ACROSS THE COUNTRY
Seeds of Native Knowledge Grow in North Carolina
Countless generations of Cherokee Indians have cultivated lands in the shadow of the Smoky Mountains. More people want to learn from them.
WHY WE’RE HERE
We’re exploring how America defines itself one place at a time. Cherokee, N.C., is a town steeped in Native American history, and a draw for outsiders in search of connection.
By Jacey Fortin
Photographs by Mike Belleme
Oct. 21, 2023
There is a mushroom whose beige caps grow wild in the mountains of western North Carolina. When plucked, their broken stems well up with milky droplets.
To untrained eyes, the edible fungi can be tough to spot. But Amy Walker and Tyson Sampson have years of experience. One sunny fall afternoon, Ms. Walker spotted a few in the forest underbrush.
“We call them milkies,” she said. “Tyson can tell you the scientific stuff. That’s not important to me.”
Ms. Walker, 82, and Mx. Sampson, 49, who uses “they” pronouns and identifies as a two-spirit person, are among about 16,000 members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, many of whom call this mountainous corner of North Carolina home. And milkies, which are good breaded and fried, are one of the foods that they have learned to prepare in generous batches.
The mottled beans that are parboiled and salted, the toxic pokeweed cooked into tasty greens, the dumplings wrapped in hickory leaves and tied with stalks of rush — these, like the milkies, are meant to be shared.
Mx. Sampson and Ms. Walker live in the town of Cherokee, N.C., within the Qualla Boundary, a 57,000-acre piece of land owned by their tribe. And they often host visitors: In recent years, non-Native people have shown a growing interest in Cherokee knowledge, culture and food.
The true heart of the community is just down the road from Cherokee: a few hundred grassy acres cocooned by mountains. Called Kituwah, it was once a town and cultural center.
The Eastern Band’s connection to this place is deep — unusually so, in a country where so many Native communities have been dispossessed. But it is not unscathed. Militias destroyed Kituwah during the Revolutionary War, and in the early 1800s, the U.S. government drove thousands of the Cherokee people off their land and toward Oklahoma, a deadly march now known as the Trail of Tears.
But some Cherokee avoided that brutal dislocation — hiding in the mountains, escaping after the march west, or carving out tenuous agreements with U.S. officials. Their descendants are federally recognized as the Eastern Band.
By the end of the 19th century, the tribe had managed to buy back a parcel of its ancestral land. But Kituwah, which Cherokee people also call the Mother Town, remained in the hands of outsiders until 1996, when the Eastern Band bought it back for about $2 million.
Today, many Cherokee people farm at Kituwah, including Ms. Walker. “It nurtures my spirit,” she said. The crops on her five-acre plot include corn, peppers, beans and sweet basil. Her friends and relatives fall into an annual, communal rhythm, helping with the planting and harvesting.
The surrounding terrain has lured hikers and hippies for decades, fostering a counterculture that still thrives in Asheville, about 50 miles east. Though it remains a mostly white city — one of the few in the United States that is actually getting whiter — Asheville has also become a center of the Land Back movement, which prioritizes Native American knowledge and property claims.
“There’s so many young people, and people of all ages, who really want to connect with a more earth-centered life,” said Natalie Bogwalker, who runs an earth skills and carpentry school outside of Asheville.
People from Asheville regularly pitch in at Ms. Walker’s garden. But given the long history of exploitation and displacement, tribal members are careful about inviting outsiders in.
“You have to have safeguards in place,” said Charles Taylor, 52, a cultural preservationist and fluent Cherokee speaker who is a member of the tribe. “Some of that is sensitive information. Some of that is sacred.”
Despite their caution, outsiders are a fact of life in Cherokee — a tourist draw since the middle of the 20th century. Roadside shops remain filled with kitsch that jumbles tropes: leather ponchos made in Mexico, moccasins made in the Dominican Republic, animal figurines from Pakistan.
Still, it pays the bills. Sales taxes from these shops support the tribe, along with revenues from a casino that generates hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
“Money talks. We learn that,” said Mary Crowe, 60, an activist who is campaigning to bestow a Cherokee name, Kuwohi, on the tallest peak of the Smoky Mountains. “But we also know that, no matter what, this land right here is priceless.”
September in Ms. Walker’s garden was harvest time for tomatoes, which sprouted from rows of caged vines — some plump and red, ready to be sliced and salted. “Smells like tomato soup,” Mx. Sampson said. At home, the tomatoes would soon be added to airtight jars, alongside kale, strawberries and ramps, a wild allium.
As dusk fell in the garden, dozens of winking fireflies appeared. “You know, those things are so fascinating,” Mx. Sampson said. “They burrow so far down deep into the earth.”