokees, Rutherford sent a thousand troops up Savannah Creek to where I now stood, the remaining 1,800 troops and packhorses to follow. From the top of the gap looking south, the old Indian trail peeled off to the left down the drainage following Watauga Creek.

When U.S. 441 was built, it spared the old trail and the beautiful rural valley along Watauga Road. The trail followed Watauga Creek on to the Little Tennessee River where it crossed into the Cherokee town of Watauga near the junction of Riverbend Road and N.C. 28. The Middle Town Cherokee families were evacuated over the mountains, frustrating the American armies who could but wreak their vengeance on Cherokee houses, crops, cattle, food stores, and the few unlucky elderly and handicapped Cherokees that could not travel. In spite of being ordered by the North Carolina Council of Safety to protect Indian women and children, Rutherford could not restrain his men.

When they did choose to fight, Cherokees did so on their own terms. They were masters of guerrilla warfare who utilized mountain gaps and river narrows as places to set up “ambuscades.” These places funneled men and horses into small passes surrounded by high ground, from which the warriors could shoot down on their enemies. Most of Rutherford’s men were trained riflemen, crack shots armed with rifles, tomahawks, butcher knives and corn knives. They were hard men, born on the American frontier, raised on the land farming, hunting, raising animals and lately, fighting the British. But unlike the British, most were adapted to the more effective Indian manner of warfare, preferring to shoot from behind trees and rocks.  

Perhaps the ambush at Cowee Mountain was intended to buy time for the evacuation of Watauga, Cowee, Nikwasi and other Middle Cherokee towns. The next ambush laid for Rutherford was to be on Wayah Creek, along modern Wayah Road, east of the Lyndon B. Johnson Job Corps Center in Franklin. This was to be the largest battle that Rutherford and Williamson’s armies would engage. Unfortunately for Rutherford, he failed to take Indian scouts with him and got lost at Franklin. He crossed the mountains at the wrong place, basically following the route of modern U.S. 64, and burned the Cherokee towns along Shooting Creek, Hayesville and Peachtree.

The army apparently surprised and surrounded the first town they came to. Quanassee was located just south of modern Hayesville. Six Cherokees were killed, two wounded, and an old man and boy captured. John Robinson killed the old Cherokee the next day and was tied and put under guard. It is doubtful that he was prosecuted.

The South Carolina army arrived at Canucca Town very near Nikwasi at modern-day Franklin, and followed what is now the Wayah Road, where about 500 to 600 Cherokees attacked Williamson’s troops. At least 13 American soldiers were killed before the Cherokees retreated. They were buried in a swampy place, with a causeway built over the graves to hide them. There is not so much as a historical marker to mark their graves or tell the story. The army then marched over the mountains to the site of modern-day Andrews, where they burned all the Valley Towns down to the Murphy area and soon met Gen. Rutherford.

Ancient footpaths of a lost era

Editor’s note: In April 2009, the non-profit organization Wild South was notified by the Cherokee Preservation Foundation of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians that it and partner organizations Mountain Stewards and the Southeastern Anthropological Institute had been awarded a grant to complete a project called the Trails of the Middle, Valley and Out Town Cherokee Settlements. What began as a project to reconstruct the trail and road system of the Cherokee Nation in Western North Carolina and surrounding states became a journey of geographical time travel. The many thousands of rare archives scattered across the eastern United States that proved “who, what, why, when and where” also revealed new information as to what transpired on and around these Cherokee trails that we were mapping.

Look for a second article on this project in next week’s Smoky Mountain News.

By Lamar Marshall • Contributing writer

It was a hot day even at 5,000 feet elevation when we parked the car at Indian Gap on the crest of the Great Smoky Mountains and began mapping the route of the ancient Indian Gap trail that connected the Cherokee claims and hunting grounds of Kentucky with the Middle and Out Town Cherokee settlements.

Armed with 10 years of research, 50 years of cross-country experience, maps, GPS, food and water, the two-person Wild South team (Duke intern Kevin Lloyd and myself) started south toward Qualla Boundary, home of the Eastern Band of Cherokees, which lay about 14 miles away. Of course, it would take many days to map the route across the rugged terrain we were about to encounter.

We slid down the mountainside on slick, rocky talus, grabbing hold of tree after tree to prevent us from falling. Eventually our descending compass course intersected the bed of the Oconaluftee Turnpike, a road that was built along portions of the Indian trail in the early 1800s. We attempted to walk along the centerline of the long-abandoned roadbed that contoured down the mountain towards Beech Flats.

