The Cherokees may be the most studied Native Americans in North America. They have attracted the attention of numerous anthropologists as well as social scientists, including historians and sociologists, from fields that do not typically study Indians. The Cherokees have been studied in both their North Carolina and Oklahoma homes, and they have been studied as they existed both before and after the removal. But somehow, "Snowbird" Cherokees have not been the focus of any studies.
Snowbird is different from other Cherokee communities, and the absence of tourism is only one way in which Snowbird is different. Most studies of the Eastern Band have focused upon the traditionalist Big Cove community of the Qualla Boundary. Yet, Snowbird has a higher percentage of both fullbloods and Cherokee-language speakers than Big Cove or any other Eastern Cherokee community. Snowbird also has a high percentage of native craftsmen and some Indian doctors with a knowledge of medicinal plant. The reservation lands are scattered into individual tracts of land along Snowbird, Little Snowbird, and Buffalo creeks, not consolidated into a huge land mass like the Qualla Boundary.
The Snowbird Cherokee Indian population of Graham County, about 380 people in 1980, has ancient origins, as does the rest of the Eastern Cherokee population. The Cherokees have probably been native to the southern Appalachians for at least four thousand years. By the beginning of the historic period, the Cherokees numbered more than 20 thousand them one of the largest Indian nations in North America north of Mexico. They lived on land or held hunting territory in modern states: Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, the Carolinas, and the Virginias. The mountain and hill country offered varied resources for subsistence, and the Cherokees, through cultivation of corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, and other crops, as well as gathering, fishing, and hunting, achieved a highly successful generalized adaptation.
In an aboriginal Cherokee town, sweathouses, gardens, and rectangular, gabled, wattle-and-daub homes clustered around a square ground. On the west side of the square ground stood a council house, legendarily seven-sided, on a small temple mound. If the town were on the fringes of the Cherokee territory, it was probably surrounded by a stockade as protection from enemy warriors. The household was the basic unit of Cherokee social organization. As was typical of southeastern Indians, residence was matrilocal; thus a newly married couple lived with the wife's family. Legendarily there had always been seven matrilineal clans: the Deer, Wolf, Bird, Wild Potato, Red Paint, Blue Plant, and Long Hair or Twister. From the individual's perspective, 4 of the clans were most important: one's own (which was also one's mother's and maternal grandmother's), one's father's (which was also one's paternal grandmother's), and each of one's grandfathers'. While many people today on the main reservation are not aware of their clan affiliation, most Snowbird Cherokees are.
Cherokee religious and ceremonial life centered around seven festivals, many of them reflecting the interest in the annual cycle of farming. One of these festivals, the Green Corn Ceremony, persisted into the early twentieth century. Seven was a magic number to the Cherokees as evidenced by their seven ceremonies, seven clans, seven-sided council houses, and the seven sacred directions (north, south, east, west, up, down, and here).
Why has the traditional way of life remained so in-tact for the Snowbird Cherokees? In the summer of 1832 some 3 thousand gold hunters from Georgia, where the gold rush had begun in 1828, spilled over into North Carolina where the they were pushed out again. The mountains where the fullbloods lived was deficient in both gold and bottomlands for farming. The proof that the North Carolina Cherokees escaped removal for economic and environmental reasons can be demonstrated by looking at other southeastern Indians who also escaped the white onslaught on their lands. Many surviving Indians, whether on reservations or not, are located on marginal lands, such as the swamps of the Seminoles or the mountains of the Cherokees. Today those southeastern Indian groups with the largest amount of land are also those who possess the poorest quality of land. The Snowbird Cherokee lands are among the most mountainous on the reservation and in the region.
by Sharlotte Neely