Entering Another Story – Native American People’s Day (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister


So, today we return to this month’s worship theme of “default settings,” an opportunity for us to examine some of those untested assumptions and routine ways of thinking in our religious lives that get in the way living fully with integrity and peace.

In that context, many of us grew up learning a narrative of history that told of plucky European explorers who came to this continent in the 15th and 16th centuries on voyages of discovery, finding a new world, which they then settled and civilized. Of these figures, Christopher Columbus was singled out for special status as early as 1792, the 300th anniversary of his arrival. Columbus was not the first European to arrive, but his travels established the first lasting European contact with North America. Celebrations of his arrival culminated with President Franklin Roosevelt’s decision in 1937 to grant the request of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal group, to create a federal holiday in his name on the second Monday of October, tomorrow.

Left out of that narrative, of course, were the stories of the peoples who occupied the land that the Europeans claimed to have “discovered,” people who lived in rich and complex cultures that were thousands of years older than those of the European settlers. Also left out of the lesson plans was the depravity of those early settlers, men like Columbus who murdered, raped and enslaved native peoples for the sake, not of discovery, but of enriching themselves.

In recent decades as the stories of indigenous people have finally begun to surface in our Western culture and the true history of those early days is being told, a window has opened on a different way of marking those days. It began with events in October 1992 – the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival – that was celebrated in some places as Indigenous or Native American People’s Day, and has been honored since. Today, we ally ourselves with that movement, recognizing the old Columbus Day narrative as a default setting in our culture that we need to abandon for the sake of our own ethical integrity.

As a religious movement with its roots in Europe, we recognize that we are part of the culture that has benefited from this narrative at the expense of others. So, we have some catching up to do. We need to learn the larger history that embraces the full story of those indigenous peoples as well as our European ancestors. But to make ourselves available for that story we also have to open ourselves to different ways of seeing and being.

The deeper default settings that challenge us here are bits of the cultural patrimony that we carry unknowingly, settings that, for example, depict humankind as the crown of creation, given the natural world to exploit as we choose, or as rootless creatures whose destiny is not of this Earth.

Today to assist in that opening we will center our service on some of the stories of our neighbors, the Cherokee, people who have occupied these hills longer than white people have occupied Europe.

We’ll invite you to enter those stories, not as quaint myths of another time but as living testimony to a way of being present to the world while remaining in relationship with it, with a sense of place and deep time that our hyperactive culture works against. There are surely lessons in that testimony for people like us who seek to live fully and responsibly, who hope to know this world we occupy as sacred and our lives together as blessed.


Long, long ago people lived in the world with animals. They could talk to one another and everybody got along. But one day, as people will do, they started to fight. One thing led to another, and this person wasn’t talking to that person. Somebody wasn’t very nice to someone else, or stole from someone else.

They got so angry that the Creator was afraid they were going to kill one another. So, he divided them up into four groups and sent then off in different directions – the north, the south, the east, the west – to the four corners of the world. When they got there they were confused because they didn’t know how to live there. They didn’t know the plants, didn’t know where the water was and didn’t know what the seasons would be like.

The Creator felt sorry for them, so he sent them dreams that told them about each of the animals, what to eat, what to do, what the plants were for, and so on. They began to learn and grow, and then he sent them another gift so they wouldn’t forget. He sent them legends about all these plants and animals, and the world, so that each time they told the legends they would know how to be with the plants and the animals, and how to be with each other.


It’s hard for us to know what to make of Cherokee stories. To our ears they have the sound of children’s fables, and yet they are likely older than our European fairy tales, with roots perhaps older, even, than Genesis.

Last week I joined our adult education class on “Discovering a Sense of Place” on a trip to Cherokee, where we were hosted in a visit to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian by its education director, Barbara Duncan. In seeking to learn more about the Cherokee, she told us, it is good to begin with stories, since historically among the Cherokee stories served as both school and religion.

Stories held lessons for how people got along with each other and the larger world. So, the message behind them often boiled down to simple advice like don’t be greedy, don’t steal, don’t brag: lessons for getting along.

