Just west of Cherokee, North Carolina, a grass-capped dome of earth rises gently from bottom land along the Tuckasegee River. Look closely-it's easy to miss. The dome, or mound, used to be much higher, but it has been plowed over many times by farmers, ground down the way eons of wind and rain have smoothed the Great Smoky Mountains looming close by.
ABOVE: Joyce Dugan, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, sits at the edge of Kituhwa, a sacred burial site and heart of land said to have been the ancient "mother town" of the Cherokees.
Cherokee tradition holds that the mound site, known as Kituhwa, was an ancient "mother town," the place where the Cherokees, or the Ani-Kituhwagi-the people of Kituhwa-originated. Deep within the mound itself laid the bodies of great men and sacred things, and smoke from a continuous fire came up through a hollow cedar trunk.
To Dugan, the principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, this place represents a bold opportunity to bind her tribe's past to its future. In November 1996, the tribe agreed to pay $2.1 million for 309 acres of private farmland encompassing the mound. The money came from the profits of the tribe's recent plunge into casino gaming. Not everyone agreed with the purchase. For one thing, the land was outside the boundaries of the Cherokee reservation, and, for another, the tribe had never made such a purchase.
She walks to the edge of the river, beneath a dense canopy of branches. Her omnipresent secretary, Paula "Cricket" Brown, wades into the chilly water, crossing perilous river slicks. The chief is not that bold.
But that's just it, Dugan explains. This place is significant. Just think of the potential of it, of land, for the Cherokees. She envisions an interpretive visitors' center here, a resort, or maybe a "culture camp" for kids. Some have even suggested a golf course.
These are fresh times for the Eastern Band. Exciting times. At the center is Dugan, the tribe's first woman chief. She rose from the most humble of starts to the top of the political heap in Cherokee. As a woman, Dugan evokes a time when Cherokee society was actually structured around women, with many important matters left to their judgment. Like Wilma Mankiller, Dugan's precursor in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the new leader of the Eastern Band represents a reaffirmation of women's power among Cherokees.
"These women did not become chiefs by succeeding in business or law," writes Cherokee historian Theda Perdue in her latest book, "Cherokee Women." "They became chiefs because they embodied the values of generations of Cherokee women, values apparently still honored and respected by men and women alike."
Dugan's constituents are the other Cherokees. With 11,500 enrolled members, the Eastern Band isn't even a tenth the size of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, which made Mankiller its first woman principal chief in 1985, ten years before Dugan's election.
The Eastern Band derives from Cherokees who, either by hiding in the mountains or by the good graces of their White neighbors or the soldiers who came to evict the eastern tribes, stayed behind in western North Carolina as the great majority went west on the Trail of Tears. The story of the tragic removal today is told on humid summer nights in the Eastern Band's revered outdoor drama "Unto These Hills."
Isolation long defined life on the 56,000-acre reservation, the main part of which is called the Qualla Boundary, tucked against the belly of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Smaller bits of reservation land, such as the Snowbird township where some of the most traditional of Cherokees are said to live, are scattered west along the mountains. The reservation is but a tiny remnant of the multistate homeland the Cherokees once claimed at the height of their power.
Cherokee youth such as Monica Tchakirides, here enjoying carnival rides at the 1997 fall festival, have their share of gambling profits held in a trust fund until they come of age. The teenager's dream is to go to England to hear her favorite band, Oasis.
Old Antioch Baptist Church, perched on the mountainside above Harrah's Cherokee Casino, is the center of opposition to gambling on the Cherokee reservation. Pastor Denny Crowe is among about fifty Cherokees who refuse to take their share of the gambling profits.
Jerry Wolfe, a respected elder, remembers how life used to be on the reservation. At 73, the retired brick mason is exceptionally active-calling traditional stickball games on the ceremonial grounds, serving on the committee that recently drafted a new bilingual constitution for the tribe, selling calendars for the local Lions Club. He grew up in Big Cove, one of the most remote and traditional of the reservation's townships. There was no getting home every night over the rugged terrain, so the kids went to a boarding school run by Quakers and later the federal government. He remembers how his father spoke only the Cherokee language, and how families scratched out mountain farms on steep slopes. There was no electricity. Mules and oxen pulled sleds because wagons were too expensive.
