WCU’s hidden Cherokee heritage

Cullowhee and Western Carolina University often celebrate their Appalachian heritage and culture on a regular basis.

Mountain Heritage Day is a huge event where community members and tourists can experience firsthand how mountain culture was shaped through crafts, music and more. Also, there are several musical acts that frequent campus with a blue grass or country music feel that go hand-in-hand with the mountain atmosphere of Jackson County.

However, few students realize the deeper history of their University. Did you know the center of campus where Killian and Coulter sit used to be a Cherokee town?

Jane Eastman, a professor of anthropology at WCU since 2001, has performed three archeological digs on campus during the summers from 2003 to 2005. During these digs, Eastman and her team have uncovered year after year of history before the white folk settled in the mountains.

“That town was occupied probably up until about 1650s or so,” said Eastman. “The town was prior to any sustained contact with any Europeans. It was in the area around Killian. At the end of Killian Annex, between the Annex and the road was where we worked the first summer. In the quadrangle between Killian and Coulter and Forsyth, that grassy area, is where we worked the last two years.”

Before initial construction of improvements to Killian Annex, Facilities Management gave Eastman permission to quickly dig in the area. Ultimately, Facilities Management did not want to disturb any graves.

“The Facilities Management had a backhoe and a backhoe driver that we did have to pay for it, but … they helped us re-excavate what we had started the first year and refilled, so we didn’t have to spend a lot of time re-excavating. They supported it in the sense that they allowed it to happen,” said Eastman.

“The reason why that has been the focus of attention is that there was a center of the Cherokee town,” continued Eastman. “There was a mound where Killian building now stands. The mound would have been a platform, a pyramidal mound . . . it’s literally a mound of earth that has a flat top on it, and they would build the most important public building, which was the council house, on top of that mound.”

Eastman estimated that the mound would have been 20 feet high. While the council house sat on top, the rest of the town stretched around it, making the mound the focal point. A plaza area would be directly in front of the mound where important activities and ceremonies would take place. Killian building, which houses departments like psychology, now sits directly where the mound would have been.

What happened to the town before WCU’s campus was owned by a farmer later on in the 1800s remains a mystery.

“We don’t know. There was a later community on campus that was discovered when they were first starting to prepare for the Ramsey Center . . . in 1972,” said Eastman. “They uncovered a house from probably the 1740s that was a Cherokee house. I think that probably what happened, and you see this happening in other areas in Cherokee territory, is that people, after European contact, they stopped living in these dense, nucleated communities where they’re clustering around a mound in a town center. They spread out in these little homesteads along Cullowhee Creek, and there’s one of those at the Ramsey Center. Those are the people that still lived around Cullowhee Creek that would come back and still do business at that council house here in the center of campus.”

Eventually, the land came under the ownership of farmer Daniel Rogers. In the 1880s, a man named James Osborne, who worked for two brothers opening a museum in Virginia, arrived, asking to excavate the mound on Rogers’ land, explained Eastman. Rogers refused in the beginning but struck a deal with Osborne that if he were to level the mound enough to plow it, he would allow Osborne to excavate it as well. Because of this, the mound became ignored and neglected.

“There was this idea that it had been excavated in the past and it was no longer important,” said Eastman. “When the University purchased this land from Daniel Rogers in the middle of the 20th century, the idea was that the mound has already been excavated. When they expanded and began construction in this part of the valley, they said, ‘We don’t need to do anything because it’s already been excavated,’ which was a really not good decision, obviously.”

When construction continued to further the University in the 1950s, a road grater arrived to completely level out the mound.

“They actually advertised the week before in The Sylva Herald that this event was going to happen . . . and if you wanted to come by and gather relics, it was going to happen at 10 o’clock.”

Eastman talked to a man who witnessed the horrific scene.

“He was 10-years-old on this day, and he was going around trying to stop this and salvage what he could,” said Eastman. “He said they hit a burial and kept going. He collected some of the remains from that day . . .”

Now, the mound is long gone, but the history is not. Still, the University does not recognize this history with any type of signage, plaques or on the “Heritage & History” page on the University’s website. One on campus organization, Digali’i, is trying to change that. They support specifically a project to place lights that show the outline of the mound against the wall of Killian.

“We support the efforts of Dr. Eastman,” said adult student and Digali’i member Venice Mason. “It would be nice if the signs were there to mirror the school’s promotional materials, which attempts to draw people in and capitalize that here is the ‘Cherokee homeland.’ Lack of signage continues the tradition of leaving the inhabitants of the area invisible.”

“We do recognize it in the fact that we’ve had at the Mountain Heritage Center,” said Eastman. “We try to do it through a lot of public information, so we’ve developed these brochures that they’ve got in many offices around campus. I also go talk to classes a lot so that students are more aware of it. I’ve worked with the Admissions Office to get the students who give tours to prospective students to mention the fact that there’s a Cherokee town here.”

This effort is also backed by the Mountain Heritage Center, the WCU Advisory Council, Cherokee Studies and the Cherokee Center, among others.

“… Our current master plan for the University’s growth, development does include signage,” continued Eastman. “We sort of developed a plan for where signs could go and what type of information could be on signs. So, it’s in there, it just hasn’t been acted upon. It takes a lot of money to think about it. Just an individual sign is several thousands of dollars.”

Eastman added that she “certainly hopes” that the University would see these signs within the next five years.

Chancellor David O. Belcher agreed that University efforts should be greater in recognizing its Cherokee heritage.

“I think there have been some efforts made. I would never say that it was necessarily complete,” said Belcher. “. . . I would never say that it [the University] has done enough to sort of acknowledge the history and the culture and the heritage of the land that the University has been built on.”

Belcher added, “I think we have, unlike others, a sort of built-in responsibility to build that relationship [with the Cherokee] and to honor the past.”

Belcher called attention to efforts already underway that are trying to fix the situation.

“Another thing that we have launched in this year is the rebuilding of the Cherokee garden,” said Belcher. “There’s a garden out there … in the area of the Natural Sciences Building … and it was a Cherokee garden with native plants and so forth. When the University some years ago rebuilt Stillwell . . . it sort of got neglected. The Biology Club is taking it on, but they’re also doing it with the Youth Council in Cherokee, so it’s a joint project involving Cherokee students and our students.”

However, criticism has circulated for decades about schools, products and sports teams that use Native Americans as their mascot or iconography like Land of Lakes Butter and the Atlanta Braves. What Digali’i does not want have happen is for Western Carolina to use its heritage as a gimmick to draw in new students or visitors.

“That is a fabulous question that I cannot answer,” said Belcher about where is the line between commemoration and commercialism. “And, I think that Cherokee probably struggles with that to some extent, too, because there’s a lot that’s very much commercial about drawing people in . . .”

Hopefully, with Belcher’s interest in the topic and his drive to strengthen relations with the Eastern Band of Cherokee, these culturally enrichment commemorations will appear on campus soon.

“I think having the Cherokee in our area makes us a wonderfully unique place. I think we can do more to celebrate as a campus and to draw on the richness of that heritage,” said Belcher.