Five Kingsport residents hope to share knowledge of Cherokees with city

Marci Gore • Oct 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM

Lindsey Davis describes the six days she spent in Cherokee, N.C. as an “amazing experience” and something she may never get the chance to do again.

Davis was one of five local residents who, three months ago, attended the Cherokee History and Culture Institute. This intensive six-day course covers Cherokee archaeology, folklore and history. Experiences with the Cherokee community are combined with classroom discussions.

Because of the significance of Cherokee history to Kingsport, the city’s Cultural Arts Division provided scholarships for these five folks in the hopes that they would come back and share what they learned about the Cherokees with the community.

In addition to Davis, the four others who attended the Institute were Candace Smith; Amber Vachon; Bill Haile and Carl Jenkins.

Bonnie Macdonald, cultural arts administrator for the Cultural Arts Division and Arts Council of Greater Kingsport, says the Long Island of the Holston River is especially important to Cherokee history and that this is the area where planners would like to see something developed to honor the Cherokee Indians.

“That particular area is just rich with history and heritage,” she said. “It was deeded back to the Eastern Band of the Cherokees in 1976. The Eastern Band used this island as one of their peace lands, a meeting place of sorts.”

Located just east of the junction of the North and South Forks of the Holston River, Long Island, according to the National Historic Landmarks Web site, was “a sacred council and treaty ground surrounded by the vast hunting territory of the Cherokee Nation.” Daniel Boone also began what was later known as the Wilderness Road at Long Island in March 1775, leading 30 ax men to open the trail through the Cumberland Gap.

Those who attended the Institute now hope they can put their knowledge to good use and incorporate some Cherokee heritage into the Kingsport Riverwalk project — a 20-year phased redevelopment plan for the riverfront area of Kingsport. Planners and city leaders envision the area being an arts, entertainment and heritage district with new restaurants, businesses, condos and parks. The district includes Netherland Inn Road, Fort Robinson Drive, Riverport Road and Industry Drive with linkage to Weyerhaeuser and Cloud parks and downtown Kingsport.

“Our riverwalk area has a Cherokee connection because of the 3.6 acres of Long Island,” said Macdonald. “And also when you look across that stretch of land from Netherland Inn all along the river there, you can find stories to be told from every major part of American history, from prehistory through all of the major American wars.”

But it’s the story of the Cherokees that needs to be told, especially since so many locals aren’t even aware of the events that took place on Long Island, said Davis.

“We want to focus on the Cherokees. There were three treaties signed [on Long Island]. We want to raise awareness in the area of our Cherokee past, the history of all this land,” said Davis.

Jenkins, a 65-year-old retired history and social studies teacher from Bristol City Schools, says he is one-eighth Cherokee and because the group of folks who attended the Institute was so diverse in age and walks of life, their experience in Cherokee probably “was about different things for different participants.”

“I probably knew a little less about Cherokee history than some of the others, but the trip became a great opportunity, just from a personal kind of thing, because I wanted to learn more of the Cherokee culture and history. It gave me an opportunity to absorb some of that and then I learned that the whole idea of this trip was to develop a plan to utilize the property in Kingsport,” he said. “What we want to do is, because this is Cherokee property now, we want to do something to help the public better understand the Cherokee and where they’re coming from and do it in a way that’s proper and not offensive to them. This is just an attempt to get together some ideas and put them into some kind of plan. It’ll be a challenge, but it’s a good one.”

Because the plans for Long Island are so preliminary, none of the participants is exactly sure what they picture for its future, but are certain that whatever’s put in place, will be done to honor the Cherokees.

“I came away from this Institute with a much greater appreciation for the Cherokees and what they have been through. I was a history and anthropology major in college, but I went to college in South Carolina. So, I didn’t learn anything about Tennessee history,” said Davis.

Davis said she learned that the Cherokees have battles they are still fighting today.

“It’s kind of like you step back into a separate world. They are technically set aside a little bit. They own the land, but it’s government regulated. Meth is a terrible problem for them. They’re losing an entire generation of people to drugs. Diabetes and alcoholism are huge problems. To hear the stuff, they talk about, you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh. How do you deal with that?’” she said.

It was the one-on-one interaction during their time at the Institute where both Vachon and Haile say they garnered better insight into today’s Cherokees.

“You learned about their history in the classroom. It was addressed formally here. But some of it we just learned by spending time with them. We learned about, not just their politics and their history, but some of the troubles they have today and what they’re trying to address,” he said. “Most of us came back with a different view and a lot more respect.”

