1993 Gerald L. Smith, Sewanee TN, located at smith2.sewanee.edu/texts/Other/RealIndians.html

Real Indians

As a child I loved for as long as I can remember the idea of the Smoky Mountains, and my first trip at the age of eleven left a part of my heart in those mountains that I have gone back many times to find. I don't recall when I first learned that the Smokies were there. Perhaps it was in my parents telling me of them after their seeing my fascination with the distant Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia silhouetted each evening at dusk as we looked out from the porch of the house. Those mountains were more than ninety miles away, and I longed to go to them; my longing deepened when I learned in the course of mountain talk that there were even bigger mountains out there: the Smokies. The Rockies, of course, were so remote that they never figured in my dreams. The Smokies were my "big" mountains--the tallest range in the East, vast wilderness, a long, long drive from home. About that time I was in Scouts and had begun to hear of the Appalachian Trail--hiking from Maine to Georgia--and the Smokies always came to stand for the Trail itself at least in the South. All the other sections of the trail were preparations; the real trail was in the Smokies. So in the evenings I watched those silhouettes and dreamed my dreams.

On that first trip, rivers as such were not a focal and separate part of my experience but blended into and mostly were obscured by other foreground impressions: by the views from the peaks, endless forest, the curving roads, rocks to climb on, and by the second Indian I ever saw. (There was a first Indian, but that is another story.) That second Indian may have been the reason I did not see the Oconoluftee River when we passed it in Cherokee. In my imaginations of cowboys and Indians, I had longed to go to the West where there were "real" cowboys and Indians. When mom told me that there were Indians in the Great Smoky Mountains and we were going there, it seemed almost too good to be true. Two childhood longings were about to converge in one place. Much of the trip as we neared and then entered the mountains was spent with my eyes scanning the roadside searching for real Indians. Would they ride horses and whoop? Would it be dangerous? Would I need a six-shooter? Or would I meet a brother of Straight Arrow whose Indian lore I had consumed along with my shredded wheat? Would he beckon me and would we slip silently away into the forest for my apprenticeship to the fir, cedar, beaver and raven?

When we turned right in Cherokee to make the climb up Route 441 to Newfound Gap, we passed a "gift" shop, and mom said, "There's an Indian." Years later when I returned to the Smokies, to Cherokee, I remembered that spot and know now that he was sitting by the river which runs close by the road there. But I didn't see the river then. I saw him: a real Indian. He had on buckskins, moccasins, and a brightly colored war bonnet. And he was sitting on a coke crate reading a newspaper with his eyeglasses pulled down on his nose. There was a Seven-Up bottle by his foot. Nothing fit. Real Indians don't wear eyeglasses and read newspapers, I thought. There had to be some mistake. We drove on up the road and those images, my stereotype and his reality, clashed in my head. It would be years before I learned they clashed in my heart too, before I learned the meaning of the trail of tears. As we followed the twisting road of the Oconoluftee drainage, I was lost in the confusion of those images and never saw the river.

In my adult life when I came to live in Tennessee and having regular occasions to cross the mountains to visit family in North Carolina, I discovered the rivers and my love of those mountains was renewed. Nantahala, Hiwassee, Oconoluftee, Little River, Big Creek, and all their forks and prongs filled out my experience of the mountains. As I began to hike, I discovered the joy of tumbling waters: the sounds, images, the exquisite stimulation of cold water on hiker's feet. I waded and plunged, and in a few remote places even drank from those waters. I discovered salamanders with the children, and in some streams we saw an occasional trout. And the life of those mountains sorted out into two things for me--the cold winds on the high ridges and the vitality of those streams and rivers. Sometimes I have sat by a plunge pool just to feel the air and the earth vibrate with the full, exploding life of a mountain stream or river as it slashed and pounded its way down to low country.

The Pigeon River was there also, boundary river of the north side of the park, silver ribbon cinching the gorge below Mount Cammerer. It too was one of my Smoky Mountain rivers, but its image clashed in my head, and now in my heart, as that Indian did many years ago. Descending the trail at Davenport Gap the river is seen then lost to view again and again as the path turns; then it is not seen but heard, its waters blending into the wind. The beauty of Big Creek utterly disarms the hiker for its confluence with the Pigeon at the power station. Where the trail crosses the bridge by the highway, the Pigeon is seen again but it is not a silver ribbon. And I am again confronted by my stereotype and by reality. The Smokies are beautiful; her rivers sing and live. But not always. Real rivers like real Indians bear the ugliness and sorrows that are the costs of our exploitation of this continent. No one would dare drink untreated water anymore, even in the backcountry. Why must a human being be degraded by such hokey trinkets and feathers for a tourist snapshot, denying his Cherokee heritage to appear Sioux to satisfy our image? How could that beautiful river gorge be scarred by such ugliness? Where our hand touches or our foot falls the earth is disordered, its native sense effaced. Our exploitation of people and our pollution of nature converge here in these mountains: exploitation and pollution are the same thing. As I drive now the windings of I-40 through the gorge, I recall the confusion of a little boy riding through Cherokee. Real rivers don't froth, turn rocks black, and kill things. And real Indians don't...