I am sure that the original and oldest sections of the trail followed the drainage up where it crosses modern U.S. 441. More than one early record notes that Cherokees rode and walked straight up and over the mountains. The English complained that they couldn’t follow the steep Cherokee trails on horseback, so they switch-backed up the mountains to lessen the grade. Some of the trails between deadly mountain precipices were so narrow that terrified horses, on approaching from opposite directions and being forced to pass one another, rubbed each other’s hair off. As Cherokee trails were enlarged and upgraded for pack horses and wagons, they were sometimes lengthened to lessen the steep grades.

What had begun as a fairly open road soon vanished in chest high stinging nettle and treacherous, hidden, wet rocks. We inched our way along, sliding our boots over the slick rocks and taking GPS waypoints every few hundred yards, our legs burning like fire. The quarter mile of nettles yielded to a hundred years of encroaching rhododendron and mountain laurel thickets that obviously only rabbits, short bears or the Cherokee Little People could negotiate. We climbed over, detoured around and eventually found that the best way to move ahead and make progress was on our bellies. Our backpacks hung up on the lowest limbs and we detoured around steaming piles of bear scat. The black bears, it seems, regularly used the old turnpike as a main travel-way.

This didn’t make us feel overly safe as we would certainly be eaten before we could extract ourselves from the impenetrable thickets. True, the bear would probably only have gotten one of us, but as I was 61, I’m not sure that I could have outrun a 20-year-old intern. He attempted to scare any rambling bears whom we might run into by yelling “Heyyyyyy Bear.” I wondered if the numerous raw garlic cloves on my sandwiches would repel large omnivores or just make their mouth water for a human condiment.  

The weeks of fieldwork went by and we negotiated more of the same on other trails. One trail over the Snowbird Mountains crisscrossed a creek 18 times within a couple of miles. I left Kevin at lunch one day to GPS a trail and was jogging back thinking how tough and in shape I was for an aging redneck. At that instant I tripped on a branch, dove headlong and hit the rocky trail face first, GPS, pen, and trail book scattering in every direction. I bruised both shins and every one of the thousand rhododendron snags that my shins hung up on the rest of the day reminded me that “pride goeth before a fall.”

I got stung over a dozen times by yellow jackets on four different days, and was near hypothermia from a blinding rain storm that took us by surprise on Chunky Gal Mountain. We never stepped on a timber rattler, though old timers warned us religiously to beware, the mountains were full of them and that a strike from a large rattler could knock a full grown man to the ground. After seeing a road-killed ratter that looked like the leg of a hog, I dug through my many boxes of old, outdoor gear and found my camouflaged snake leggings. Being a flat-land Alabama refugee, I didn’t think I would need those up here in the mountains. I was wrong.

Those were some of the harder days, but the many sunny days of immersion in the wild Appalachian mountains overshadowed them. I leaned up and became much stronger with the intense climbing up and down mountains and tangles of laurel and rhododendron. This is not easy work. Researching and documenting Indian trails requires an extensive knowledge of cross country navigation, surveying skills, historic map collections, and state and federal archives and physical ability.

It took many years of studying rare historic maps, records and documents to lay the groundwork that would enable us to produce a master map whereby we could overlay a network of old Indian trails on top of modern roadmaps. What is beginning to unfold is clear evidence that the main arteries of our 20th century road system were built directly on Cherokee trails and corridors. The evolution of our modern highway system originated from a continent-wide, aboriginal trail system that connected Native America before De Soto, Columbus, the Vikings and all other uninvited visitors who used the words “first discovered” even though these words were misnomers. It is obvious that Indians discovered America several thousand years before Europeans invented the sail and recruited sailors to transport their illegal immigrants.

With the mapping of these trails, we can now begin to add a missing dimension to the emerging story of Cherokee geography and hopefully come up with a snapshot of the cultural and ancestral landscape. This mechanical beginning will not be complete without the help of the older generation of Cherokee people and the collective memory that recalls the trails and roads that their parents and grandparents used.

After a year and a half, trails have been mapped across the Great Smoky, Nantahala, Cowee, Snowbird and Blue Ridge Mountains. A subtotal shows that there are about 148 miles of known Indian trails and corridors on the Pisgah, Nantahala and Cherokee national forests. U.S. Forest Service Archaeologist Rodney Snedeker has assisted Wild South in the trails research and plans to incorporate the final maps and reports into forest planning as required by the National Historic Preservation Act. Though many trail-beds have been erased by agriculture and development, some trails were simply abandoned in the forests or survived as unpaved forest service roads. Others became our modern paved roads and major highways.

