Friday, August 08, 2014

4th of July in Cherokee

One more "Desert Sage" post this week: I never posted my July column, a letter to Deming from Cherokee, North Carolina, about the strangeness of passing Independence Day on the reservation. It appeared in the July 10 edition of the Deming Headlight. So here's that.


This year Independence Day arrived while I was working on a reservation. There were fireworks and beer -- purchased elsewhere, for this is a dry county -- and the usual assortment of delicious unhealthy foods, and yet I was not exactly in the United States.

Cherokee, North Carolina is the home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who live on a portion of land that was once their nation -- land purchased from their conquerors, the United States government, or lands held in trust by them. Here by the Qualla Boundary in the Great Smoky Mountains, in the shade of a large casino and souvenir malls, there are historical and educational sites such as the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, an interactive replica of an 18th century Cherokee village, and a seasonal outdoor drama, “Unto These Hills,” that has been in repertory since 1950.

Frequent readers of this column can guess it is the latter that brings me here for the summer. Your correspondent plays a role in the history play – an historic Cherokee chief, no less – among a large cast, music, dance, and pyrotechnics. We perform six nights a week, typically for four to seven hundred people at a time. We are also rehearsing a brand new play that is in development, and some of us are working at the replica village as well.

The play dramatizes the relations between the old Cherokee Nation and the United States, especially the devastation of Indian removal and the Trail of Tears. A more direct description of the policy would be ethnic cleansing. Sixteen thousand Cherokee were marched to Oklahoma and a great many died on the way. A fragment of the Cherokee was able to remain in North Carolina and their descendants live here.

Even before the 4th of July came along, it had been a curious job. One of the historical criticisms of this play was that too many white actors were performing in “redface,” rather than having Cherokee performers play the major characters in their own history. This has improved, and now there are several Cherokee actors in the cast, as well as a mix of other ethnic backgrounds. Even so, today I share a dressing room with a distinguished Cherokee man, painting my face and donning a black wig. There is no avoiding the strangeness of the situation, and we share a great deal of laughter.

The streets are lined with gift shops and people dressed more like the Hollywood image of the American Indian, great feather bonnets and dance costumes, razzling and dazzling tourists and accepting tips for photographs. Generally, I stick close to the river, enjoying the children and dogs playing and people fishing, easing my mind’s grumpy chatter about all the disrespectful profiteering.

Before our 4th of July performance, the Cherokee Historical Association made a presentation. Combing out my black wig I wondered what kind of presentation this would be, considering the tale we tell – of Andrew Jackson, numerous violated treaties, land lotteries and Indian removal, of conquest and enclosure by the United States. Would they talk about the Declaration of Independence, the document that declared their conquerors’ independence from an older empire? A document that, for all its strengths, refers to natives as “merciless Indian savages?”

What they did, instead, was turn the 4th into Veterans Day, celebrating several area veterans. This may have been the most tasteful approach, to recognize service without additional commentary.

There were fireworks later at night, but after re-enacting Horseshoe Bend and the Trail, many of us were content to sit by a campfire and enjoy the mountain sky.

[Image: Soco Creek, Cherokee, North Carolina. Took this picture in July while I was looking for Yonaguska's burial site.]

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