Years ago Joseph Campbell argued that the motif for legends in the west was the hero’s journey, the individual prevailing over daunting odds. For the Cherokee, the motif is different. As Barbara Duncan put it, the typical end of a Cherokee story is not the triumph of an individual, but an achievement for the community. Individuals may be sacrificed along the way, but the community prevails.

Stories also communicated a world view. There is no corresponding Cherokee word to the western word “wild,” referring to things outside of our control, in a natural state. Instead, the Cherokee see themselves as part of the world’s natural state, living in community with plants and animals, and responsible to them.

Nor is there any a separation between the sacred and the profane. Some places are considered especially holy, such as village mounds or places where community fires are kept, because of how they are used or what legend or history says has happened there, but every part of land is to be cared for.

In foraging, for example, when looking for a particular kind of plant, one would pick only every fourth one, assuring that more remained for future foragers. A river was called a “long man,” with his head in the mountains and his feet in the sea; people were prohibited from soiling them, assuring that the water would be clean.

The ethos underlying Cherokee stories is finding balance, implied in the Cherokee word Duyukta translated roughly as “the right path.” But the feeling in the community was that no instruction, no preaching was needed to learn this. It was something that everyone knew if he or she just paid attention.


The earth was a great island floating in a sea of water, and suspended at each of the four cardinal points by a cord hanging down from the sky vault. All of the animals were in the sky place, Galunlati, but it was very crowded, and they needed more room. They wondered if there might be something on or under the water. So, the Beaver’s grandchild, Dayunisi, the little Water-beetle, offered to go and see what it could learn. It darted in every direction over the surface of the water, but could find no firm place to rest. Then, it dived into the water, swimming down and down and down, until it came to the bottom and found some soft mud, which it brought to the surface. Immediately, the mud began to grow and spread on every side until it became the island which we call the earth.

This earth was still fastened to the sky with four cords in the cardinal directions. At first the earth was flat and very soft and wet. The animals were anxious to come down, but they didn’t want to sink in the mud. They sent out different birds to see if it was dry, but they found no place to land and came back again to Galunlati. Then the buzzard had an idea. He flew down close to the land and flapped his great wings, which started to dry out the mud. When he reached the Cherokee country, he was very tired, and flew still lower. His wings began to flap and strike the ground, and wherever they struck the earth there was a valley, and where they turned up again there was a mountain. When the animals above saw this, they were afraid that the whole world would be mountains, so they called him back, but the Cherokee country remains full of mountains to this day.


The Cherokee origin story is set here in the mountains because as far as they are concerned they have always been here. Kanati and Selu, first man and first woman, were said to have made their home in the Shining Rock Wilderness near where we gather blueberries these days, as the Cherokee did before us, at Graveyard Fields along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Archaeological records date human occupation in this area back at least 10- to 12,000 years ago. When Cherokees emerged as a separate tribal identity is unclear, but the Cherokee language appears to have appeared distinct from other tribes around 3,500 years ago and permanent, well-built villages date back at least 1,000 years or so.

Historical records say that the Cherokee nation once encompassed a population of some 36,000 over more than 140,000 square miles – covering much of what today is Kentucky and Tennessee as well as western Virginia and North Carolina and northern South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. This nation, though, had no central government, but instead consisted of a federation of towns.

One of the nation’s “mother towns” was at Kituhwa, near present day Bryson City, the site of a prominent mound. Unlike in the burial mounds of some cultures, there are no bodies buried in these places. Instead, they are said to be places where members of the community brought soil in baskets or even turtle shells to a common location in the center of a village as a symbol of their coming together, and because of that they are held to be holy. The mound was also the site of a sacred fire that was always kept burning, symbolizing the presence of the Creator among them.

Another important location was what the Cherokee called Kuwahi, or Mulberry Place, which we call Clingman’s Dome, the highest peak in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. As John mentioned earlier, this was also the location of the Gall Place, the magic lake that to human eyes looked merely like clouds filling a valley, but was where sick and wounded bears, and other animals, could go for healing.

During the forced removal of Cherokees in the mid 19th Century, it was also said to be a place where people hid away from the soldiers, seeking healing of a different kind.