Success is measured by the identification, interpretation and designation of a historic trail. Wild South began historic trail mapping in north Alabama where 200 miles of Cherokee Indian trails were researched, identified and field mapped. Several hundred yards of the original Cherokee wagon road from Gunter’s Landing to Fort Payne was discovered in the woods of Guntersville State Park. Working with the Alabama Chapter of the Trail of Tears Association, the findings were incorporated into a 300-page report that documented the removal of 1,100 Cherokee Indians in 1838 from Fort Payne, Ala., to the Tennessee state line. Other state Trail of Tears groups are mapping additional sections of the route between there and Oklahoma. To the Cherokees who were forced west, the trail became known as “The Trail Where They Cried.”

The same trails that had been here for millennia were used by migrating settlers before and after the time of Indian Removal in 1838. By then, most foot and horse trails had been improved for wagons. A number of them were “cut out” by American armies during the Cherokee War of 1776 to 1786. Many of the roads that were here in 1838 were used in the Civil War, and those used in the Civil War were still in use when the U.S. Geological Survey began its systematic topographic mapping in the 1880s, providing us with a snapshot of the 19th century road system.

Next, these same roads were graded, graveled, widened and paved for automobiles. Some major Cherokee trails remain deeply entrenched on National Forests and private lands. Before the era of blasting away mountains and arbitrarily laying interstates from points A to B, people followed the natural, flowing geography of the land through valley corridors, mountain gaps and shallow fords. Therefore, Indian trails represent original America, long before the era of strip malls and lifeless ribbons of asphalt.

By walking these ancient trails, we are traveling through corridors of time. Today, people can stand in the deeply worn recesses of these travel ways and look at the surrounding mountains with the assurance that they are seeing from exactly the same viewpoint, the shapes, colors, ridge tops, balds and wooded slopes that were seen by the Cherokee a thousand years ago as he or she walked in this same spot. I once rode by horseback down a remote and high mountain trail deep in the Smoky Mountains behind three Cherokees at dusk. There was a distinct feeling that this moment could have been in the year 1700, and we would soon smell the smoke of a hundred fires as it hung suspended over an Indian village in a valley below.

Along these trails are the blood, sweat and tears of those who lived, laughed and died here. Their bare feet, moccasins and horses hooves touched the earth that yet remains. The trails were the travel arteries of the land and they are fibers that connect this generation with the history of the land.

The history, like the rugged mountains, is rough, challenging and not always easy to revisit. Most people living in WNC know little of the story of its painful settlement and the events that transpired across the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Few people are aware that the most powerful army in the world invaded what would become Macon and Jackson counties in 1761 and burned 50 or more towns of the Cherokee Nation in order to make them subservient to the King of England. Or that in 1776 those British-Americans who were rebelling against the King would send three armies comprised of militia from three colonies and the help of Georgia to burn 36 more Cherokee towns to destroy the Cherokee-British alliance and punish the Cherokees for attacking illegal settlements and encroachments on Indian lands.

In 1820 there were Cherokee citizens, in Macon and Jackson counties who had their family farms stolen out from under them by locals who defied federal law and trampled the Constitution. When these U.S. citizens got an attorney and defended their private property rights through legal recourse, the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld the illegal sales and confiscation. The citizens were paid a pittance and kicked off their land. They were forced to moved away and after that, forced to move away again. If this happened today, the public outcry would ring from coast to coast. It would be illegal, unthinkable and no doubt the U.S. Supreme Court would overturn such an insidious violation of constitutional rights.

Yet it happened to Cherokee citizens, and because they were a non-white minority, they were stripped of the very rights that were guaranteed to them by the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. The white minority and missionaries who tried to fight for Indian rights were overwhelmed by the public tide of greed and racism.

Two Cherokee artists featured in OICA Gallery

The Gallery at Southwestern Community College’s Oconaluftee Institute for Cultural Arts will feature two Cherokee artists in October as part of a new series of shows.

Horizons: Dean Reed & Henrietta Lambert opened on Oct. 1 and will run through Nov. 21. A reception for the artists will be held on Wednesday, Oct. 13, from 4 to 6 p.m.

“Opportunities to showcase local artists give our students a chance to network and derive inspiration from the community,” said Jeff Marley, program coordinator for OICA. “It is a natural fit to our program at OICA that we promote local artist.”

Reed has been working in clay for over 37 years, following a traditional Cherokee style of stamped pottery. He was a founding member of the Cherokee Potters Guild and a member of the Qualla Arts and Craft Mutual in Cherokee.