Vachon, who is of Cherokee descent, said she has had a long desire to learn about her mother’s people and her time in Cherokee gave her “a much deeper understanding of Cherokee history as a subset of United States history.”

“The more that I learn about Cherokee history, the more taken aback I am about the way United States history is presented as a whole. The study of anthropology, archaeology, geography and language deepened this understanding of Cherokee history immensely for me. And yet, I realize that I am merely scratching the surface,” she said. “The most special part of the week occurred when we were able to connect Cherokee history with contemporary Cherokee culture through our interactions with tribal members who graciously shared their stories with us. To this day, many Cherokee people live a life that is a separate and distinct culture in many ways, yet indistinguishable from contemporary United States culture in many other ways.”

The Cherokees were probably the first “true environmentalists,” Haile said.

“They felt land was like the air you breathe. They had a very balanced view. They only took what they needed, but they believe very strongly in the balance of nature. Their lands are more ecologically diverse than almost anywhere in the world,” he said.

Though she would love to one day see a Cherokee re-enactment village here, Macdonald says the Cherokee project at the Kingsport Riverwalk will have to start small.

“Right now the swinging bridge that leads over to Long Island is not functioning and it certainly doesn’t function on the level of accessibility that it needs to in terms of pushing a stroller or wheelchair across,” she said. “We’d like to see the Cherokees be able to come here and promote their native crafts. And their native plants are really becoming scarce. That might be one of the first things done in terms of propelling this effort forward, doing some landscaping that includes those native plants.”

Seeking the advice and suggestions of the Cherokees themselves is going to be key to the success of this project, Davis says.

“We want to know how they want to be represented here in Kingsport. It’s their land and if they don’t like what we decide to do, then we’ll start over. That was one of the things we talked about at our last meeting together as a group, that we want to consult with them and make sure they are happy with what we are doing and they feel we are representing them accurately,” she said. “This is going to take a while, but we’re definitely going to keep them in the loop.”

Haile wants whatever is done to be user-friendly, especially to the novice.

“I would really like to see one corner of our library have just a group of books on Cherokee history with some even picked out by the Cherokees themselves,” he said. “And I’d love to have some of them come up here and tell their stories. Many of the ones we met were just fabulous storytellers. An Indian’s almost like a foreign being to so many people. But they were right here, and they lived in wooden houses; they hunted; they farmed; they had sophisticated governmental systems. It’s just very interesting how they lived.”

Jenkins says he would like to see a type of amphitheater or a seven-sided structure developed on Long Island where, perhaps yearly or semi-annually, some of the Cherokees could come to Kingsport and demonstrate their dances and other parts of their heritage.

“I’d love to see something that the public would enjoy and could learn something from it, too,” he said. “I’m thinking spring and fall or at other times that would coincide with Cherokee celebrations.”

Vachon agrees and hopes that one day Kingsport may play host to festivals showcasing Cherokee traditions.

“A large public art installation by Cherokee artists would be a nice addition to the Riverwalk and may be planned in the future. More immediately, we would like to see the Island once more utilized as a sacred meeting and festival ground for all as we host our Cherokee brothers and sisters with open arms, hearts and minds. It would be wonderful to learn about the Cherokee way of life from real Cherokees and provide an environment where local people can appreciate their cultural treasures,” she said. “I would love to see an annual Cherokee cultural festival incorporating arts, dance, music, folktales and traditional storytelling, crafts, basketry, pottery, weaving, beadwork, flint knapping, blowgun making, and stickball, among other things.”

But these five folks and Macdonald all agree that they can’t do this alone.

“There are just five of us. That’s not a great number, but it’s a start. We want the general public to know about this and hopefully there will be others out there who may want to get involved,” said Jenkins.

Macdonald said she’s confident the interest is out there. Earlier this year the Cultural Arts Division of Kingsport, thanks to the Museum of the Cherokee Indians in Cherokee, N.C., presented “The Cherokee Trail of Tears” exhibit. In conjunction with the exhibit a lecture was presented by Dr. Duane King, a Dobyns-Bennett alumnus who is now vice president of museum affairs and director of the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Okla. He has studied the Cherokee Indians extensively. Macdonald said 200 people showed up for King’s lecture — a number much, much higher than what was anticipated.

“Tackling this Cherokee project will take a lot of people and a lot of interest. We want to see what kind of interest is out there from Kingsport,” Macdonald said. “But I feel certain the interest is there because we had no idea we’d have 200 people show up for Dr. King’s lecture on the ‘Trail of Tears.’”

For more information on Kingsport’s Cherokee project, call Macdonald at (423) 392-8416.

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