COMMENTARY: Ceremonial Grounds ghosts

by Aug 26, 2022OPINIONS0 comments


One Feather Editor


Do you remember the first time you watched Titanic? I hope you went to a theatre. Big subjects (and objects) are better expressed on a big screen. There were amazing transitional special effects from time present to time past in that movie. The modern-day wreckage of the Titanic would seemingly magically transform into its new and shining glory of 1912. The transition was seamless from rusting wreck to decks filled with life and activity. I know the reference will be lost on some, but many of you will get it.

This month is the month that the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has announced the closure of the Cherokee Indian Fairgrounds, affectionately known by many as the Cherokee Ceremonial Grounds. The closure was inevitable. Many of us who made regular visits to the facility could see the bad state of repair of the buildings. Age and weather had taken its toll on the facility as a whole. The grounds had seen upgrades here and there over the years, but even those now are failing. Structural damage due to time, moisture, and abuse had impacted the buildings.

The structure known as the “Birdair” (because that is the company who installed it) ultimately deteriorated to the point of jeopardizing safety basically anywhere a person might stand on the grounds. The tent-like covering is secured with large metal pylons and massive high-tension wire. Oxidation (rust) has eaten into the primarily all-metal frames. Should one or more of those high-tension cables break loose, they would crash with force, possibly crushing anything in their paths for several feet.

It takes a specialized crew to repair or replace a structure like the Birdair ( if you want to know more about these structures). And removal of it is dangerous, i.e. not for novices. My understanding is that the Commerce Division and EBCI Risk Management concluded that the safest option would be to remove the structure entirely and to use the company who installed it to remove it. The Birdair has outlived its designed life expectancy, somewhere between 10 and 15 years. This is a natural end of functionality. No appliance lasts forever.

The Tribe also decided that, since the removal of the Birdair will require that most or all the Fairgrounds be shut down for public safety, that it would be a good time to, not just facelift the Fairgrounds, but to do the complete overhaul that the grounds obviously need. So, the Tribe is poised to begin demolition as soon as September 2022.

My understanding is that, while the facility is being torn down, discussions with the community will take place as to what will replace the existing “footprint” of the grounds. There has already been some conceptual work done on behalf of the effort by the Commerce Division. Conceptual drawings are visual impressions of what might be. Of course, before you remove something as sacred to the community as the Ceremonial Grounds, you would want to have a vision for what will replace it. Commerce has communicated some pretty detailed visioning for the grounds in presentations to the Tribal Council. And, as mentioned earlier, they will be looking for suggestions and recommendations from the Tribal community as they progress closer to a remake of the grounds.

If you have spent any time at all at the Fairgrounds, and especially if you are a Tribal member, you very likely have lifelong memories of special moments on the grounds. It is a place of gathering for the Cherokee people – sacred traditions observed there; important ceremonial functions carried out there. Selections of many Miss Cherokees, including many Senior Ms. Cherokees, took place on the grounds. Stickball or Indian-ball games, long hair, bubble blowing, frypan throwing all at the Fairgrounds. Men and women leaders of our Tribe who once crawled across the stage on the grounds in the baby crawling contests remember those moments with joy. Thousands upon thousands of craft, art and agricultural exhibits, dutifully cared-for by the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual and the Cherokee Agricultural Extension Office displayed with pride of both individual community members and community exhibitions – Blueberry and Strawberry festivals in the greatest of Cherokee traditions.

Most of all, the Fairgrounds is a place of communion and reunion. Families select Fair time, Fall Festival, if you will, as their time of family reunion. Those who have built lives all over the continent will come home to meet and share at the Fair. One of my great joys during past Fairs was seeing congregations of our Tribal Elders, sitting on benches or along rock outcroppings, laughing and sharing amongst themselves, many times in the language, a joke or anecdote. Brotherhood and sisterhood were on exhibit at the Fairgrounds, as much as any craft, vegetable, or baked good.

As we have seen when buildings are demolished, we lose a bit of our visual history. There were so many of us mourning the razing of the Cherokee High School, because so much of who we were, and who we are were wrapped up in those halls and walls. In many ways, those buildings become attached to our beings, and it hurts to have them ripped away. Those rocks, bricks, and mortar hold memories we do not want to let go of.  And so, it will be for the Ceremonial Grounds. It is hard to let go.

Like in those magical moments in the movies, we will have to let our memories of these times and places stay in the heart. When I look at a place like the old high school, I can almost see the big spiraling staircase with intricate artwork painted on by students over the years. I can see them clowning around in the hallways and running for the doors when the school day is over. And as I walk the Fairgrounds, the memories flood of the love and laughter through years of community and family gathering at this place. Images of Cherokee people young and old, sharing, and caring. Differences, for the most part, faded. And most differences were eventually laughed off and would cause even stronger bonds between family and friends.

We will miss the Fairgrounds as it has been like we miss old friends. But we can help restore the grounds to something that will allow us and generations of Cherokee people to come and make new memories. Embracing change like this is never easy. We just have to make sure that when it comes, we do our best change for the future while remembering the ghosts of our past.