Lambert focuses primarily two-dimensional work, such as painting and drawing. She is the first graduate from OICA and is currently perusing her bachelors at Western Carolina University.

Taking ownership: Exhibit explores the exploitation of Native American stereotypes

By Leon Grodski de Barrera • Guest writer

There are a lot of ways to spin Christopher Columbus’ accomplishments or his misdeeds, depending on which version of history you go by. Some call him a hero, some a murderer, many a discoverer and many a thief, and the list goes on and on.

One that you don’t hear so much is public relations guru. Whether it was intentional or not, he initiated one of the longest lasting and most successful PR campaigns in history, that of the dehumanization of indigenous people. With the goals of conquest, riches and spices, Columbus played upon the racism and greed of the king and queen of Spain, the members of his crew and the throngs of conquistadors who followed in his wake. Invisibility and marginalization of indigenous people paved the way for their projects.

From the first mention of contact in his journal from the first voyage, Columbus portrays the people — whom he calls “Indians,” thinking he is in India — as at once noble and empty, deft guides and ready-made slaves for the king and queen of Spain. Columbus weaves these ideas prominently through his journal, and this legacy, this habit of mind continues as a prominent thread in the fabric of greater American society to this day, more than 500 years later.

In “Reclaiming Cultural Ownership: Challenging Indian Stereotypes,” Shan Goshorn is determined to reclaim cultural ownership for Native Americans. In her artist statement, Ms. Goshorn, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, said, “History has proven that a way to successfully eliminate a people is to deny them their culture. We remember the obvious attempts of boarding school practices, but we can equate racist commercialism as an attempted genocide as well.”

Goshorn has created an art installation that draws a direct contrast between racist commercialism that necessitates the invisibility of Native Americans within greater American culture and photographs of the everyday lives of people of different tribes as seen through the artist’s eyes.

When entering the gallery, one is immediately struck by the dramatic contrast between the varied and colorful commercial objects presented on several pedestals inside glass cubes that are thoughtfully situated throughout the floor space. These objects employ native stereotypes and appropriate native names to sell goods and services neither owned by nor representative of Native Americans. Goshorn presents her black and white photographs, taken through the 1990s, one next to the other at eye level completely lining the room. It’s almost as if they are surrounding the colorful and seductive lies of commercialism with a black and white look at and affirmation of everyday life of native people today.

The photographs are a sample from the artist’s greater collection that are at once unique to this group of people and common to everyone. People represented are from many North American tribes, including Cherokee, Cheyenne, Yuchi, Seminole, Muscogee and Lakota. These people and tribes are as varied culturally and linguistically as the Germans, the French, the Polish and Spanish or people of any other nations who have different customs, religions and histories. As  Goshorn is part of the lives of the people in the photographs, she is able to represent them in a way that is snapshot and sophisticated document, avoiding the “sweep in and set ‘em up, size ‘em up and leave” shots that we frequently see in national magazines.

One may notice some trends in the objects. There are the wild-Indians-made-in-China-plastic-toys such as the “cowboys and Indians” action figures sets, some of which are packaged with pictures of non-native boys dressed up as “Indians.” There are the wildly happy looking team mascots and sports caps. Then there’s the back-to-the-earth food product, or better yet an Italian ice cream that has nothing even remotely to do with any native culture. Advertisements for industrial products, like tires, seem to use native names for their catchiness and ease of recognition. In the Unocal oil company’s sponsored foam-hand-shaped-Braves-souvenir, the continued connection between the empty use of native images with corporate goals is clear. The made-in-China-plastic “Pocahontas, Indian Princess” is up there in its implied racism with the stripper who is marketed as an “Indian Fire Goddess.” Wow!

Any of Goshorn’s photographs could stand alone, with their professional composition and unique viewpoint, yet their greater power in this exhibition is their cumulative effect. Grouped together they surround all the seductive and colorful lies put forth by corporations and their interests, using native images for the sake of creating money for non-natives. The photographs work directly against popular pigeonholing, mere dollar accumulation and simple stereotyping. As the black and white images show, none of these stereotypes have much to do with Native Americans as they really are and the contrast of the characterization of “Indians” with the multiplicity of real lives as seen in the photographs draws this to mind.

All of the photographs are particularly indigenous, by the nature of the subjects and artist. And some show elements of life that are unique to native people, or to particular tribes; Enos Taylor, Eastern Cherokee, is gathering honeysuckle vines for traditional Cherokee basket making; Russell Means, Lakota, protests the Cherokee Strip 100-year “celebration” of the Oklahoma ‘sooners’ settling tribal land; and Elsie Martin wraps bean bread in corn husks before boiling them.

