"They picked up their few belongings, and gazed toward the high peaks of the Great Smokies that had sheltered them. Then they moved on, heads down."
- from the Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook
You'll have to forgive an aging grandmother. Having recently completed a scrapbook of memories as a graduation gift for one of my grandchildren, I'm now knee-deep in nostalgia about the other four. So perhaps you won't mind if I share an experience I had with my second oldest granddaughter about six years ago.
"How would you like to go to North Carolina to see the Cherokee Indian Reservation and learn about the Trail of ...?"
"The Trail of Tears!" she exclaimed. "I know about that. We learned it in school. Can I go, please?"
As happy as we both were, I knew my primary reason for this particular trip was to study how the early 19th-century Indian removal affected the history of this part of Georgia. Could my then 10-year-old endure the lengthy, late-evening drama about the "Trail," plus a day-long trek through an Indian village and museum? I needn't have worried, and I never would have learned so much without her.
What an affect the drama had on both of us. Covering 300 years of Cherokee history, from the arrival of Hernando DeSoto in 1530 and succeeding generations of "white men," to the federally mandated Indian Removal Act carried out in 1838, "Unto These Hills" is a compelling account of that tragic blot on American history - and a stirring tribute to the Cherokee people.
"Oh, this is so sad," she said, as the story began to unfold. She might not have grasped the political trickery that lured an unsuspecting people into signing a treaty they did not fully understand, but she knew cruelty when she saw it. We grieved as the warrior Tsali and his family were forced at gunpoint to leave their home. The story grows increasingly sadder as Tsali's wife dies from a beating and he and his three sons flee into the hills, before returning to face a firing squad in exchange for the freedom of hundreds of other families still in hiding.
"But, Grandma, they didn't kill the little boy, just the two big ones and the father," she remembered. I remember her wincing as the sound of gunfire signaled the off-stage execution.
At the museum the next day, I also remember her longing look at the enlarged photo of a soldier clutching a homemade doll as he watches a small girl and her family carry only the barest of necessities, leaving their home and treasures behind.
"What do you want me to tell people in my story?" I asked as we were driving home.
"Tell them I loved the mountains and the river, and I met two new friends."
What a perfect synopsis of our journey, and of the Cherokee people. She loved the mountains so much she wanted to live there, and she used a roll of film trying to take their beauty home - just like the Cherokee who wanted to stay or take the image of their "hills" with them, too.
And she loved the river, whether watching the narrow, twisting Oconaluftee as we drove by, or wading and collecting rocks as she resisted the pull of the current in the shallow water with one of her "new friends." How also like the Cherokee who settled along the rivers for sustenance and survival, and formed communities with the new friends they, too, found near their transplanted homes.
Besides her pictures and souvenirs, she took back something I could not have foreseen: an appreciation for the land and the way the Indians used what they found in their "hills" to survive. From the demonstrations of Indian life in the village - her favorite was the pinpoint accuracy of the blow-gun (or the gunner) - to the blueberries we picked on our way home, she, and I through her eyes, have a new gratitude for the greatness of the Creator, and a greater idea of how much all mankind, "red and yellow, black and white," depends on the land and the rivers and the hills for that same sustenance and survival.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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