The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Has the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians lost its ‘right way’ at Exit 407?

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Will West LongCherokee tribal council member, historian and ethnographer Will West Long holds a traditional Cherokee mask, which he often recreated. He was an active chronicler of Cherokee custom, heritage and tradition and died in 1947 on the Qualla Reservation in Swain County, North Carolina. WikiCommons

As plans gel for massive new developments, has the Eastern Band lost its ancient way?

SEVIERVILLE — The Tennessee Department of Transportation is eyeing a second interchange for exit 407 at Highway 66 along Interstate I-40 in Sevier County. 

Exit 407, already one of the most congested interchanges in Southern Appalachia, accesses the main highway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the nation. The park reported a record 14 million visitors in 2021.

The exit also serves crowds flocking to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.

But the new interchange would primarily serve a 200-acre development to be called Exit 407: The Gateway to Adventure.   

Scheduled to open spring 2023, and fully operational in 2024, it’s expected to attract 6.7 million people annually. The first phase includes a theme park and a 74,000-square-foot convenience store with 120 gas pumps, making it the world’s largest such store.

It would be France-based theme-park company Puy du Fue’s first venture into North America. Texas-based convenience-store chain Buc-ee’s, known for its Texas-sized stores, is also the first named feature of a multi-phase planned tourist destination. 

Visitors will now have even more commercial attractions to visit before entering one of the most ecologically diverse intact wildernesses left on Earth: Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The new theme park will be a twist on the classic theme park. It’s being billed as a spectacular, immersive experience stressing production value over rides and normal forms of entertainment. The park’s theme will center on the important role the Cherokee Nation played in WWI.

Boasting exceptionally clean, over-sized bathrooms, Buc-ee’s is a tourist destination unto itself. It even enjoys a cult following.

When asked where they’re going on vacation, fans say Buc-ee’s first, then their ultimate destination, planning their route expressly to stop at locations along the interstates, where they can use their Buc-ee’s credit card. When they arrive, in case they forget what country they’re in, there are big American flags everywhere.

Their young’uns can be introduced to Western excess and ultimate convenience by becoming Buckaroos. They even get their own child-sized shopping cart to push around, adorned with a colorful pole and flag, so parents can find their wandering herd grazing on the over-packaged, over-lit, single-use plastic prairie aisles.  

And before leaving the parking lot, customers will be able to ride through the world’s longest car wash, with a 255-foot conveyor.

Buc-ee’s never closes, and never dims their overly-bright lights, both inside and out, meant to be seen from the interstate long before arriving.  

You’d certainly think it’s a wonderful thing to have the world’s largest convenience store coming to East Tennessee, the way expectant future customers gush with pride and excitement in the local media.

The 407: Gateway to Adventure is being built on land owned and managed by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians — Kituwah LLC.

The Eastern Band did not respond to requests for comment.

The Right Way 

The Cherokee Nation has been, in the past, the standard bearer of sustainable living in southern Appalachia. This ethos they called Duyuk’ dv’ I: The Right Way. They took only what was needed from the land to live.

To instill this right way of living, children were taught that over-hunting causes animals to retaliate with diseases for upsetting the natural balance. The only way to set things right was to apologize to the wildlife, then limit hunts.     

They were a people with an ancient connection to nature. They mingled with the spirits of plants, animals, landforms and waters, with a harmonious reverence of their place in the world.  

They also governed with this same ethos. The thriving chains of towns along the river valleys of Southern Appalachia were organized as a confederacy, independent communities united by a common, 11,000-year-old continuous culture pre-dating the Mayans. There is even evidence the Cherokees hunted mastodons in Southern Appalachia.

They were so attuned and interconnected to their natural environment they called the waters beginning in the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina flowing south toward Chattanooga as Yunwi Gunahita, The Long Man.