In all of these pictures the content of what people are doing is special to their heritage and way of being. Yet the smiles, togetherness, accomplishments, struggles and love are universal.

You can see this through many of the other photographs: an elder, Margaret Davis, is sitting in her comfortable chair using her hands passionately while speaking; Nancy Bradley, Ina Driver and Melonie Bradley, women of three generations, sit together, the granddaughter with a warm, shy smile; two well respected multi-media artists, Richard Ray Whitman, Yuchi/Pawnee and Joe Dale Tate Nevaquay, Yuchi/Commanche are in a booth at an art exhibition. Director Mona King, Ottawa/Quapaw, and Curtis Zunigha, Delaware/IslettaPueblo are editing a show for television. Judicial Magistrate Charles Tripp is in his court. These people with joys, growth spurts, duties, generational differences, in their exposure, subvert the common questions one can hear in Cherokee, North Carolina, every day: “Where can I find some Indians?” or “My great grandmother was a Cherokee princess,” or “Can I take a picture with that Indian?” and so on.

And as with any other people on Earth, change is evident. The boy, Steven Ross, Eastern Cherokee, writes on a chalkboard words in the Cherokee Syllabary, reclaiming the language that had been forcibly taken from his family through the boarding school process. Junior Miss Indian Tulsa, Denise Graham, Delaware/Yuchi, gets dressed and prepares “cans,” a modern-day versions of turtle shell rattles for the American Indian Heritage Center’s Summer Celebration Stomp Dance Demonstration. American Indian Movement activists gather to support change at the United Nations World Hearings on Racism as a Violation of Human Rights.

The layout of the space encourages multiple viewings of objects and images, a back and forth between the vibrant colors of smiling, big teeth feather in the hair baseball caps, kitschy books about white women taking on native identities, made-in-china plastic warriors in canoes and large scale black and white photographs such as an elder standing in front of the frame of a sweat lodge, tribal council holding session, kids in school saying the Pledge of Allegiance and a grandfather adjusting his grandson’s clothing. The seconds that pass walking between the clichés of commercialism and the rare treat of visiting the individuals through the artist’s empathetic eyes allow for the time necessary to build layer upon layer of dissonant images, that when understood altogether incite an openness to change and the obliteration of the cliché.

(Leon Grodski de Barrera is the great-grandchild of Italian, Irish, German and Polish immigrants who came to the United States via Ellis Island over 100 years ago. He is an artist, writer and coffee man based near the Qualla Boundary in Western North Carolina.


Check it out

The exhibition Reclaiming Cultural Ownership: Challenging Indian Stereotypes runs until October 24th at the Western Carolina University’s Fine Art Museum. For more information on Shan Goshorn visit

Violations stack up against Cherokee bear zoo

Chief Saunooke Bear Park in Cherokee has been cited with federal violations for the treatment and condition of captive bears kept in pits for viewing by tourists.

It marks the fourth federal inspection of the bear zoo in two years where violations were noted.

Also: read the citation

In July, two tourists were bitten by bears over the course of a week at Chief Saunooke Bear Park. One case involved a 9-year-old girl who was bitten on the hand — coincidentally in front of a federal inspector who happened to be there that day.

The incident likely prompted a follow-up inspection in August, where four federal violations were documented.

“For facilities where they don’t have a lot of concerns, they normally only do one once a year,” said Lisa Wathne, a captive exotic animal specialist with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “I suspect because they saw the girl get bit, they did another inspection very shortly thereafter.”

The violations documented by a federal inspector during the August visit include:

• Failing to provide veterinary care for a bear with a broken tooth. “Broken teeth can be very painful and can lead to gum and jaw infections,” the inspector wrote. The bear handler said he was not aware of the tooth condition. The inspector noted that daily observations are required to ensure the bears’ health and well-being.

• Two bears were being tormented by another more aggressive bear housed in the same enclosure. One bear cornered the others, and “the bears were observed barking and swatting with open mouth aggression. The bear handler indicated this aggression was normal for them.” One bear had scars on both his hind legs. The owner had been verbally warned before by inspectors that the bears should be separated if the aggression became worse or created the possibility of injuries.

• A metal water bowl had been damaged by a bear, resulting in a piece of torn metal sharp enough to hurt a bear’s paw.

