Native Americans of Far Southwest Virginia


“So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people. Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide. Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place. Show respect to all people and grovel to none. When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself. Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision. When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.”
Chief Tecumseh, Shawnee Nation

If you were born and raised in far Southwest Virginia, you are very familiar with numerous people who claim that their grandmother or great-grandmother was a “full-blooded Cherokee.” I cannot speak about this rural legend in the rest of Central Appalachia, but I suspect the fable of this prolific woman is widespread.

So, what is our fascination with being part of the Cherokee tribe? Is it a handy way to explain some of our mountain peoples’ dark features that are probably more of a mixed Melungeon background than any recent Cherokee connection? Like most people of some distant Melungeon descent, I was not aware of the term until I was in my twenties, and only after Brent Kennedy of Wise, Virginia, opened up the family history for thousands of Appalachians did doubt about the Cherokee “Lucy” start to form. It is time to let her rest, especially since the last vestige of a Cherokee presence in our area was roving hunting and warring groups of young, militant men in the mid-1700s.

How can we be so sure that descendants of established tribes of Cherokees did not keep their bloodline intact for two centuries just so we could claim their lineage here in far Southwest Virginia? For one good reason: our area did not have permanent Cherokee villages. Except for the mound-building Native Americans of Lee County (the tribe known as Yuchi, who had a distinct language known only by a handful of descendants today), the history of the various tribes frequenting far Southwest Virginia did just that: they frequented the land here because of great hunting. They did not establish permanent settlements because the region was a crossroads and overlap area for many warring tribes, the Shawnee and Cherokee being the more powerful of the factions.

The last great battle fought between the two powerhouse tribes occurred in Tazewell County near Crab Orchard in 1768. By that time, European diseases and the axe, knife, and firearms of white settlers had decimated both tribes. Still, they found time to kill each other over hunting rights and tribal grudges going back hundreds if not thousands of years. The Cherokee had previously dominated the Yuchi, and all the tribes saw each other as good repositories of slaves, hunting lands, trade items, and female companionship. Violence, lust, and greed were not solely European inventions after all.

Today the Shawnee, of mixed and pure blood, number about 14,000 nationwide. Ironically, the federal government recognizes the largest of the groups to be part of the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee fared much better, and today the Eastern Band has their own reservation, town, and casinos. The Trail of Tears era forced thousands of Cherokees to Oklahoma, where the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma has become somewhat of a political and progressive force.

Controversy still exists among Cherokees and exploiters who claim to be Cherokee in order to benefit from such designations under federal law. The Cherokee Nation has been successful in limiting who might call themselves Cherokee, and just to demonstrate that bias knows no bounds, the Cherokee Freedmen (descendants of black slaves that were bought, traded for, or stolen by Cherokees) were recently disenfranchised by the Cherokee Nation. The Freedmen have been legally recognized by the federal government as part of the Cherokee Nation since 1866 and by the Cherokee Nation’s constitution in 1975. A recent amendment to that constitution prohibits Freedmen that do not have Cherokee blood from claiming to be or benefiting from being a Cherokee. That amendment is before the courts.

So, we Southwest Virginians can learn many things through examining our Native American history if not our Native American lineage. One, the full-blooded Cherokee great-grandmother that brought us into this world is a myth; two, if one considers Melungeon blood to be of mixed races, our region and its culture are more racially diversified than media pundits ever imagined; and three, while European settlers did practice genocide upon the Native Americans, the stories we heard as we grew up about the peace-loving, sharing, and gullible yet noble savage were fictional at best. We are all humans, for better or worse.

And lastly, maybe a few folks in our region want to be known as part Cherokee so they can open a casino? We love the smell of stimulus money in the morning!