"The world of the Native American, spiritual and otherwise, is not to be understood by assuming that it can be described easily in the English language, and in religious terms. What we now think of as spirituality was not a religion in the commonly accepted definition of the word. It was their way of life."
- Penobscot elder Eunice Baumann-Nelson, Ph.D.
Day 58 - Saturday, August 19, 1995 - Scorching heat enveloped the walkers each step through the day. The temperature squatted at 100-degrees Fahrenheit. The air dripped pitilessly. The hills added their own special element of butt-kicking: steep rises and falls over the course of 26 miles. It was a hard day on the road.
As the walkers surmounted one particularly challenging hill and started down into Camden, North Carolina, they were assaulted by acrid fumes arising from a busy paper mill.
"The mill was just bellowing stinking pollution," Jacki told me during a phone report. "Combined with the heat of the day, it was almost too much."
In Camden the walkers passed by a storefront decorated with posters drawn by local school children. The posters bore slogans like "Care for the Earth," and "Respect the Water."
The display sparked Alycia Longriver to a general observation: "The factory that pollutes the air also sustains the town. The factory gives the people their means of economic survival through jobs. It has built the local baseball field and supported the local institutions and charities. The factory is also producing paper that we all use all the time. We need to see the pollution full circle, not as something that is apart from our lives.
“All the problems such as air and water pollution that we confront have not come from outer space, or some abstract 'them,'” Alycia told me, “but rather because of the way we have chosen to live our lives.”
Rain started to fall late in the day. At that time the walkers were coming to the top of Soco Gap—just entering the Qualla Boundary, which is the reservation for the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. At first gentle, the rain soon fell in torrents. The walkers took refuge in a restaurant by the side of the road.
In times past Soco gap was a strategic location for the Cherokees. It is the main route for entering their territory from the north and east. Thus as a general rule, they maintained an outpost at the gap to protect their villages from invaders.
The Cherokees, or Ani'Yun'wiya, as they spoke of themselves, lived in permanent villages with log or clay cabins over a vast territory they called Sha-cona-ge. a name variously translated as “land of the blue mist,” or “land of 10,000 smokes.”
In 1540, de Soto’s expedition arrived in Sha-cona-ge and changed forever the way the Ani'Yun'wiya lived. The conquistadors quest for gold brought disease, misery, and death to the Ani'Yun'wiya. Over the next three centuries, a flood of settlers entered the area. The conflict over who would possess the land escalated until 1836 when the U.S. Removal Act dictated that all native people east of the Mississippi River be removed to Indian Territory (Oklahoma).
Through the hard winter of 1838, U.S. soldiers evicted then drove thousands of Cherokee, Choctaw, and other native families on a forced march of 1,200 miles to a new land.
As the soldiers began the round up, several hundred Cherokee people fled to high ground on the mountains to remain free. Among these refugees was a man named Tsali, who was accused of killing a U.S. soldier. Realizing the futility of trying to apprehend the Cherokee people who were hiding in the mountains, the U.S. government agreed that, in exchange for Tsali's surrender (and subsequent execution), the remaining Cherokees would be allowed to remain in their homeland.
This small population became the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. In 1889 the Qualla Boundary Indian Reservation was chartered to give them a place to live.
The Qualla Boundary that the walkers are entering is a sovereign land, land said to be held in trust for the Eastern Cherokees by the government of the United States. But the Boundary is also a physical and a psychological line between the world surrounding Qualla, and the world within. The reservation borders the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Southern Appalachians.
Mountain scene in the Great Smokys
This is a land of many waters. The higher elevations receive over 90 inches of rainfall some years. Thus, the mountainsides are draped in the lush vegetation of a rain forest. Wild mountain streams carve through these hills. The landscape is characterized by steep ridges and deep ravines that give the appearance of a rumpled carpet stretching to the horizon.
The walkers have obtained permission to camp in Qualla Boundary’s principal city, Cherokee. Tribal administrators told Tom the walkers could camp on the ceremonial grounds for pow wows and other public gatherings. Hot showers are available nearby.
When the walkers were ready to bed down for the night, they found shelter from the incessant rain storm under a large open-sided picnic pavilion with a blessedly dry concrete floor.
Copyright 2006 by Steven McFadden
Read Day 59 -- Odyssey of the 8th Fire