At the dawn of time, the first man and the first woman set up their home together by the side of a great broad river. They had everything they needed for a blissful life: fruit, meat and fish, plenty of wood and fresh water, and, of course, each other. They lived as happily as any man and woman have ever lived together, until they began to quarrel. First it was the small things, like “Why didn’t you cook this?” and “Why didn’t you tidy that?” But then the insults, and a few wooden plates and bowls, began to fly.

The first woman was so upset that she decided to leave the first man. At the break of day, while he was still asleep, she set off down the valley, heading towards the rising sun. She walked and walked, always looking straight ahead of her, and not once turning back. When the first man woke up and saw that she was gone, he waited for her to come back. She did not come back. He found her tracks along the valley, but she had a long head-start on him, and she did not stop or look round.

The sun was now high in the great blue sky. It looked down upon the first man, as he followed after the first woman, and it saw that there was sadness on the face of the world. The sun asked the man what had happened, and when the man told him, the sun asked if he would like to have her back. He said that he would. So, the sun took pity on the first man and decided to help him. His gentle rays touched the ground along the woman’s path, and a huckleberry bush sprang up. Its fruit was shiny and enticing, but as she passed her eyes remained fixed on the distance, and she did not see the berries.

And so the sun shone again on the ground up ahead of the woman. And he caused a clump of blackberries to grow up beside her path. She refused to even glance at them.

And then the sun thought that he must create something entirely new: something so vivid, fragrant, and delicious, that even the first woman would not fail to take notice of them in her resolute and unhappy mood. And so he shone his rays, and the first patch of strawberries spread over the ground.

Their sweet scent filled the woman’s senses, and her mood became lighter. She began to look around her, and she saw the bright red fruit hiding beneath he leaves. She picked one and ate it, and as she tasted the strawberry on her tongue, she began to remember the happiness she knew when she first set up home with her husband. She found she no longer felt the pressing desire to leave him. She sat down on the ground and wondered what she must do. At last she gathered a bunchy of the finest berries and started back along the path to give them to him. He met her kindly, and they went home together.


It is said that one of the greatest shocks that westerners faced when they came to negotiate treaties with the Cherokee was that women would be among the leaders of the negotiating parties. From the Cherokee perspective, though, this would be expected. In the matrilineal culture of the Cherokee, women had control of the houses and fields. Men traditionally were away hunting and fishing, which left the women to tend the gardens and run the family. They were the ones who passed their clan affiliation to their children. Unlike the nuclear families of the Europeans, Cherokee families were often large, embracing many layers of relations.

This shifted in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when, after recovering from their defeat at the hands of Europeans, they set about to make themselves a “civilized tribe” of farmers and businessmen. With European “civilization” came a patriarchal social structure of disparate households with male breadwinners and women tending the home fires.

With all those transitions, though, what didn’t change was the Cherokee sense of connection to the land. Having been rooted here so long, one Cherokee is said to observed, “even the dust of this place is from our ancestors.”


They say that if you go out in the woods and hear some music or some people talking but don’t see anyone around you might have caught a glimpse of the gentle people, the Nunnehi. One time the Nunnehi came to the Cherokee people and told them, “you’re going to have to come with us now. All of you pack up your belongings, and in seven days you will have to come and live with us.”

“But why?” the people asked. “Where are we going? Why do we have to go?”

“Because,” they said, “Something terrible is going to happen: worse than any flood, or any famine that you have ever known before. You have to leave to save yourselves.”

So, they packed up their belongings and followed Nunnehi for miles until they came to a big stone way deep in the mountains. As they watched, the stone rolled away, and they rushed to see what was inside. It was such a beautiful place. The air seemed to dance with joy.

So without even thinking, many families rushed in. As the turned to close the door forever, they saw a group standing away in the back. The chief asked them, “Why aren’t you coming in? We’re ready to close the door.”

But the people said, “We were born here, and no matter what happens we want to stay.” The chief was torn. He wanted to go in, but he also wanted to be with his people. He decided he needed to stay and help lead his people.

The stone rolled back, and the people who stayed were the descendants of today’s tribe. Those other people have never been heard from again, though they say if you’re out in the woods, you might hear some music or some people talking. It’s the Nunnehi, and they’re reminding us that they’re always with us.


