It was their job, the Western Carolina University faculty member remembers being told, to hold fast to the homelands for the entire Cherokee tribe.
“The members of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians are fulfilling their responsibilities ... that there would always be Cherokee on this land, in these mountains,” Belt told a crowd of about 200 who gathered Monday to celebrate the tribe’s formal acquisition of Cowee Mound and 71 acres along the Little Tennessee River.
The celebration in Macon County took place across the river from Cowee Mound. On hand were 90 tribal elders, brought in via two buses from Cherokee to view the proceedings. One was 88-year-old Walker Calhoun, an authority on Cherokee songs and oral history, considered by many Cherokee as the spiritual leader of the tribe.
“This is a good thing,” Calhoun said softly before the event as he admired the expanse of flat bottomland where one of the Cherokee’s largest towns once thrived.
“They built it on good farm land,” he noted pragmatically.
Like Belt, Eastern Band Principal Chief Michell Hicks also spoke of destiny and of a divine plan resulting in the completion of what was always meant to be.
“We think back about what’s occurred over time and the travesties that have happened to the Cherokee and other native people,” he said. “The Lord had a greater plan, that one day this land would return back to its rightful owners, the Cherokee people.”
The return of Cowee Mound required a joint effort of the Eastern Band and the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee. The Franklin-based conservation group contributed funding and will provide the tribe assistance in developing a long-range management plan.
Paul Carlson, executive director of the LTLT, described the transfer of the site to the Cherokee as “a very historic occasion.”
The plan for Cowee includes a conservation easement agreement with the state, the LTLT and the Eastern Band. Tribal leaders say they have no intention of developing the site, and instead intend to provide “long-term security and accessibility through interpretive signage, environmental programming and public park facilities,” according to a news release issued at the event.
The Eastern Band in the late 1990s purchased Kituwah Mound near Bryson City, locally known as Ferguson Fields. That acquisition represented the return of the tribe’s former “mother town,” the spiritual center of the ancient Cherokee world. Cowee Mound, on the other hand, was the Cherokee’s economic hub.
“This used to be the New York City of the Cherokee people,” Hicks said.