Manataka American Indian Council
Sacred Sites Watch:
Kituwah Mound (NC) (Eastern Cherokee)
In 1995 Kituwah Mound was much better known as Ferguson Fields. It had been used for many years as a place to grow corn, graze cattle, and was even used as an air strip. The small rise in the center of the field was plowed over time and again, rendering one of the most significant places to the Cherokee people nearly indistinguishable from the fields around it. In 1996, at the urging of a few, very dedicated activists like Tom Belt—a Cherokee man who recently returned to live in North Carolina— the Eastern Band of the Cherokee decided to purchase the 309 acre field in the interests of preserving the mound, an action that has created a debate both inside and outside the Cherokee community, about how to protect and honor the site.
Kituwah mound is nestled in the Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina, near a fork in the Tuckasegee river. All around the field rise the tree-covered mountains, traditional home of many Cherokee people, “you feel as though you’re contained within it, sort of cradled by the whole thing,” Brett Riggs, Cherokee Historic Preservation officer said. The mound itself is now 170 feet in diameter and only 5 feet tall, only a small rise in the center of what looks like a farm field. Once, though, it was a much more impressive size, the foundation of a building which housed the sacred flame of the Cherokee that was kept burning at all times by a specially appointed leader who lived there. This flame was very much symbolic of the life of the Cherokee, and people from villages all around Kituwah came to light ceremonial fires with it. Fire, in fact, was so important to many Cherokee people that it became the word for ‘home.’
Now the mound is about nine miles from the Eastern Cherokee reservation (population 12,000) but at one time, it was the center of the earliest, and one of the largest Cherokee settlements.
Archeologists speculate that the Kituwah site has been inhabited for nearly 10,000 years and that once there were as many as 200 people living there. It was also a spiritual center of the larger Cherokee population, once as large as 36,000 people, who lived over a range of 140,000 square miles in what is now the Eastern United States. These people gathered in relatively small settlements like Kituwah, but maintained active communication between the communities.
In 1540, Cherokee people first encountered explorers from DeSoto’s expedition, which initiated one of the most tragic chapters in their history, marked by devastation by disease, constant fighting, and the eventual ceding of land to European colonizers. In 1823, the Cherokee people were evicted from the land that contains the Kituwah mound, and this sacred place was auctioned away. This cession was a small part of one of the most massive expulsions in United States history, of the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole people, from the entire southeastern part of the country.
In 1827, in an attempt to resist the advance of European settlers, the Cherokee created a written constitution, formed a democratic government, and even established a newspaper, all in an effort to be declared a sovereign political body with full control over its own lands. However, neither any of the southeastern states, nor the United States Supreme court would recognize them as anything but tenants on government land. In 1831, the Cherokee were more successful in the Supreme Court, and earned a ruling that supported their sovereignty beyond state or federal law in the case Worcester v. Georgia. The court’s decision was, famously, inconsequential, as President Johnson refused to enforce the ruling. His preferred solution to the debate was the Indian Removal Act, which was initiated only a year after he came to office.
Initially, the process of removal was supposedly a peaceful and voluntary one, but as soon the Federal government encountered resistance, it quickly shifted their approach. In 1833 the government drafted the Treaty of New Echota ceding all of the Cherokee’s land east of the Mississippi, which was signed by only a few people, completely outside the system of ratification the Cherokee established six years earlier. Over 15,000 Cherokee signed a petition in protest, but to no avail. Shortly thereafter, the United States Army forced the migration of approximately 17,000 people to the Indian Territory, of which about one fourth died en route.
This removal fractured the Cherokee community, which dispersed as far away as Mexico. Most of the population, however, settled in Oklahoma, where a many people still identify as Kituwah. The very few people who escaped the expulsion remained in North Carolina, where the Eastern Cherokee reservation, and Kituwah mound, now stand.
One of the most sacred aspects of the Kituwah site is its proximity to the Tuckasegee river. Early Cherokee people settled there because water has always been a very important part of the Cherokee worldview, “The water is a living breathing thing. It has life, has spirit, and we honor him,” Dan Taylor, a representative of the Cherokee Museum, said. He elaborated: “The Cherokee were baptists before there were any Baptists,” in reference to a ceremonial purification in which every child took part, shortly after birth. The river’s ceremonial significance was also reserved for the end of life, when people would gather there for funeral prayer, and where, according to some accounts, the priest was able to tell whether the death was caused by witchcraft. It is likely that the placement of Kituwah mound was determined by the river, because where it stands the river bends and forks. This forking was crucial for early Cherokee, who used one side of the river for bathing and ceremony, and the other for drinking.
Kituwah mound itself is said to be the place where God came to give laws to humans. It is also the mythical the birthplace of the Cherokee people, a place from which smoke from an eternal fire emerged through a hollow cedar trunk. Tom Belt says of Kituwah, “This is the place where the people we call Cherokee began... They were directed by God to come here, and the very first fire was given to the people here... this place wasn't just a town--this was like the Vatican. This was the holiest of holies." The mound was primarily used as a sacred hearth, where a fire was kept burning all the time inside a structure built on top of it. People came from hundreds of miles, each year, to get fire from the hearth and bring it back to their communities. Often these people would also bring earth and ashes from their own hearths to add to the mound.