Despite this isolation, the Eastern Band has taken its livelihood for most of this century from visitors. In that regard, Cherokee is blessed with neighbors like Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited in America. Just over the mountains are the robust tourist towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, home of the Dollywood theme park, named after country singer Dolly Parton. The town of Cherokee also marks the southern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Today, Cherokee is quite modern. McDonald's is here. Burger King, too.
"It's our survival kit, the tourism," says Wolfe, whose family owns a craft shop along Cherokee's main thoroughfare.
Indeed, check out Cherokee last Fourth of July. On the ceremonial grounds, a powwow with drum bands and dancers from all over North America rages half the night under a huge tent eerily lit by a string of bare bulbs. The streets are jammed with traffic, and despite a drizzle, a decent crowd braves wet benches to watch "Unto These Hills." Visitors pack the parking lot of the acclaimed Museum of the Cherokee Indian, which last summer premiered a $3.5 million, laser-lit renovation where, in the Trail of Tears exhibit, onlookers can actually feel the temperature plunge as they relive the snowy journey. Along Cherokee's main thoroughfare, tourists jostle in tacky souvenir shops. And at motels all over town, an epidemic of neon "No Vacancy" signs persists.
Summers here are good, but the perennial problem for Cherokee always has been the seasonal swings of its staple trade. When the chill of fall arrives, tourists disappear, businesses close and the tribe steels itself for months of intermittent snow, empty streets and frightful unemployment. The tribe hopes the $82 million Harrah's Cherokee Casino, which opened in November 1997, will smooth out the bumps.
With trepidation, the Eastern Band cast its lot with the burgeoning Indian gaming industry. Some in the tribe worry just what sort of people it will draw to the reservation, and remain irked that the twelve-member Tribal Council never gave them a chance to vote on whether to allow a casino. So powerful are convictions at Pastor Denny Crowe's Old Antioch Baptist Church, perched on the mountainside above the casino, that some in the congregation refuse the "per capita," a $1,000-plus semi-annual gambling dividend paid to each enrolled tribal member. "No man can serve two masters!" roars preacher Crowe during a typically fiery sermon.
Chief Dugan worries about the casino on another front. Although the gaming hall has rung up early success and more than tripled the tribe's budget, she doubts the casino is something the Eastern Band can bank on for long. North Carolina Governor James B. Hunt Jr., with whom the tribe must negotiate future gaming compacts, is no fan of casinos.
At the Fourth of July powwow, Dugan sits well past midnight on the public-address stand, watching dancers in ornate feathers and buckskin. Traditional Cherokee society is based on a system of clan affiliation, and Dugan, a self-described night owl, is appropriately of the Bird Clan.
To the tourists, Dugan's world is invisible. They don't see her months of struggle with the tribal budget, her haggling with the Tribal Council, the unceasing demands that filter into her office in the back of the little Tribal Council House, which sits unobtrusively next to the broad turf of the ceremonial grounds.
Formerly superintendent of Cherokee schools, Dugan emerged from a field of ten candidates to win election as principal chief in fall 1995. She won despite frank opposition from some Cherokee men who simply told her that they could not support a woman for chief, but these were largely private reprovals. Gender never became a campaign issue. "We accepted the fact that various people out there were just not going to vote for a woman," Dugan says. "I respect that." Nowadays, even opponents like Gil Crowe, who runs the town's barber shop with brother Gene, concedes, "She's doing all right."
A political newcomer, Dugan took over for an old pro, Jonathan "Ed" Taylor, who, in an episode typical of the tribe's sometimes saucy politics, was impeached on charges he squandered tribal assets to enrich himself. She immediately restructured the tribe's oligarchical government, where nearly everyone seemed to report directly to the chief. She installed a "cabinet" of seven department heads, mostly young Cherokee professionals. And she rankled many on the reservation with a rational new policy: If you want to see the chief, please make an appointment.
