In my quest to make my own novel more historically authentic I recently purchased a book titled Selu: Seeking the Corn-Mother’s Wisdom. This book was written in the 1990s by Cherokee author Marilou Awiakta. (Her name, I found out, means “eye of the deer.” The deer has been historically revered by the Cherokee people and holds a special place in their outlook on the balance of nature and humanity, which makes her name very telling.) I bought this book used from Amazon thinking I would be delightfully immersed in Cherokee storytelling and poetry. While I have been so far pleased with the connection to history and Cherokee wisdom that Awiakta weaves throughout her book, it is not the surface-level experience I had expected. What I did not expect was to feel all over again the prominent searing injustice that has hung over the lives of the Cherokee people.
In recent years I have researched Appalachian Cherokee history after being exposed to beautiful storytelling and gut-wrenching truth in the Cherokee Talisman series by David-Michael Harding. This book opened my eyes initially to things that had been downplayed, ignored, and minimized throughout my life as a student. The Indian Removal Act and Trail of Tears went from being a vague idea hidden in the back of my mind and waiting on a Jeopardy category, to being shockingly real and brutally painful. After reading the series, my husband and I drove all the way across Tennessee, from west to east, ironically in the direction of wisdom. Each time we drove through a town, down a city street, or through a new county, I noted the prominent names that pepper the state. Names such as President Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, and Winfield Scott are around every corner. Their legacies live on through their namesakes. Their ruthless participation in the Indian Removal Act forgotten. I looked harder for names of notable Cherokee but found far less proof of the people who lived throughout the state for 12,000 years before President Jackson was even born. I felt remorse for the history that had been whitewashed and wholly ignored.
Today I sit allowing myself to be permeated with the emotion that Awiakta has invoked by her telling of a story that takes place not in 1838 but within the reach of our own lifetimes. In eastern Tennessee, there sits a recreational lake called Tellico. The Tennessee Valley Authority website, in reference to the dam that created the lake, states: “Tellico Dam in East Tennessee transformed a stagnant region into a recreation wonderland, and provided much needed economic stimulus.” They go on to discuss the controversy of the dam project and how it took decades to receive the green light. The controversy being referenced was not the imminent flooding (by result of the dam) of the most artifact-rich region in the Appalachian mountains which was, at its peak, 80% unexcavated; nor was it the displacement by eminent domain of over 340 families. The controversy was not the resulting loss of the holy city and ancient capital of the Cherokee nation of Chota where a boulder marked the pit of sacred fire; an important religious site. It was not the important and sacred Toqua burial mound where hundreds of the Cherokee antecedents were buried, soon to be underwater. It was not the disappearance of the birthplace of Sequoya, who invented the Cherokee syllabary. No, it was a fish, approximately 3 inches long and related to the common perch. A snail darter to be exact. This endangered fish apparently made things quite “complicated” according to TVA.
38,000 acres of historically rich land were forcibly purchased from business people, farmers, and Cherokee inhabitants. 16,000 acres were reserved for the future lake. 22,000 acres were reserved to supposedly control the economic progress of the adjoining property. Unsurprisingly, half of those 22,000 acres were subsequently sold as commercial property. Families who were being removed felt the echos of past life. Like some of the Cherokee people before them, they waited until the last minute, refusing to be removed until federal marshalls appeared at their doorstep, backed by guns and bulldozers. They were removed. Their history was submerged.
Eventually, the issue of the snail darter was overlooked and in a single swipe of the pen, President Carter signed an executive order that exempted the Tellico Dam Project from any federal law that would hinder its completion. The Cherokee people who had been fighting quietly through all possible legal channels, largely ignored by the media, were pushed aside once again. Their protests went unnoticed, stifled by the government. Some of their ancestor’s bones were reinterred in a burial mound in Vonore, Tennessee. Others are today still in cardboard boxes in the basement of the University of Tennessee. Mostly, they remain in a watery grave beneath ski boats and bass fishermen; close to the golfing communities erected in the 1980s.
Awiakta’s retelling of the event at Tellico in the 90’s is made even more poignant by a Google search in 2022. There is no harrowing tale of the cry of thousands of Cherokee people praying for the salvation of their heritage, there is no news story breaking the hearts of it’s readers, there is less than a sentence mentioning the Cherokee people on the TVA webpage: Telling the Story of Tellico.
In 1838 the Appalachian Cherokee were removed to Oklahoma; in 1979 they were erased at Tellico.
Source material can be found here:
Selu: Seeking the Corn Mother’s Wisdom by Marilou Awiakta
Cherokee Talisman by David-Michael Harding
Tennesse Valley Authority: Telling the Story of Tellico