Cherokee approves application for Clingmans Dome name change

The highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Clingmans Dome rises to 6,643 feet above sea level.  Kristina Plaas photo The highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Clingmans Dome rises to 6,643 feet above sea level. Kristina Plaas photo

Tribal Council members stood to show their unanimous support Thursday, Jan. 4, for a resolution they hope will result in a name change for Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

“We’ve spent a year and a half preparing for this moment,” Lavita Hill, who together with her follow Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians tribal member Mary Crowe has been advocating for the name change since 2022, told Tribal Council. “With a strong leader advocating for indigenous rights in the Department of Interior, now is the time to act.”

Clingmans Dome was named after former U.S. Senator Thomas L. Clingman following an 1859 survey by Swiss-born geographer Arnold Guyot. Before that, it was known in Cherokee as Kuwohi, which means “mulberry place.” It was a special place to the Cherokee, visited by medicine people who prayed and sought guidance from the Creator, and later used as a refuge by Cherokees resisting removal on the Trail of Tears. The place also appears in traditional Cherokee stories.  

Crowe and Hill take issue with the name “Clingmans Dome” not just because it usurped the much older, longer-used name Kuwohi, but also because Clingman, a supporter of slavery, fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. He left his Senate seat in 1861 to join the rebel army, rising to the rank of brigadier general.

In July 2022, Tribal Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for an application to be prepared requesting that the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which has jurisdiction over place names in national parks, consider changing the name. The resolution the body passed last week authorizes Principal Chief Michell Hicks to officially submit the application that has since been prepared.

Hicks, on whose desk the resolution now sits awaiting ratification, said he is all in on seeing the name change through and congratulated Hill and Crowe on their hard work to get it this far.

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“This is one of our top priorities as we go to D.C. I think it’s very important,” he said in Council. “We’re also working on getting a meeting scheduled with the superintendent [of the Smokies, Cassius Cash] to make sure that there’s a lot of folks talking about this issue. But again, this is not great — I think this is awesome, the work that you guys are doing. So thank you for that.”

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which is under the U.S. Department of Interior’s U.S. Geologic Survey, will make the final decision. Once the application is submitted, board staff will prepare a case brief summarizing the issue and look for local acceptance by seeking input from county governments, federally recognized tribes, the National Park Service, the N.C. Board on Geographic Names and the Tennessee Geographic Names Committee before presenting the proposal for a final decision. 

The board meets monthly and is made up of representatives from federal agencies who serve two-year terms. According to a USGS spokesperson, most proposals take about eight months from submission to final decision, but especially significant proposals like that regarding Clingmans Dome could take a year or more.

According to the resolution Tribal Council passed, Crowe and Hill have already drummed up significant support for the name change, including from the governments of all seven far western counties and Buncombe County, 18 municipalities within those counties, the Cherokee Speaker’s Council and the Tennessee General Assembly. In 2022, N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein awarded  Hill and Crowe the Attorney General’s Dogwood Award for their work toward the name change.

Members of the Clingman family have also become “enthusiastic supporters” of the name change, the resolution said.

“He told me that he was ashamed of his name because of the history that’s around it, and I told him, ‘No, don’t be ashamed of that, because it was given to you,’” said Crowe, relating a conversation she had with Clingman descendent Tom Clingman. “We can’t change the past, but we can work towards the future. And so I told him, ‘Hey, you know what? You can bring back hope to that name in supporting this effort.’”

Though the name has yet to be changed, efforts to revive recognition of the mountain’s place in Cherokee culture have already borne fruit. In 2022, the park held its first Kuwohi Connections Days, offering educational programming and traditional knowledge sharing for EBCI youth. On the day of each event, the road to Clingmans Dome is closed from midnight to 1 p.m. to allow students to experience the place in its full natural beauty. In 2022, there were two days of programming in the spring and three in the fall. Last year, there were three Kuwohi Connections Days.

“As stewards of Great Smoky Mountains National Park history, we are charged to ensure we share holistic understandings of how people explored, used and lived this space before the establishment of the park,” said Smokies spokesperson Emily Davis.

She noted that Superintendent Cassius Cash currently serves as an advisor to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. 

“We look forward to participating in the name change proposal process,” she said.

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