In the Waters of Cherokee

Between the Smoky Mountain National Park and the vibrant city of Asheville, North Carolina, sits a reservation of the Cherokee Nation. The town is simply called Cherokee, and it was at the top of the list of places we wanted to see while visiting the Asheville area. As many European-descent Americans claim, we, too, have Cherokee ancestry, and we wanted to visit this important place to learn more about the Cherokee story.

Outside view of the Museum of the Cherokee

Our first stop was the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. The museum displays the Cherokee narrative and culture from ancient history, through the Trail of Tears, and up to today.

Cherokee baskets and pots

The museum has centered its message on the struggle of how to maintain the Cherokee way of life with the growing British colonies’, and later the United States’, infringement on territory, culture, and governance. This struggle was summarized well in the following quote on one of the mural displays:

“The people from across the ocean brought many changes, but we survived and even managed to prosper. When King George issued his proclamation [Proclamation of 1763], forbidding whites to settle in the Appalachians and all parts West, we thought we would be safe … but then came … the American Revolution.”

When Euro-America thinks about U.S. and Native American relations, it’s too easy to fall into an oversimplified view of “cowboys versus Indians,” or “us versus them.” The truth is that not everyone among the Cherokee held the same views about how to accommodate and work with their white neighbors.

The statue below is called “Chamber of Dissenting Voices,” and it represents three positions taken by the Cherokee. One was to separate from the Cherokee Nation and become U.S. Citizens. Another view was the “Treaty Party,” representing those who agreed to “sell” their homeland to the United States in 1835 under the Treaty of New Echota. The third group were those who wanted to stay in their homeland and fight for it through legal means. The latter were forcibly moved, which history now knows as the “Trail of Tears.”

Three descenting voices statue

Needless to say, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian causes one to pause and to think about American history from the perspective of its impact on North America’s first residents. This is an important part of our shared history that we must face, that is, if we still hold dear to our national identity the ideals of liberty, justice, equality, and peace.

After we left the museum, we spent a few minutes browsing through the shop across the street where there were a lot of Cherokee artisan and craftsman work for sale. Then, we made our way to the Oconaluftee River that runs through the valley and next to town. Here we found a peaceful park and trail along the river bank. The water was shallow but had a swift current. It was the perfect setting for a family to enjoy wading through the water on a warm summer afternoon.

Girl on a bridge looking at the river

While we watched our teenagers skip rocks, take pictures, and cool off in the river, I texted my mother-in-law, who is half-Cherokee and had spent some time at the reservation as a young adult. I sent her pics of our kids in the water, to which she replied, “[The pictures] reminded me of a saying I was told when I was there in 1965: ‘If you get your feet wet while you are here, you will come back.’

Three kids in wading in the river

At that moment, our family shared in a tradition that connected with other members of our family as well as with the many people whose feet the waters of Cherokee had touched. On this day we shared in something special. Our understanding of the Cherokee perspective of U.S. history grew deeper, and our appreciation for the land of the Cherokee became personal. I’m looking forward to when we return to the waters of the Cherokee!

The river with the Smoky Mountains in the background