I listened to the elders tell their stories and hung on every word. I believed, because they believed. Animals spoke to people, guardian beings walked among us, the invisible, immortal Nunne’hi lived beside us in lands beyond hidden portals. Everybody knew someone who had seen them, perhaps even entered their world. When storytellers pointed out landmarks where events in the legends occurred, it removed any shred of doubt.
11,000 years of history linked my mother’s people to the mountains and rivers of our homeland. Perhaps it’s that history that draws me home. Long after the grandparents and relatives I used to visit are gone, I return and feel at home.
The longing to stand in the mother town, the first home of the ancestors, where the Kitowah lived and the sacred fire burned, was part of my consciousness from earliest childhood. Thousands of years, it stood in the bend of the river, a place of pilgrimage, where the wisdom keepers preserved the stories, songs, and sacred ways for generations yet to come. Holy people kept the fire of unity and harmony alive. A few embers carried home, took the essence of that sacred place to other towns and united them as one people.
I couldn’t visit the mother town. No one knew where to find it. The homeland of the Cherokee people fell to outsiders who destroyed it and scattered the Kitowah. With the removal and Trail of Tears, the location faded from memory and only the story and the yearning for home remained.
A field beside a much traveled highway, yielded the first clue with the discovery of ancient bones. Evidence of habitation emerged and archaeology proved the legends true. Now, the Eastern Band Cherokee own the site and it is possible to make that pilgrimage and stand on the mound where the sacred fire burned.
I wrote Twisted Hair before I knew the location of the mother town. I had only the memories of stories told at night around the fire, to fuel my imagination, but the town came to life when I wrote about it. Standing on the mound, kindling my own fire on the site of the ancient sacred fire, completed a circle for me.
In a few days, I will return to Sha cona gee, where the mountains are covered with smoke, and begin the first stages of preparation for a documentary about the mother town and the 11,000 years of history and the people who lived it. I’ll keep you posted about how it goes.
Coming next, Of things to come. Prophecies fulfilled, and those we’re waiting for.