Something Sacred : Project Aims to Save Traditional Cherokee Sites
The “talking” water of Burningtown Falls splashes 30 feet down smooth rocks into a pool where generations of Cherokee Indians have sought purity. The stream then gurgles on past the real estate signs that have been cropping up among the rhododendron.
“This place is a priority because people still use it,” Thomas Rain Crowe said. “They use it for the plunging ritual. It’s the idea of baptism. You let the energy of the water take your sickness, your anger, your depression and wash it downstream.
“The traditional people say the water can talk, and I believe they can understand it,” he added.
Cherokees, Crowe said, are concerned that the developers “just want to use the falls as an attraction and carve up the land into little quarter-acre lots.”
The waterfall is one of about 50 Cherokee sacred sites in the southern Appalachians that Crowe is trying to identify and protect.
Crowe is head of a project started last spring and funded by a $3,400 grant from the Atlanta-based Fund for Southern Communities. A core group of about six researchers is working with several Indian elders to identify the sites in the old Cherokee nation, which stretches from the North Carolina-Virginia border down to the hills north of Atlanta.
“The traditional people won’t tell us everything,” said Crowe. “They say, ‘There’s lots of places we can’t tell you about and we won’t. But other places we can tell you about because they’re important to protect.’ ”
While private development threatens the waterfall in Macon County, about half of the 50 sites are threatened by U.S. Forest Service proposals to allow clear-cutting of timber in the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests, Crowe said.
The Forest Service is working with Crowe, but he fears that the sites may end up as isolated islands in a sea of stumps, farms and condos, contrary to the Cherokee belief that everything in nature is interrelated and balanced in a sacred harmony.
That’s what happened to the Nikwasi Mound in nearby Franklin. Crowe said the ancient mound is a “place of power” that once supported a ceremonial building. It is believed to be a doorway to the world of immortal spirits called Nunnehi, who have come to the Cherokees’ aid in times past.
Today it’s surrounded by noisy streets and stores, including the Indian Mound Insurance Agency.
“The traditional people tried to use the mound as recently as 10 or 15 years ago, but it got harder and harder,” Crowe said. “Now there’s too much wild energy. There’s not enough privacy. There’s no way all this is going to disappear, but we want to make sure it remains at least in this stage.”
Another protected sacred site is the Judaculla Rock near Cullowhee in Jackson County. The flat face of the 15-foot-diameter soapstone boulder is carved in intricate patterns that have never been explained, Crowe said.
Cherokee mythology has it that a giant named Tsulkalu used the rock as a steppingstone from his mountain home to a river. Crowe said the Indians may have used the rock for ceremonies, but that it could be a map of the region or just “prehistoric graffiti.”
Although the older Cherokees are the best sources for tradition, an increasing number of young people are rediscovering the old religion, Crowe said.
Crowe, 36, a poet and anthropologist, was not born a Cherokee, but he grew up in the area and adopted the traditional religion. He changed his name from Dawson--which he said means “son of Crow"--and recently got married in a ceremony led by a traditional medicine man.
The project sites include peace villages and ceremonial sites, important mounds, areas of fasting and purification, places where Nunnehi spirits are believed to exist, places related to myth and legend.
Report to Be Available
In about a year, all the information should be gathered in the form of text, photographs and tapes. It will be made available to the Eastern Band of Cherokees, most of whom now live on a reservation in Swain and Jackson counties, and to schools and libraries elsewhere.
But the project’s immediate goal is to protect the areas from timber cutters. Crowe said the Forest Service must consider the cultural impact in developing its 50-year plan for the area.
Robert Cunningham, director of planning for the national forests in North Carolina, said federal law requires officials to seek out people who know about native American religious sites and take steps to preserve the areas.
“The key for us is to try to maintain as many contacts as we possibly can and get folks involved early,” Cunningham said. “We have to make sure that whatever we do doesn’t destroy or denigrate what they do to practice their religion.”
Currently, about 4,000 acres of the 1 million acres of national forest land in western North Carolina are clear-cut every year. In the future, stands of timber ranging from 20 to 30 acres each will be considered case by case to determine whether lumber companies can come in and cut down all the trees, he said.
May Be Overruled
Crowe fears that although Cunningham and other local officials are sincere about protecting sacred sites, they may be overruled by ranking bureaucrats more interested in the bottom line.
He is worried that financial considerations will also lead developers to dismember the “long man,” the name the Cherokees give to rivers and streams. The Burningtown waterfall site, while rich in rhododendron and other plants used for medicine, is only a small part of that body.
“The traditional people say everything is sacred,” Crowe said. “It’s just that some places are handier than others.”