Who Owns the Land?

IT is a paradox that so much of the soul-restoring landscape of North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountain is blighted by the overlay of a tourist superstructure that just about defines ``tacky'': the exhibitions of trained bears, the pan-for-gold places, the roadside souvenir stands.

Yet amid all this dreck is nonetheless to be found, in the town of Cherokee, a genuinely touching bit of Americana: ``Unto These Hills,'' an open-air drama relating the history of the Cherokee Indians, focusing on their removal in 1838 from the Carolinas and Georgia to Oklahoma in a forced march known as ``The Trail of Tears.''

``Unto These Hills,'' in its 45th season, is part of an American genre of historical drama performed in open-air theaters every summer. Local history provides the themes for most of the 50 or so such plays being staged this summer; ``Unto These Hills'' is unusual in that it looks at the story from the perspective of one of the ``losers.''

Today, we would call it ``ethnic cleansing'': Although the Cherokees had coexisted peacefully with their white neighbors in the Smokies for generations, by the first half of the 19th century expansionist pressures from the white man led to the plan for removal to Oklahoma.

If any outside group had been able to maintain an independent existence within the new polity, it should have been the Cherokees. They were an early demonstration that ``the American idea,'' however much it owes to English traditions, is universally accessible without regard to gene pools. Peace-loving, pragmatically willing to ally with the new American government, the Cherokees had their own elected legislature and supreme court. Their own alphabet, devised by the great Sequoyah early in the 19th century, led to the further advantages of a written constitution and a national newspaper. The Cherokees had even adopted the white man's religion; the title of the play alludes to Psalm 121, ``I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.''

And yet the white man's territorial imperatives won out - though not completely. One of the heroes of the play is Tsali, the Cherokee whose inadvertent martyrdom paved the way for a remnant of the tribe to stay in North Carolina. As he and his wife and family were rounded up for removal, a drunken soldier killed her with his bayonet. Tsali killed him and fled to the mountains, where many of his tribe where already in hiding. Determined to punish the attack on one of their own but mindful of the difficulties of flushing the last of the Cherokees out of their caves, the Army officers offered Tsali a deal: If he and his sons turned themselves in, those still in hiding would be allowed to stay in North Carolina. And so it happened.

``Who owns the land?'' was the fundamental question. Who has a right to be here? Whose heroes get celebrated? Whose interpretation of history prevails?

The ``Trail of Tears'' has had tragic parallels around the world: the forcible removal of South African blacks to ``homelands,'' an injustice just now being redressed, or Hitler's plans to move whole peoples to where he thought they should be for the sake of Lebensraum. Middle East struggles have focused largely on who has the right to be where.

``Unto These Hills'' brings these universal issues home for Americans.

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