As we gather around the fire, the sound of the Oconaluftee River warbles in the breeze.
Dressed in traditional Cherokee garb, a statuesque man gestures expansively at the park that surrounds us.
“You are in our church,” he says. “It is all around us. As long as we have grass, water, sky.”
His eyes fill with a reverence for this place that rises to the peaks of the mountains and plunges to the depths of the valleys, encompassing everything.
I am re-posting it on my blog today to help spread awareness for this amazing cultural event that not enough people seem to know about and whose future hangs in the balance.
This event is held Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 pm on the Qualla Boundary at the Oconaluftee Islands Park near downtown Cherokee, NC.
The sponsors of the gathering have hinged its future on the response to this Facebook page, and the number of Likes the page receives will determine whether the bonfire will continue next year. If there is a substantial increase in likes this week, they will extend the program on into October. Otherwise, this week will be your last opportunity to attend this year.
While this may seem an odd contradiction given the millennia that these stories have been told in this place, it is a fact nonetheless. Let the sponsors of the Cherokee Bonfire know that this is a tradition which should continue!
When I first visited this event last year I had just completed a travel writing course, and was thirsty for putting destinations on the page. I had my notebook and pen in hand, ready to write the story.
I walked away changed, humbled, and wrote this article instead, imploring you to go and listen to the Cherokee people tell you their story for themselves.
Meet Sonny Ledford, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee and one of the speakers at the Cherokee Bonfire. The bonfire is a free program designed to inform, enlighten and entertain.
The educational portion of the evening dispels many myths and stereotypes associated with the Cherokee people.
You will have the privilege of seeing (and joining in!) traditional Cherokee dances, and the rare opportunity to fall under the spell of hypnotic legends told fireside in the place that they were born.
Sonny is, among other things, one of the seven original members of the traditional dance group, Warriors of Ani Kituwah.
He has taught the Cherokee culture for more than half of his life. This is an honor that has been bestowed upon him by his elders, and one that he takes seriously.
Standing in front of the group that has gathered for the bonfire, Sonny implores us to take to heart what he has to tell us.
“How long will you remember this?” he asks us, “This river? Me standing here.” As he continues to speak I know that his words will stay with me long after the fire has died and I have left this circle.
“We come here and share our stories with you so that you too will become teachers. So that you will take what you learn here and spread that knowledge.”
If you have ever visited Cherokee before, you are probably familiar with the souvenir shops that line several of its streets. Imagine feather headdresses, t-shirts, and leather moccasins.
These things have little to do with the Cherokee people themselves. Look deeper. There is much more to this place than that.
You may have purchased books from the shelves of some of these stores, seeking knowledge about the Cherokee people and their way of life.
However, these books are often filled with a wealth of misinformation, written not by members of the Cherokee tribe but by visitors, who like you, are on the outside looking in.
Some may have never even visited the Qualla Boundary, never asked the Cherokee what they thought before writing them.
According to the Cherokee, their people have always been here. Archaeological findings date their civilization back for at least the past 11,000 years, since the time of the last ice age.
The stories of the Cherokee speak of a time in this place long before then.
Despite eradication from disease brought by European explorers, persecution, and forced removal, the Cherokee people have persisted in making these mountains their home for millennia.
The wisdom they have gained over that time cannot be found on the pages of a book written by someone outside of their culture. If you seek this knowledge, look to the people themselves to tell you.
They are more than happy to share it with you. The Cherokee Bonfire is one such opportunity, and I encourage you to seize it for yourself.
While you are there, be sure to visit the booths adjacent to the parking lot where you can buy beautiful beaded jewelry and artwork direct from the Cherokee artisans themselves. Many pieces mirror the legends you will have the privilege of hearing.
When Sonny finishes, there is a brief intermission while the children in the crowd are armed with long roasting forks topped with marshmallows provided free of charge.
We gather again around the fire, and the storyteller of the evening, John Grant, Jr (or John John as he is affectionately known to his peers) introduces himself.
John is an accomplished musician and storyteller, and is also a member of the Warriors of Ani Kituwah dance group.
He begins to play a Cherokee flute, known to his people as a “music maker” in what he tells us is “the original language of this land.”
It begins quietly, melodic, then sharp and high pitched, the rhythm becoming more complicated. It fades back into softer tones, interspersed with urgent high pitched trills.
One senses that the melody tells a story of its own, and we settle in for the storytelling that we have gathered to hear.
As the sun sinks in the sky, John’s voice carries us back to a time when life was informed by stories told around a fire just like this one. The lights of modern Cherokee and the thrum of passing cars hover on the periphery.
Here in the circle however, we are carried away from all of this; drawn into the world he is spinning.
His words echo the long ages over which they have been spoken and we find ourselves transported by his charismatic and passionate speech.
As he speaks the river slides past, as it always has. The fire dies down, and the embers glow orange like a heart in the center of the wood.
Under the sometimes commercialized face of Cherokee lies the purity and truth of this ancient place, as well as a wealth of genuine cultural opportunities for you to experience.
Without this event the Cherokee will still tell their stories. It is we who will lose the privilege to hear them, and miss out on the beauty and the knowledge that their culture has to give to the world. Help keep it going and click Like now!
Then go to the Qualla Boundary. Sit around the fire and listen to the Cherokee people tell you their stories, in their own words.
The bonfire will be running this year at least through August 30th, so be sure to go and check it out while there’s still time!
These attractions will educate you not only on the history of the Cherokee, but on their living culture and the sacred way of life that continues to thrive to this day.
For more information on planning your trip, check out the resources I’ve provided below. There is so much more to see and do while you are there.
Visit the Cherokee Nation and experience it for yourself!
To receive notifications of more posts like this one, be sure to follow LOCUS. You can do this in the sidebar or scroll down below. Follow me on my journey in search of PLACE!
MORE RESOURCES TO PLAN YOUR TRIP
To get directions to Cherokee, click here.