Symbolic torch passing honors national park anniversaries

A Cherokee elder presided over a ceremonial torch passing from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the Blue Ridge Parkway last week.

Standing at an overlook along the Parkway outside Cherokee, Elder Jerry Wolfe performed a “smudging” to open the ceremony, waving a feather and burning sage over the four corners of the land.

“The grounds and our souls are all cleansed,” Wolfe pronounced.

The event marked the beginning of the Parkway’s 75th anniversary and the closure of the Smokies 75th anniversary.

“Just a word of wisdom, slow down and enjoy your year because it will go by very, very quickly,” Smokies Superintendent Dale Ditmanson said to Parkway Superintendent Phil Francis.

Cherokee is stationed between both parks, marking the southern-most entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway and eastern gateway to the Smokies. The ancestral heritage of Cherokee people is rooted in the mountains and scenery embodied by both national parks.

“Our DNA runs deep here,” said Perry Shell, a tribal council member. Archaeological excavations have shown 11,000 years of continuous occupation by the Cherokee.

The Parkway stretches from 469 miles from the Smokies to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, passing through 29 counties along its route and dozens of communities. The scenic drive attracts more than 17 million visitors every year.

When the Parkway was conceived in the 1930s, a great tug of war ensued over where the Parkway would go. Tennessee hoped to route the Parkway through Knoxville and Gatlinburg. Asheville — along with Waynesville, Maggie Valley and Cherokee — would have missed out on the $2.3 billion economic impact the Parkway has today.

The Parkway is a tourism engine, responsible for 27,000 jobs and $508 million in payroll in the state.

“Certainly our forefathers when they had the vision for the Parkway were right on target. It has done exactly what they intended it to do,” said Lynn Minges, director of the N.C. Division of Tourism.

Much like the region fought to secure the corridor past its doorstep 75 years ago, it must rally today to protect the Parkway, said N.C. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill.

“How can we preserve the national treasure we have here for future generations?” Rapp said. Rapp said the viewsheds are integral to the Parkway experience and must be protected.

Parkway Superintendent Phil Francis echoed the theme.

“The Parkway didn’t happen without a lot of support from a lot of people,” Francis said. “To preserve the Parkway for future generations will take all of us working together.”

The torch was passed from the Eastern Band to the Smokies superintendent, then to the Parkway superintendent, and finally back to two Cherokee children.

“The future of the Parkway is in your hands,” Francis said to the youth.

Bo Taylor, a cultural heritage specialist with the tribe, reminded the crowd gathered at the overlook that the Cherokee connection with the land lives on.

“We are not the past, but the present as well. We are also the future. We are fortunate to have young people picking up our traditional ways,” Taylor said.

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