• Paper trays holding bear food were being re-used, creating the potential for contamination from old food caked on them. Tourists are allowed to feed the bears, a diet that at one point included Lucky Charms cereal that are against federal diet regulations.

“Anyway you look at it, this facility is failing miserably,” said Wathne. “PETA maintains it has to be shut down for the sake of the animals and for the sake of public safety.”

Wathne said the bear zoo could continue to rack up violations for years before USDA would shut it down, however.

Animal-rights activists confronted the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians over the bear pits last year, calling on the tribal government to shut them down. Bob Barker, the famed game show host and advocate for animal rights, came to Cherokee and met with Chief Michell Hicks and tribal council. But tribal leaders maintain there is nothing wrong with the bear zoos and rebuked PETA for its tactics.

This summer, PETA launched a billboard campaign advising tourists not to go to the bear zoos in Cherokee.

No one could be immediately reached at Chief Saunooke Bear Park prior to press deadline.

Southeastern tribes share cultural traditions

The 6th annual Southeastern Tribes Cultural Arts Celebration will bring together master dancers, craftsmen, artists and athletes from the five main southeastern tribes:  Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Seminole and Choctaw. The celebration takes place Friday, Sept. 17, and Saturday, Sept. 18, on the Cherokee Indian Fair Grounds.

This educational and entertaining event teaches and perpetuates the history and culture of these tribes through live demonstrations of traditional tribal dance, storytelling performances, craft demonstrations, primitive skills encampment and juried competitions.

Encampment demonstrators will set up living history exhibitions and illustrate primitive survival skills used by tribes in the 1700s and 1800s, such as building bark huts, cooking, fire-making, flint-knapping and carving arrowheads.

Dancers from each tribe will explain the history and significance of each dance prior to exhibiting performances of Stealing Partners and the Bear and Quail dance, among others. The Stomp dance, a strong traditional dance of southeastern tribes, will be performed by the Mystic Wind Social Dancers and their entire community. The Warriors of AniKituhwa will perform age-old dances that have been resurrected using wax cylinder recordings — including the Cherokee War, Buffalo and Ant dances.

More than 50 artists and craftsmen will be on hand displaying their indigenous talents. Master craftsmen from each tribe will provide live demonstrations of rivercane basket weaving, finger weaving with beads, mask making, stone and wood carving and stamped pottery. Artists will exhibit their works and participate in a juried art competition. Archery, blowgun and running contests will test the prowess of the best athletes and competitors from each tribe as they compete for thousands of dollars in cash prizes. Other special events include Cherokee Stickball demonstrations.

The original idea for the event was conceived by John Standingdeer Jr., who envisioned a special sort of “extended family reunion,” where tribes would come together to keep their traditions alive. This event is sponsored by the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, Cherokee Historical Association and the N.C. Arts Council.


Wong trial testimony to follow jury selection

Court testimony could start this week in the case of a Florida man who gunned down state Trooper Shawn Blanton more than two years ago in what should have been a routine traffic stop.

Blanton was killed June 17, 2008, after pulling over a pickup truck driven by Edwardo Wong on Interstate 40 near Canton. Wong, who does not deny killing Blanton, is charged with first-degree murder. He could face the death penalty if found guilty.

A camera mounted in Blanton’s patrol car showed images of Wong; a microphone worn by the trooper captured audio of Wong telling Blanton he had a gun, and recorded the sound of three shots. After his arrest by Haywood County Sheriff’s deputies, 316 grams of marijuana and 57 tablets of ecstasy were found in Wong’s truck. Blanton’s service weapon and two other handguns also were discovered.

The trial was moved from Haywood to Catawba County because of pretrial publicity tainting the local jury pool. Blanton’s death, followed by the death of his prematurely born son, Tye, fueled wall-to-wall news coverage in the wake of the shooting.

Twelve jurors were seated by court’s end on Monday, but three alternates had yet to be chosen. The trial’s start-time hinged on the completion of jury selection. Once it actually gets going, Defense Attorney Mark Melrose estimated the trial would last eight to 10 weeks, though he hoped for just six weeks.

“We thought it would take two to three weeks for jury selection, and that’s pretty much what it took,” said Melrose, who lives in Waynesville.

Melrose said jury selection is the most tedious, time-consuming part of trials such as this one.

“You are meeting all these strangers, and trying to learn who and what their views are,” he said. “It is very stilted.”

Many of the questions were geared toward uncovering potential jurors’ feelings about the death penalty. Melrose said he and co-defense attorney Randal Seago worked toward identifying and removing jury candidates who were strongly biased against Wong’s side. If the prosecution does the same — that is, not seating jurors with strong biases against their side — then ultimately you have as fair a trial situation as possible, Melrose said.