What Ganvhidv Asgaya means to us. (1-minute video)

They practiced organic and sustainable permaculture, interplanting corn, beans and squash. Because of the way the plants worked together, providing ecological services to each other, they called them The Three Sisters.

Abundant rainfall, and the transpiring tree canopies above the fern-carpeted forest floor, created the iconic misty conditions associated with the Smokies. Water vapor carried mostly non-volatile organic compounds and fragrant pollen; unlike the human-created gray haze we see today.

Then the Europeans came

The Europeans arrived with their White, Anglo-Saxon view of wilderness prevalent at the time: It must be beaten back and used up.

Instead of a biologically diverse land of countless ridges dividing the dark cathedral forest, with its lingering mist, they saw a gold mine for the taking.

The Europeans made fun of the Cherokees. Instead of large, roaring fires requiring stacks of firewood, the Indians built small, controlled fires, having little impact on the land. This kind of fire the Europeans derisively named “Indian fires”.     

Things began to change in the river valleys of Southern Appalachia. Even on perfectly clear days without the ubiquitous mist, distant mountains, once clearly visible, began to slowly disappear on the horizon, and the air seemed to have an unnatural color.

New plant and animal species were invading and wreaking havoc on the local, established ecosystem.   

For the most part, the Cherokee lived peacefully with their new neighbors. They began trading animal skins for guns, and iron useful for farming. This led to longer and larger hunts, doubling the pressure the Europeans alone put on wildlife.  

As useful as guns and iron were, overall, as a nation, the Cherokees bemoaned modern encroachment and the extractive mindset. 

In 1838, the U.S. government evicted the Cherokee from their native lands. This forced, overland removal to Oklahoma became known as the Trail of Tears, parts of which can be traced today.

Some Cherokees remained, refusing to abide by the government order. Those that hid in the mountains eventually became one of the few tribes to return to normal life in their ancestral lands.

The Cherokee originally called their home Land of the Blue Mist, which the Europeans translated to The Smoky Mountains, or just The Smokies. As the region started to become popular with leisure travelers, the locals, for marketing purposes, began calling this part of Southern Appalachia The Great Smoky Mountains.

Classic bait and switch

The town of Cherokee, North Carolina became the place the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation chose to showcase themselves to this new world.

Visitors once headed to the quieter side of the Smokies in North Carolina, where they were introduced to the old Cherokee way of life. Now they’ll be funneled to The 407: Gateway to Adventure.

So much for Duyuk’ dv’ I.

Far from Exit 407, the town of Cherokee is a place far removed from modern life. A place where researchers and historians, nature lovers and creative artisans, using natural materials, immersed themself in an environment harkening back to a time when humans coexisted with nature, in a sustainable, harmonious balance. It’s a place to explore firsthand the benefits of interconnectedness, when nature is not the Other.

The whole town is a living tribute to this heritage, and the Cherokee Nation sold us on this legacy for years.

Now we get the world’s largest convenience store.

They used to live sustainably off the land, now they use this land to fuel their growing economy.

The Eastern Band of Cherokees have replaced their centuries-old ethos to become a major player in further developing Sevier County, which includes a large portion of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

It does make sense, though, to use all the commercial means available to right the wrongs the United States committed against them, extracting money from the same people whose forefathers tried to wipe them out.     

The cost of convenience    

Buying in bulk, as opposed to single-use containers, is nature friendly. Extreme over-packaging of convenience items is exactly the opposite.

Not only are convenience items more expensive, they also carry a higher cost to the environment  

Is a convenience store the size of some WalMarts still a convenience store? And if so, convenient to who? Certainly not the people who are actually going to the mountains to commune with nature, but instead must first navigate the extra traffic brought by The 407: Gateway to Adventure development.

The former hunter-gatherers of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will now be able to get their meat from Buc-ee’s beef-jerky bar, which offers every kind of beef jerky imaginable, except mastodon.

Much has changed since the Cherokee first stepped foot in the mountains of Southern Appalachia. So has our relationship with nature.

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