For these reasons, Kituwah is understood as the “mother town” and the place with which many Cherokee most closely identify, calling themselves Ani-kituwah-gi (people of Kituwah). Today, some Cherokee people see the site as a reminder of the unity of the Cherokee before their removal and dispersion. Recently some have reinitiated some of the ceremonial significance of the place, returning there to pray and notably, in 1998, to begin re-building the mound. Now, on top of the mound is a small patch of red dirt, from a ceremony, enacted by a group of Cherokee children under the guidance of Tom Belt, who reflected, “You’re talking about kids who can’t speak Cherokee, who watch TV all the time. All of a sudden they reach back in time and say that’s part of who we are. The very first rebuilding of the mound, it was the children who did it. Our ancestors are buried here. That’s what they needed to see. When we begin to do these things again, who we are begins to mean something again.”
In 1996, when the opportunity arose, the Eastern Cherokee decided to buy back this land after nearly 165 years without it. Under the leadership of Joyce Dugan, the Chief at the time, the tribe used profits from its small-scale casino to purchase the 309 acre plot for 3.5 million dollars. This was a great victory for Cherokee across North America, though it sparked a debate in the community about what to do with the land. Because the land cost so much, many people were frustrated by the prospect of keeping it there “just to look at.” Much of the debate centered on trying to balance this perspective with the idea that the sacred nature of the land needed to be preserved, as many, like Marie Junaluska expressed: "I think we need to preserve Kituhwa because it was the mother town. We're searching to find a way to preserve it without digging it up.
To me that's a very sacred place. It's a very peaceful place. If you ever go there, you can feel the peace. The spirit that was there a long time ago is still there.” Still others believe that the land should absolutely remain untouched, that the possibility of development is out of the question.
However the opinion which has kept the debate active for so long, and which has attracted the most media attention, is that the site ought to be used to promote economic advancement.
Specifically, many argued for developing the land as some kind of tourist attraction. Proposals for Kituwah have included a train depot, culture center, Indian resort, walking trail, tourism project, golf course, and even a NASCAR track.
Councilman Larry Blythe is one man in favor of using the space for non-traditional purposes, as he is spear-heading the idea of golf course development. He and others feel that such construction could be designed around the most sacred areas at Kituwah. Dan McCoy, chairman of the Tribal Council, who negotiated the debate spoke in support of this idea, “there never has been any question of the need to protect...and anyone who wants to develop around them is going to have to work around them and prove to our satisfaction that they will be protected.”
But, people concerned that any development of the site would damage its spiritual and cultural significance were still dissatisfied. This group asked Brett Riggs, Deputy Historic Preservation Officer and staff member at the at the University of North Carolina, to see what an archeological examination of the mound could add to case for its preservation. One of the greatest motivators of the study, was the speculation that the mound was home to ancient burial sites. Tipped off by a nearby gardener who saw some fractured bones in a groundhog’s hole, the archeologists dug over one thousand, very small test holes. After this first investigation, they found 15 burials, and Briggs speculates that there could be many, perhaps even 1,000 more. This issue has rallied many people who were initially pro-development to think about Kituwah differently, as a visible and tangible connection to their cultural and religious history.
Because many people, including Riggs, were concerned that conventional archeological practices would be disruptive to the mound’s spiritual significance, most of the work done on Kituwah mound has been, at least partly, invisible. Riggs’ team employed the use of a gradiometer, a machine that can measure differences in the magnetic plane of the field. Using this instrument to carefully go over the ground at Kituwah, they hoped to map the area by evidence of scorched earth, which would mark the existence of hearths, hundreds of years old. The team’s project was very successful. The study produced grainy, black and white images, which depict the locations of many hearth sites, with one, very clear example at the center of the mound. Around this hearth, the images also depicted rings which marked the reconstructions of the ceremonial hut, which was rebuilt every 20 years. The earliest of the apparent rings dates as far back, Riggs thinks, as the 15th century. The team's imagery also uncovered burial sites in the area of the mound, and Riggs asserts that with further study more, perhaps thousands more, could be found.
As the tribe decides what to do with the land, this study with continue, with the gradiometer as its primary instrument because of the security it offers, "There will never be any focused archaeological excavation [at Kituwha]. It has too much immediate cultural and religious importance for us to even broach the issue," Riggs has said. The gradiometer’s images were published in the tribe’s newspaper and became a rallying point for Cherokee people interested in preservation from North Carolina to Oklahoma to Mexico.
As of July 2004, although the precise fate of the land is still uncertain, this archeological investigation has been tremendously important in the process of identifying, specifically, the remains of the site’s religious and cultural significance. For many, the electronic mapping of the mound and the discovery of grave sites, in particular, made the decision not to undertake a high-impact development quite easy.
Since the archeological findings, there has been a resurgence in attention to the place as a cultural center. In 2000, for example, the Eastern Cherokee sponsored another youth retreat, the “Cultural Enrichment Program.” The outing was focused on Kituwah, and highlighted the sacred nature of the place for many young people who had never been exposed to more traditional ways of spiritual expression.
The process of re-examining Kituwah mound has been an example of the power of education in the preservation of sacred sites. For, recognition of historical significance has long been an important value for most Americans, and the more cultural and academic communities can discover and publicize this kind of significance, American Indian sacred sites will find another haven of protection. Also, the inclusion of archeologists into the process of the Cherokee’s movement toward preservation is quite significant. Since the passage of NAGPRA in 1990, these two groups have experienced considerable tension because of property debates, and the unwillingness of some museums and collections to return some sacred objects. The fact, thus, that they are working together at Kituwah, is decidedly promising, especially because the preservation of the mound, many feel, can be extremely valuable to both parties.
Prepared by Student Researcer Matt Hooley Updated on August 25, 2004
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