A couple of years back I happened to be in western North Carolina in late autumn, after the harvest moon had waned. I decided to wake early, before sunrise, and drive northbound on Route 19 out of Bryson City at the frigid crack of dawn. This was an off day for me from my work nearby and my intention was to get to the eastern slopes and hollows of the Smoky Mountains around the town of Cherokee to explore and possibly hike a bit. As I came around a curve in the road I immediately sensed something special about the flat valley on my right bordered sharply by steep mountainous ridges on all sides. This is no exaggeration or silly wordplay; I sensed it as strongly as if someone had intentionally led me to this place to point out its beauty and uniqueness. Without knowing anything about these dew-covered fields in front of me, I photographed a decaying roadside farmstead now overgrown with weeds and vines and well-marked with Cherokee Reservation boundary signs. I continued up the road and then pulled off quickly upon seeing a historical marker that seemed to rise prominently from the shoulder of the road. I say prominently because most historical markers are placed at eye level for easy reading, but this one was double the normal height and to read it required that you stand there almost in supplication with your head tilted back, looking up to the sky. I stood in awe as I realized now where I was; “Kituwah. Cherokee mother town. Council house stood on mound here. Town was destroyed in 1776 by Rutherford expedition.” A painfully brief overview for a piece of ground that I now sensed was of enormous importance to the Cherokee people.
A few early morning rays of sun were now slicing across the ridgecrest while the valley floor remained in shadow, very little traffic was on the road, and for a few brief moments I stood there and gazed eastward in silence. A small flock of songbirds alighted from some shrubs hundreds of yards away, and then disappeared quickly into bare treetops in the distance.
Many images went thru my mind as I mentally removed the railroad track, the barns, some fences, a power line, several pieces of farm machinery arranged in a row out in the open, a few modern homes behind me including their asphalt driveways, metal awnings, tarped lawnmowers and collection of vehicles; and finally, as was only fitting, I removed myself, my car, and the highway that had brought me here.
For an instant I saw this sacred bottomland as it perhaps looked for thousands of years. The layers of clouds were now become aromatic streamers of wood smoke, mainly chestnut but also oak, hickory and perhaps other hardwoods, rising from dome-like lodges and earthen structures built low to the ground in a circular pattern. Children could be heard laughing, maybe heckling a playmate or getting rowdy, and dark adult figures moved about, perhaps beginning preparations for the Green-corn dance when debts and other minor offenses were forgiven, or as part of another ceremony now long obscured by the passage of time; then too perhaps the village was simply going about the mundane chores of daily life in this sheltered valley safely removed from hostile neighbors.It was only later that I researched Kituwah and learned of its ancient past and connection to the Cherokee. Regrettably I also read up on the current controversy with Duke Energy wanting to build an electrical sub-station somewhere within this bowl-like landscape, both opposed and supported by many local citizens and business interests, Cherokee and non-native alike. My personal opinion is selfish indeed; I prefer the Teddy Roosevelt approach of leaving it alone. In fact removing all infrastructures as I did in my mind’s eye would be the first step. At the same time I confess that the next time I flip a switch in my Virginia home, or need some clothes washed, or wish to watch a football game on my wide-screen TV, I’m reminded that such luxuries of modern-life don’t just magically appear, most have their origin in countless blighted landscapes where mountaintops are leveled, minerals extracted and voltage is moved. I guess as long as I’m “on the grid” I don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to complaining about the power companies. But this internal conflict does not diminish the reverence that came over me on this calm but cold November morning, nor does it take away from remembering how important it is that we protect and respect these special places of great historical and religious significance.
To be fair, as pointedly shown in a political cartoon on the Save Kituwah web site, most Americans would be outraged if a power plant, dam or factory was going to be built beside Mount Rushmore, atop Ground Zero, on Liberty Island in the shadow of Lady Liberty, in the Wheatfield beneath Little Round Top (where it should be noted many a North Carolinian shed their blood and drew their last breath), or say, directly across the Potomac River from George Washington’s bucolic Mount Vernon plantation home. This cultural double-standard lies at the heart of this controversy and is hard to reckon with for most Americans who’ve spent little or no time amongst this continent’s original inhabitants. After 236 years it appears that the Rutherford expedition is still on the march. Damn them to hell.