Sarah Stacke

Cherokee Lands



Their ancestors were forced onto the Trail of Tears in 1838. Now the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians (EBCI) is piecing back together their sacred sites.


Tiera Teesateskie waits on the sidelines for an annual stickball game in 2016 between the rival Cherokee communities of Big Cove, where Teesateskie lives, and Wolfetown. Stickball, which the Cherokees call “A-ne-jo-di: Little Brother of War,” began in prehistoric times as a way for tribes to settle disputes without going to war.

“The magic is still here if we want it,” says Bullet Standingdeer of the mountains he was raised in and his Cherokee ancestors occupied for thousands of years.

Deweese Wolfe, an elder of the EBCI, rests in an armchair at his home in Cherokee, North Carolina, in 2018. About 10,000 tribal members live in the Smoky Mountains today.

Young men at the skatepark in 2016. Pictured from left to right are Ryan Tranter, 19, Michael George, 18, Xavier Locust, 17, Terrance Crowe, 16, and Leonardo Davis, 13. All are EBCI tribal members and in different stages of school from college to middle school.

Sarah Burkey sits at Kituwah, a sacred Cherokee site known as the “Cherokee Mother Town.” Burkey is a songwriter, storyteller, and recording artist. Located seven miles outside of downtown Cherokee, North Carolina, Kituwah is considered the place of origin for the Cherokee people.
Kituwah Mound was at the center of the original village and is still visible today. The site, which archaeologists date to nearly 10,000 years ago, was reclaimed by the EBCI in 1996, Today, the trails at Kituwah are enjoyed by tribal members and the public.

Former EBCI Principal Chief Joyce Dugan stands at Kituwah, the sacred site she helped to buy in 1996, marking the tribe’s first major land purchase in over a century. Dugan is the first—and only—woman to be elected as Principal Chief.

EBCI Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed stands on the athletic field at Cherokee Central Schools in the Qualla Boundary. He taught vocational education there and worked as a pastor before running for office. He is working to create a Cherokee cultural corridor to preserve and protect historic sites.

Kituwah, a sacred Cherokee site in the Great Smoky Mountains, is pictured from inside Amy Walker’s truck. Today Kituwah, which was reclaimed by the EBCI in 1996 after being forced off the land during colonization, is used for cultural gatherings, recreation, and gardening. Before going into Amy’s garden at Kituwah, we drank coffee and shared stories of being women and mothers.

Amy Walker picks heirloom beans from her garden at Kituwah. In keeping with a cultural tradition, she wears her hair short to symbolize her grief after losing her youngest daughter to ovarian cancer.

EBCI tribal member Amy Walker picks heirloom beans in her garden at Kituwah, a sacred Cherokee site. Walker plants many of the same crops her ancestors did for thousands of years at Kituwah. She says the garden keeps her connected to them.

The last of the day’s light brushes trees lining Tatham Gap Road near Robbinsville, North Carolina. The history of this place is heavy and in the air. Tatham Gap runs alongside the wagon route North Carolina troops built in 1838 to forcibly remove Cherokee people from their homelands in the Great Smoky Mountains. An estimated 17,000 Cherokee were made to walk nearly 1,000 miles to Oklahoma in an event known as the Trail of Tears. Tatham Gap passes over Snowbird Mountain, which has an elevation of 3,800 feet. In crossing Snowbird, the Cherokee prisoners climbed the highest point along the Trail of Tears.

A section of the Great Smoky Mountains near the Qualla Boundary, home of the EBCI, in western North Carolina. The EBCI can trace their history in this region back more than 10,000 years.