|Museum of the Cherokee Indian - Friday, November 7
Andrew Jackson may have been a good soldier but he was a bad president and a wretched human being. After using the Cherokee Indians as allies in several of his battles, when he became president he signed an order deporting them from their homeland in the rich and fertile Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains, to the barren land of Oklahoma. Many were killed resisting the deportation, and many more died on the journey west - a forced march that came to be known as the ‘Trail of Tears’.
What was once a unified tribe became split into two bands, the Western Band made up of survivors who now struggled to live in Oklahoma, and the Eastern Band made up of individual families that hid out in the hills and remained in the homeland. It is the descendants of these families who make up the tribe now living on the Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina, and who have created a fine museum to honor their tribe and bring their story to the modern world.
We visited the Museum of the Cherokee Indian on Friday morning, and what we thought might be a visit of an hour or two turned into a four hour event. Several times I got ‘museum burnout’ and had to go out to the lobby and take a break, but each time I returned to where I’d left off because I didn’t want to miss anything. Madolyn stayed the course, reading her way along at a slow and steady pace, and taking some really fine pictures while she was at it. Afterword both of us agreed that it was a wonderfully complete and beautifully presented work of history and art.
The experience starts with an exhibit devoted to Cherokee stories and myths. There is a room where five stories are displayed on panels, each overlooked by an appropriate mask, then you sit down for a five minute video on the history and importance of the stories. From there you begin a 1,000 foot walk through some of the most interesting exhibits you will ever see.
The journey begins with the Paleo period (13,000 to 10,000 years ago) and takes you back to the very beginnings of life in these mountains. It shows how the Cherokee ancestors survived a climate much harsher than ours, and prevailed against now extinct animals that outweighed the hunters by as much as 80 to 1.
In the Archaic and Mississippian periods (10,000 to 500 years ago) that followed, the Cherokee developed agriculture and were able to slow down and live at a more leisurely pace. This allowed them to develop more sophisticated tools and a richer and more artistic style of life. At the height of their development the white man showed up, and from then on their troubles were legion.
The Cherokee greeted the arrival of the white man with open-mindedness and an open heart, but peaceful co-existence was not to be. No matter how well they cooperated or tried to accommodate first the British and then the descendant colonists, the white cultures were never satisfied. Several times chiefs and leaders journeyed to England, and they even met with King George lll (who naturally saw them as his subjects). Relations teetered back and forth with the events of the day, but not until the presidency of Andrew Jackson did the cruel betrayal of the Europeans and their descendants reach it’s height.
The museum uses many modern techniques to tell the tale, including video, dioramas, murals, and displays of artifacts and replicas of artifacts. The telling is poignant and moving, and it is done with dignity. Some of the most interesting moments come near the end when you see the results of the two cultures meeting in London. Here the so-called ‘primitive’ aboriginals frequently outshine their cultured hosts, and remind us that dignity and humility are a truer measure of worth than all the swagger in the world.
We ended our visit with a tour of the gift shop, and then a trip to the gallery of Indian Crafts across the street, and finally a short drive to Paul’s Restaurant down the street where we dined on some fabulous Indian tacos. Indian tacos are made of taco ingredients poured over traditional Indian fry bread, and I told the owner if he ever decided to open a restaurant in California he would surely put some of the Mexican restaurants out of business.
It was getting late in the afternoon, so we continued our drive until we reached Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Here we passed the south end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and a few miles farther a small but welcoming Visitor Center. The sky was clouded up and it looked like rain, but just as we were leaving the Visitor Center a ray of sun broke through and lit up one ridge and a couple of peaks. What a beautiful sight that was!
We continued on to Smokemont Campground a few more miles up the road. By the time we got there it was raining off and on, and we were surprised to find it fairly full, with a lot of the campers tenting out. We found a site and settled in for a quiet night in a very dark campground. The sound of rain on the roof broke the silence but was a welcome sound anyway.