The greatest irony in Europeans celebrating Columbus Day is that for the native peoples of North America the colonization of their land was a catastrophe. This is so not merely because within the space of three and a half centuries Indians were tortured and abased, militarily defeated and driven off their home lands, but also because the diseases the Europeans brought with them cut like a scythe through their numbers. By one estimate, 95 percent of Native Americans were killed by disease epidemics like small pox within a little more than a century after the arrival of Columbus.

The first contact the Cherokee had with these people was an expedition by Herman DeSoto in 1540 in search of gold and slaves. But full blown trade with Europeans didn’t start until the beginning of the 18th Century. There were benefits to the Cherokee from this trade – introduction to new crops like apples and sweet potatoes as well as livestock, and goods like pots, weapons, plows and cloth. But by the end of that century, the Indians also experienced several killing epidemics, warfare with European settlers that included multiple atrocities on each side and in the end wiped out dozens of villages. The Cherokee also saw the loss of 75% of their former territories through treaties with their conquerors.

It was George Washington and his secretary of war, John Knox, who in 1789 proposed a solution to the continuing tit for tat of warfare between Indians and settlers, a policy of what he called “civilization.” Indians would be taught to live like white people, even encouraged to intermarry with them. The Cherokee ultimately agreed and succeeded grandly, developing schools, churches, and businesses, creating a written language, a constitution and a representative assembly.

But the settlers weren’t satisfied. They wanted the Cherokee land and pushed to remove them. The now “civilized” Cherokees responded with the tools they’d learned. They lobbied, petitioned and even filed a lawsuit that eventually won them a Supreme Court ruling allowing them to stay.

It didn’t matter. President Andrew Jackson ignored the ruling and called out federal soldiers and state militias in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and North Carolina to drive the Cherokee out. Troops rousted people from their homes, gathered them in rough stockades and drove them west to Oklahoma on what has become known as the “trail of tears.” Some 15,000 Cherokees were driven from their land; between 4,000 and 8,000 died on the journey.

Here in the mountains of North Carolina, though, a small group living along the Oconaluftee River maintained a toehold on their land by persuading state legislators to accept their petition to stay. In time the federal government recognized them as the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. Another several hundred hid out in the mountains and eventually joined them.

Having the right to stay, though, didn’t prevent rapacious logging in the next 60 years or so that clear cut their land twice and left a nucleus of about 1,500 people living in poverty. The 20th Century also saw the arrival of federally-funded boarding schools that punished children for speaking the Cherokee language. In time, the schools closed and the tribe began its own schools that teach Cherokee language and culture.

A shift in the Cherokee’s fortunes came with the Indian Gaming Act in 1988. It gave the Cherokee a source of income, first with bingo and in 1997 with casino gambling, as well as jobs from the attendant tourist industry that has raised the standard of living of tribe members and funded health, education and other support services.

Meanwhile, the stories are still being told. Barbara Duncan from the museum has collected many of them from current day story tellers, people who learned them from relatives and tell them to school and civic groups.

She quotes a story that one those tellers, Freeman Owle, told to a group surrounding the trail of tears. Owle notes that, despite all the brutality the Cherokee experienced, the survival of the Eastern Band was due at least in part to the kindness and support of some of their white neighbors.

He concludes by saying, “You know, I came here tonight to tell you that the Cherokee people don’t really hold any hatred or animosity in their hearts for the things that happened in our past. We can take our hats off to the past, but as one great gentleman said, ‘We should take our shirts off to the future.’ The reason the Cherokee people survived is because they loved their neighbors and were good neighbors.”

It is a remarkable conclusion, an act of grace, really, that offers us an opportunity to enter these stories, to see in them links to our common humanity, a glimmer of hope for us all. Even today, the Cherokee are composing stories that end with something good for the people, for all people. And it is cause for us to be grateful.

Two important sources for this presentation were:

Living Stories of the Cherokee, collected and edited by Barbara R. Duncan, University of North Carolina Press, 1998

Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook, Barbara R. Duncan & Brett H. Riggs, North Carolina Folklife Institute, 2003

Photo credit: http://digital.ncdcr.gov/cdm/ref/collection/p15012coll5/id/1160