COMMENTARY: Take care of our home

by Sep 22, 2023OPINIONS0 comments


One Feather Editor


We get bent out of shape over land. I mean downright hateful. And you would too if the history of your people was that once someone else found value of any kind, precious minerals found on the property, rich soil and flat ground, or some other valuable use could be found for the land, it was stripped away from the people. This actually happened. Back in the day, it was a thing for the government to run Cherokee and other indigenous people off from land that they had lived in, fished in, hunted on, farmed, and buried their dead in. states, “In the early 1800s, American demand for Indian nations’ land increased, and momentum grew to force American Indians further west. The first major step to relocate American Indians came when Congress passed, and President Andrew Jackson signed, the Indian Removal Act of May 28, 1830.

“The Act authorized the President to negotiate removal treaties with Indian tribes living east of the Mississippi River, primarily in the states of Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, and others. The goal was to remove all American Indians living in existing states and territories and send them to unsettled land in the west.

“In his message on December 6, 1830, President Jackson informed Congress on the progress of the removal, stating, ‘It gives me pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the Government, steadily pursued for nearly thirty years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to a happy consummation.’

“Jackson declared that removal would ‘incalculably strengthen the southwestern frontier.’ Clearing Alabama and Mississippi of their Indian populations, he said, would ‘enable those states to advance rapidly in population, wealth, and power.”

The removal treaty process resulted in nearly 50,000 eastern Indians being stripped of their homelands and marched to eastern Oklahoma. At the time, it wasn’t Oklahoma but wilderness. It was a place to get Indians out of the way for white settlements, in fact, 25 million acres of eastern land was “appropriated” by the U.S. government for immigrant use.

The Cherokee people occupied large portions of Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama. And the government wanted those lands. The relevant treaty to our people was the infamous Treaty of New Echota, an agreement that was not popular with several of our people who refused to leave, which prompted President Jackson to ordain 3000 federal troops led by Major General Winfield Scott to force our people to “relocate”. Scott also had the authority to enlist state militia and volunteer troops to do the job, just in case our ancestors got out of hand.

“Despite Scott’s order calling for the removal of Indians in a humane fashion, this did not happen. During the fall and winter of 1838-39, the Cherokees were forcibly moved from their homes to Indian Territory-some having to walk as many as 1,000 miles over a four-month period. Approximately 4000 of 16,000 Cherokees died along the way. By the end of 1840s, nearly all Indian tribes had been driven west.”

Those who remained in the western mountains of North Carolina were able to stay and negotiate for the purchase of property to remain. That’s us, or at least our ancestors – the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. In 1866, EBCI was officially given permission to live in North Carolina. And the 57,000 acres secured by William Holland Thomas and the Cherokee people, while it did have water resources like the Oconaluftee River and Soco Creek, still was challenging property in that the land was and is in the most mountainous areas of the state.

All that to say that we are a little sensitive about the piece of the homeland we were able to secure and that has been held-in-trust by the federal government. It never gets old; thinking about the irony of the federal government “protecting” land that was taken by force from the Cherokee people and then we (our ancestors) had to “buy” back. But I digress.

Over the decades, we have contemplated the dilemma. Our people have grown in number, currently 16,000-plus strong. Our land mass has grown very little. A little over half of our membership lives off-Boundary. The half that resides on the Qualla Boundary scramble and sit in waiting for housing to be built and land to become available. The government is double-minded in that on one hand tribal member housing is the priority, and then insists that economic development opportunity focus needs to center on building businesses, both tribally and tribal member-owned, on ancestral tribal lands. With each year that passes, the need for both seems to get more intense, and more critical. With “buildable” property being a finite and scarce commodity on the Boundary, it is unlikely we can make both happen in an effective, beneficial way. Something will have to give.

So, we need to be good stewards of what we have. That would be true anyway, as we are the people who look on the lands and streams provided by the Creator as sacred. We do our ancestors an injustice when we treat our lands like the non-Native population treats it. Again, it is not just a commodity, but a sacred trust given to us by the Creator. But it is particularly true that we must protect the land since we know that we don’t really have enough to go around. Tribal leaders have already heralded that fact. Every inch of property under the ownership and control of the Eastern Band should be strategically plotted to get the most benefit for our people. And that should be a public and publicized plan available to all the members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. What we don’t know can and will hurt us.

We see too many properties on our lands that have been left to rot and decay. We have seen land sit idle for decades, unused for the public good. There needs to be a radical change in the balance of economic and community development. We need to understand that they are an “and” relationship, not a “versus” relationship. We would have no need for economic development if there were not a community for it to serve and supply. And we cannot have community development without an economy to support it. As a friend or coworker is fond of saying, it is simple math. We need those drivers to push our economic engine harder and faster so that the community is protected and insured. We need strong, smart community development with a definite land use plan and regulations that ensure both government and individual tribal member-owned properties are not used just for the benefit of one, but for all. And, as high as any need of the tribe, we need true transparency in government with outward reporting and education on the “what, where, when, why, and how” of the planned use of our lands. No scare tactics or propaganda, just honest, open communication with our people. We deserve nothing less.

We are grateful for the off-Boundary economic development opportunities that have been developed. We are grateful for the community enhancement that has been created for the benefit of the people. But there are more opportunities. We see it every time we drive past the Fairgrounds or the Old Elementary School site. We see it every time we drive up and down Soco Road. We see it every time a tribal member stands before the podium in the Council Chambers and begs for housing, or dentures, or a right-of-way, or a place to start a business to sustain their family. We owe it to ourselves and generations of Cherokee people to protect our home. We must be good stewards of the Creator’s gift and the hard-fought prize of our ancestors, both in the economy of provision for our people and the ecology of our lands in clean streams and smart green land use.