But despite these moves to professionalize the Council House, suspicion always seems to lurk outside the door of the principal chief. Once, in an open letter in the tribal newspaper, the Cherokee One Feather, Dugan signed off with a rumor-squashing postscript: "In response to those recent phone calls to the Council House: I have not bought an airplane! And I do not have a plush office at the casino!"
Dugan is 50 years old, folksy and famously deliberate. As an administrator, she believes convincing gets more than demanding, so she is not the sort to pound the table. Like most Eastern Band Cherokees, she has the same country drawl as the Scotch-Irish stock so predominant in southern Appalachia. On her desk, guests can spy a pack of Winstons and a plaque that says, "The best man for the job is usually a woman."
She was born to a full-blood Cherokee mother and a White man from Tennessee, whom she says she never knew and, frankly, never felt moved to find. Originally from the Snowbird township, she attended boarding school in Cherokee and grew up poor, if not hungry. She would go away to a Methodist boarding school for girls in Georgia during her high school years, and then earn two degrees in education from Western Carolina University.
Dugan is mother to three, grandmother to three more. Her own mother worked as a maid, baby sitter, restaurant cook, "whatever job she could get," Dugan says. It was her mother she thought of in August 1997 when she stood with President Clinton in Washington to announce a new initiative on diabetes. "After losing both legs to diabetes, my mother died at the rather young age of 62 from the complications of this disease," Dugan said then. "I believe I can safely say that every family on my reservation is either directly or indirectly affected by diabetes."
To her disappointment, Dugan has never met Wilma Mankiller, now retired as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. "I'd love to sit down with her, because I think we could share war stories. But we're so far removed from her, from that tribe," says Dugan. Still, she thinks maybe Mankiller's legacy as the first woman principal chief revolutionized the thinking of Eastern Band voters: "This big Cherokee Nation has done it, so maybe it'll be OK for us, too."
How has Dugan done? Among the reservation's most recalcitrant citizens are the young Indian nationalists of the Eastern Cherokee Defense League. The members have been outspoken watchdogs at the cablecast Tribal Council meetings, sometimes resulting in ejection. Among their concerns: Some Cherokees, like the hoteliers who have staked out prime tribal real estate, are getting rich off tribal land while many ordinary Cherokees struggle even for basic housing. But Defense League leaders say Dugan has done well to set priorities for the Eastern Band and to restore credibility to the government by, for instance, easing access to tribal documents.
As it turns out, Dugan says some of her most vocal critics are women, which, according to ancient Cherokee belief, might make sense. "I think that traditionally, we have been more vocal," she says.
Indeed, women occupy a special and even dominant place in Cherokee lore. Ancient Cherokee society was matrilineal-that is, people traced their family roots through the mother's clan. Traditional Cherokee society had seven clans: the Wolf, the Deer, the Wild Potato, the Paint, the Blue, the Long Hair and the Bird. Intermarriage within a clan was forbidden, and the wife, not the husband, owned both home and plant-ing field. A few women such as Nancy Ward earned the title "War Woman" or "Pretty Woman," entitling them to speak in councils and decide questions of war and punishment. These traditional roles of Cherokee women inexorably faded with the incursion of European settlers and missionaries.
If Chief Dugan sees value in land like the Kituhwa mound property, so did her ancestors. In Cherokee belief, the first woman, Selu, was killed, and where her blood soaked the ground, corn and beans grew. During the Cherokee removal, no one regretted leaving the land more than Cherokee women, who by tradition had tilled the soil, writes Theda Perdue, the Cherokee historian.
Nowadays, people from the Qualla Boundary drive to Kituhwa to till their own little patches of corn, tomatoes and melons. Dugan points out a patch down along the river. That one belongs to her husband, Jerry, a paramedic for the tribe. In time, the future of this place and a new chapter of Cherokee history will be hotly debated in the Council House. And that's fine. Like Selu's blood, tears dampened the ground the day this site, lost more than 170 years ago, was rededicated as Cherokee land. The only question now is, what will grow?