Once testimony begins, “it just becomes a question of presentation,” the attorney said. “We have been dealing with these witnesses and the evidence for two years.”

District Attorney Mike Bonfoey declined to comment on the proceedings.

Cherokee stands together to cope with loss of fallen trooper

Charlotte Littlejohn has spent much of her morning in a bustling kitchen preparing traditional frybread. Next to her, Donavon Crowe is stirring an enormous pot of chili. Crowe says he’s probably made six gallons of it already.

Littlejohn and Crowe are surrounded by a dozen others, some jotting down orders, others rushing out for delivery. All are donating their time for a cause that is both atypical and close to their hearts.

Money raised from the Indian tacos, chili, frybread and drinks sold will help the Blanton family afford the cost of attending the first-degree murder trial of Edwardo Wong two-and-a-half hours away in Newton, a proceeding that could take two months. The trial was moved outside the region for fear it would be impossible to find unbiased local jurors.

Wong faces the death penalty for shooting and killing state Trooper Shawn Blanton two summers ago. Blanton had pulled over Wong for a routine traffic violation on a stretch of Interstate 40 outside Canton.

Blanton died that night at Asheville’s Mission Hospital — the same hospital where his newborn son, Tye, was being treated. Little Tye had been born premature and died from medical complications just four months after his father.

The unthinkable tragedy left a mark on the Cherokee community then and continues to move the tribe today.

“It’s been a harsh two-and-a-half years,” said Anthony Sequoyah, a close friend of the Blanton family. “You still see people with T-shirts, stickers on their cars. People are always asking, ‘What we can do?’”

“I think the loss for everyone here is as fresh as the first day it happened,” said Nikki Bradley Nations, Shawn’s grandmother. “It takes a tribe to raise a child, and a tribe has lost a child.”

With Shawn Blanton’s death, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians lost its first enrolled member to earn the title of North Carolina state trooper. Community members now wear T-shirts with his trooper ID, G-540, to acknowledge his achievement.

“Everyone wears them because we’re proud,” said Nations. “We just want him to know we’re proud.”

On Friday, about 65 people had signed up in advance for the fundraiser lunch. More showed up spontaneously, handing over $10 donations for the $6 meal.

“The community recognizes that this family has gone through — trauma none of us want to go through in our lifetime,” said Principal Chief Michell Hicks.

Watching gavel to gavel

Two years ago, Sequoyah was forced to make the painful call to Shawn’s father, Dave Blanton, to tell him his son had been shot.

“I told him he was shot in the shoulder, and everything was going to be fine,” said Sequoyah.

It wasn’t until the frantic ride to Asheville that the two learned the injury was far more serious.

Sequoyah himself was so devastated from Shawn’s death that he took a month off from his job at Cherokee EMS, where Dave also works.

“Shawn was probably the closest thing to a brother that I’ve had. I’m a single child,” said Sequoyah. “Dave is the next best thing to my father.”

Sequoyah has been at the Blantons’ side in Newton this month as jurors are selected for the emotionally draining trial.

“It’s hard to sit there,” Sequoyah said. “It’s hard knowing what’s going through Dave’s mind.”

So far, Sequoyah and many others have been infuriated by what they see as a blatant attempt by Wong to delay the trial. Wong has demanded new lawyers and recently a new judge.

“After a while, it just seems like a bunch of stunts,” said Crowe, a distant cousin of the Blanton family.

“It’s not fair. He makes it look like he has all the power,” said Robin Swayney, manager of the Qualla Boundary Library. “It makes me angry. He did something despicable and horrible.”

Swayney says it seems as if Wong is desperately grasping for anything he can to push back the inevitable.

“To me, it’s like a waste of time,” Swayney said.

“And resources,” added Yona Wade, director of the Cherokee Cultural Arts Center.

Jenny Bean, who volunteered at Friday’s benefit, said it’s unfair that Wong has all his expenses taken care of while the community has to scrape together money to allow the Blantons to attend his trial.  

Others take issue with Wong’s general disposition during the hearings.

“He’s emotionless,” said Sequoyah. “When he talks, he talks with a smart attitude.”

“It’s like he doesn’t care,” said Littlejohn. “I’m angry, and I think a lot of people feel hurt.”

With the death penalty as a very real possibility for Wong, Nations isn’t surprised by the legal maneuvering, however.

“If I was fighting for my life, I would try to delay it as much as I could,” said Nations. “I understand that.”

