Finding roots: Mountain symposium attracts largest crowd in its decade-long run

Brett Riggs, WCU’s Sequoyah Distinguished Professor of Cherokee Studies (center), speaks with Rooted in the Mountains attendees about the findings from an archaeological dig on campus near Norton Hall. (Image courtesy of Pam Myers)

The Rooted in the Mountains theme of “Giduwagi ― Appalachian Historical Ecology” struck a resounding note with the record number of attendees at this year’s symposium.

Nearly 400 people participated in the 10th annual gathering, which is hosted by Western Carolina University and supported by a grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, on Thursday, Sept. 26, and Friday, Sept. 27. It was the healthiest attendance in the event’s decade-long run. More than 50 people enjoyed a native food dinner served by members of the Native America Indian Women’s Association.

The theme was topical and philosophical, reflecting the changing landscape and habitat of Southern Appalachia, but also attitudes toward the natural resources of the mountains. Roughly translated, “giduwagi” is Cherokee for “the ground belonging to the creator,” or when referring to the tribe, “people of the mountains.”

The series of symposiums has sought to integrate indigenous and local knowledge with health and environmental issues. Guest speakers and discussion groups have touched on ethnography, literature, art, music, and native and western science, with attendees typically including local residents, students from WCU and other universities, scientists, local and state policy makers, and health professionals.

Tom Belt speaks during a visit to the local Native American landmark Judaculla Rock. (Image courtesy of Pam Myers)

“Each symposium is designed to raise awareness,” said Pam Myers, event organizer with WCU’s Culturally Based Native Health Programs, a collaboration between the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and WCU’s College of Health and Human Sciences. “We always encourage anyone concerned about our mountain landscapes and learning more about native ways of understanding to attend. We’re thrilled for the strong showing of interest and support from campus and surrounding communities.”

Tom Belt, the retired coordinator of WCU’s program in Cherokee language who is noted for his knowledge and insights into Native American heritage and culture, was the keynote speaker. He currently teaches a Cherokee language course with Stanford University’s Language Center. A member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Belt was recently announced as recipient of that tribe’s Community Leadership Individual Award, which is given to recognize citizens who have tirelessly given, without hesitation, their time to make their communities more vibrant livable places. The Cherokee Nation is one of three federally recognized Cherokee tribes in the U.S., with the other two being the local Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians of Oklahoma.

“There is value and there is purpose in the land,” Belt told attendees. “It is a way to ground us. It is a way to inform us. These things connect us. They connect us not only to our own people in the past, but they connect us to that time, the element of time.

“Today, we are finding out that those mythological superstitions that we were told are now becoming scientific fact,” he said. “It is ironic that they are now finding out that trees actually do communicate with each other, to the point of where trees may have memory.”

A field trip to the local Native American landmark Judaculla Rock, a soapstone boulder covered in petroglyphs, was led by Belt and T.J. Holland, cultural resources officer for the Eastern Band. A second field trip to an archaeological dig near WCU’s Norton Hall, part of the historic site for Two Sparrows Village, was conducted by Brett Riggs, WCU’s Sequoyah Distinguished Professor of Cherokee Studies, and Ben Steere, director of the university’s Cherokee Studies Programs.

For more information on the Rooted in the Mountains symposiums, click HERE or call 828-227-2164.