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Wednesday, 28 June 2006 00:00

Authenticity often doesn’t lend itself to good drama

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Back in 1952, when I was one of a dozen Western North Carolina high school students who wrote winning essays on the Trail of Tears, I sat with a transfixed audience in Cherokee’s Mountainside Theatre and watched T’sali die.

He stood staring defiantly at his executioners while a billowing fog of dry ice threatened to obscure him and his valiant companions. A Cherokee minister keened in his native tongue and an unseen narrator translated over the sound system, “I will lift up mine eye ....” Gen. Scott’s firing squad raised their rifles: “Ready, aim ... fire!” As T’sali’s band sank like ballet dancers, and amid the weeping of a multitude of subdued Cherokees, a dozen white doves ascended, circled the stage like a benediction and darted away into the mountains. It was a grand moment.

I was 17 at the time, and I wept openly for T’sali, the martyr. Even so, I suspected that the harsh reality of his end bore little resemblance to what I had witnessed. Even so, I remember being distressed when I heard that they had grounded the doves.

Since I spent 15 years in Cherokee as a tribal employee, I had ample opportunity to listen to Cherokee elders and historians. I read a dozen books that told a different story. Little by little, I learned that there were two versions of “the T’sali story”: the legend and the factual data. T’sali did not “die for his people” — at least not in the sense that the drama asserted. He was captured, possibly betrayed by a friend. No bargain was struck that would allow a small band of Cherokees to remain because of his sacrifice.

As it turned out, the “Quallas” were allowed to remain for reasons that had nothing to do with T’sali. In addition, there was no “spectacle” involved in the execution. T’sali and his “fellow conspirators” were simply led into a remote area (near Bushnell) and shot — possibly, the condemned were executed separately (the reports are not clear). No chanting, no dry ice, no music and no doves.

However, the story has persisted: T’sali died for his people. Certainly, he was a hero because he had the courage to rebel — to strike back ... but was he a martyr? Several historians have published “the facts” and they have defended them with abundant footnotes. Unfortunately, they also found themselves the targets of considerable resentment from tribal members. No one takes kindly to having their heroes (and martyrs) defamed.

If T’sali did not die for his people, who created the myth that he did? Did the Cherokees create it in order to give their tragic history a bit of dignity? Did Hermit Hunter, the white playwright who wrote “Unto These Hills,” create it? Certainly, it would not be the first time that non-Cherokee writers have inserted dramatic and colorful details into their version of someone else’s culture. Is it possible that for the past 50 years, many Cherokees have learned their own history at “Unto These Hills”?

Recently, I learned that dramatic changes have taken place at “Unto These Hills.” Belatedly, someone has noticed that this major tourist attraction is rife with inaccuracies. Not only are the historic events depicted in the drama blatantly misleading, but the Cherokees themselves are simply not “authentic.” Such aspects as clothing, hairstyles, rituals and dances have no basis in fact. Apparently, someone has been reading accounts in Adair, Timberlake and Mooney, and they have concluded that much of the old drama is a colorful and sentimental hodge-podge of what the non-Native American dramatists think is “Cherokee.”

Perhaps so. However, since I grew up to become a playwright myself, I know that what is “good drama” is not always “good history” — especially since “Unto These Hills” attempts to tell 300 years of history in two hours.

The drama has very little in common with the History Channel. (Hopefully, it is more fun.) It is, in the final analysis, “an entertainment.” Maybe it needs a facelift since it has definitely lost the bright-faced luster that in had in 1952. However, it may be that the worst fate that could befall it is to become “authentic.”

I think that most of us know that our “heroes” shouldn’t be studied too closely. Neither John Kennedy nor Martin Luther King were what they now appear to be. There is something in our hearts that needs heroes, and if they don’t exist in fact, we will create them in myth. We need the dying King Arthur to say, “I will return when you are ready for me.” Joan of Arc was supposed to have said the same thing. Did they really say those words? I don’t think it matters, but we need to believe that they could have said it. So, let T’sali say, “I come to die for my people.” Each time he says it, my heart quickens.

All of this folderol reminds me of the movie, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.” This old classic western has much to say about what is myth and what is truth (or fact). The movie concludes that any time there is a choice between what is authentic and what is legend ... go with the legend. I think that is good advice.

(Gary Carden is a storyteller and writer who lives in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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