And real Indians don't what? Don't live ordinary lives and run stores and read newspapers and get old and need eyeglasses? Real Indians don't drink cokes or eat bologna sandwiches on white bread? Real Indians don't live in trailers and shacks and cabins with leaking roofs and sagging porches and trash in the yard? Real Indians don't live like other Appalachian people? Is that what I thought? I was a child of ten or eleven. I don't know what I thought. I didn't think. I had an image--images--in my head built up out of years of black and white movies, comic books, cowboy and Indian outfits, and childhood games, cereal boxes, and Cub Scouts and public school Thanksgiving fantasy and Kawliga.

What had I expected? What had I thought I would see? Braves--men--certainly; I always thought of Indians as males. Girls couldn't be Indians. Or was it that Indian women were not really Indians at all? Was that why Indians were always capturing ("our" "real" = "white") girls and holding them bound in tipis and hogans deep in the wilderness? Is that what real men did? Raid and capture women?

In my mind I knew that they would ride horses, never walk. Their clothing would be buckskin, feathers, and beads. They never wore hats or cloth, never shoes. Only moccasins. They carried bows and arrows, spears and knives, rifles but never pistols. Already another stereotype--the association of handguns with crime and low life was beginnng to insinuate its imagery into my child's mind. An Indian would never use a sixgun. Only train robbers and heroes like Shane and John Wayne and Hoppalong Cassidy used sixguns.

Indians were hard and tough, never fat, never weak. They could stand heat and cold and all kinds of pain and never notice it--or show it. Indians always had rugged faces, firm mouths and hard eyes. Indians never laughed or smiled or cried. They were natural Stoics as unmoved by pity, remorse, or sympathy as by dread or fear.

And of course they were brave, those braves. They were natural heroes. They could slip through any darkness, kill any beast, escape any trap, and die by the hundreds without a thought or scream. They had but one task: the warriors task--to raid and hunt and fight the cavalry. They didn't raise families, hold children in their laps, long for girls, or get married. No real Indian ever had a family; domestic life and being an Indian--a rugged, hunting, outdoor, male Indian--were unthinkable, unimaginable. I couldn't picture it. It didn't fit the picture in my head.

Beyond Ashville at Waynesville, Route 19 bears southwest, away from old 25/70 which follows the Pigeon River gorge to Newport and Knoxville. Along that route lay Canton and the brown skies, sickening air, and pungent waters of the Pigeon River gorge. Left in Waynesville, by southwest, the road bears past Lake Junaluska and winds toward Maggie and the Soco Gap. The road along here follows upstream the Jonathan Creek drainage, and then as it crosses over Soco Gap, the Big Cove drainage along the edge of the Smokies as it approaches Cherokee.

As you descend the gap approaching the meandering valley bottom, past Santa Land and the Ruda-coaster, the road winds and twists in a narrow cove on its way down to Cherokee. In 1950, Santa Land was not there. There was little to Cherokee and less to Gatlinburg on the other side of the big mountains. There were souvenir shops, gas stations, and "cabins"--not many places yet were calling themselves motels. And in Cherokee and Gatlinburg were many small shops with shed extensions and chicken wire sides under which were displayed hundreds of pink and tan dishes, cups, and saucers. The Soco Gap then was still almost wilderness. There were no houses on the upper side. I remember tall trees, deep shade, and flashes of white on the rocks in the stream that chased the road curve for curve. I can hear Momma's voice, "It won't be long now. We'll see some Indians real soon." I could feel my heart drumming in my ears. Nothing I had ever seen or done before had excited me this much. Real mountains. Mountains so high I had to scrunch down in the seat and lean my head back to be able to see beyond the roof of the car to their tops. And real Indians.

Real Indians. Here in North Carolona. Not Texas or Arizona, but only one state away from home. In those days, real Virginia Indians like the Pamunkey, Chickahominy, and the Mattaponi were invisible; I had never heard of nor seen one of them yet. The turns were short and the '49 Ford swayed us to and fro. Ahead on the right, only the slightest change in the density of the shade suggested a clearing. The curve was tight, then the road straightened for a few dozen yards. Momma saw them first. Real Indians. "Look, Jerry," she said as if she were keeping a great promise or giving me a present, "there are some real Indians."

Indians, the clearing, the cabin--separate images, one image--fusing in my mind in an instant. Overlaying, obliterating by the power of visual presence, by sheer present actuality, all previous images. I saw them--in an unwavering instant frozen in a snapshot frame for forty years in my mind's eye. I saw them, three Indians: a boy, younger brother, sister--standing by the side of the road. They looked toward us, unmoving in the instant that we passed. No horses or spears, no muscular painted bodies, no eyes squinted against the sun on a long ridge of the plains. Three children, a cabin, and a yard. They looked exactly like hillbillies with coal black hair. The cabin porch was falling down, there was trash in the yard. They wore clothes! How could they be wearing clothes--overalls, T-shirt, a dress? Dirty, torn clothes. Barefoot. Immediately the shade along the road deepened again. The curve bent left and tilted my face deeper into the corner. I spoke instantly, in reaction before I thought, before feeling overwhelmed the cups of my eyes. I couldn't understand how she could have made such a mistake. "Momma," I said, "those are not Indians. They are just poor people." I don't remember saying another word.

The boy was taller than the other two, about my height, probably ten or eleven, my age. He was the first Indian I ever saw.

Copyright 1992, 1993 Gerald L. Smith, Sewanee, Tennessee