Life or death?

Whether Wong will be handed down a death sentence — and whether it is deserved — is in the forefront of most people’s minds in Cherokee.  

“People feel very strongly,” said Nancy Pheasant, a paramedic at Cherokee EMS. “Everyone you talk to has their own opinion on how the outcome for the trial should be.”

Some of the Blanton’s closest friends say Wong more than deserves to die.

“I know his defense attorneys are trying to keep it from being a death penalty case,” Pheasant said. “That’s exactly what it needs to be.”

With two years passing by since the murder and still no resolution, Littlejohn hopes justice will prevail in the end. She, too, is in favor of the death penalty for Wong.

“On Shawn’s part, he didn’t get the option [to live],” said Littlejohn. “He didn’t have any options there.”

Sweyney wasn’t so sure that the death penalty would be the best answer for Wong, though.

“Seems like the easy way out to me,” said Sweyney.

As for Nations and her family, they just want to see the trial come to a prompt end. The legal process has already reopened wounds that were just beginning to heal two years after Blanton’s death.

A camera mounted in the dashboard of Blanton’s patrol car captured audio of the shooting. Blanton can be heard moaning and pleading for his life. When the recording was played in open court, deputies had to restrain Blanton’s father from leaping out of his seat toward Wong.

“We know there has to be a trial,” said Nations. “Mr. Wong deserves a fair trial, I reckon. We just want to go on and have Shawn in our hearts and memories and laugh about him … We want to get on with our lives.”

Tribe members say the family can get closure only after the trial is settled. Tribal officials, including Hicks, plan to make the drive to Newton to attend part of the trial.

“This issue does need to come to an end,” said Hicks. “The sooner the better.”

Lynne Harlan, spokeswoman for the tribe, said the trial might help the family move on, but what was done to Shawn Blanton will remain etched in the tribe’s permanent memory.

“It will be the end of putting salt on that wound, but that wound still does not heal,” said Harlan. “This is part of our history that we won’t forget.”

Nations looks forward to the day she won’t have to see Wong on TV, in newspapers or in person. Faith has sustained her in the aftermath of Shawn’s murder, and it is what continues gives her peace today.

“Mr. Wong is in the hands of a gracious, merciful and — don’t forget — he is a just God,” Nations said.

Shawn’s legacy

Happier memories of Shawn Blanton live on despite the cruel circumstances of his death.

Pheasant remembers him always smiling, always laughing, always making somebody’s day.

“You could just be having the worst day of your life. He would just come up and give you a hug,” said Pheasant. “Dave’s the same way. You can hear Dave’s laugh from a mile away.”

Nations remembers how Shawn and her other grandchildren would come straight to her house each day after school. One of Shawn’s younger cousins would constantly try to beat him at wrestling — unsuccessfully, of course. And every summer, they would take camping trips together.

“Shawn was always adventurous,” said Nations.

He was also an avid softball fan. Blanton coached a girls’ team at Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva, where a new indoor training facility for baseball and softball will be named after him. The Shawn Blanton Scholarship Fund continues to assist girls who play softball.

The N.C. Department of Transportation recently dedicated a bridge at Exit 31 of I-40 to Trooper Shawn Blanton. Thousands of friends and strangers alike have joined a Facebook group dedicated to him, posting messages of support and consolation to the family.

“He’s an unforgotten hero killed in the line of duty,” said Hicks. “Shawn will never be forgotten.”

Crowe said losing someone who always made a positive impact on the community has been tough.

“He was such an outstanding Cherokee man,” said Sarah Sneed, a resident of Birdtown. “He was a contribution from our people to the state of North Carolina.”

The tribe continues to show an outpouring of support years later, whether it’s the fundraisers like the one held on Friday, or the recent motorcycle memorial ride to fund Blanton’s softball scholarship.

“His memory is alive in those works that we do,” said Harlan. “We keep his life and his work going … not just for sentimental reasons, but also practical reasons.”

Still, Nations says not many days go by that she doesn’t miss Blanton. Once a week, she has a quiet breakdown that nobody knows about.

But the family continues to grow. One of Dave Blanton’s nieces recently gave birth to triplets. With the family’s permission, Sequoyah decided to name his five-month-old “Shawn” in honor of Trooper Blanton.

As the Blanton family prepares for one of the most difficult trials of their lives, the tribe seems to stand behind them in spirit.

“It’s shown what we do best. That is, to unite as a tribe, as a community,” said Wade. “Something we do culturally that’s in our blood.”

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