Hikers don’t often realize they’re passing through the traditional homelands of many Indigenous nations. In today’s episode, we’re focusing on some of the Indigenous lands the Appalachian Trail runs through.
Native Land Territories along the A.T.
Mark Hylas, A.T. Native
Lands Territory Map creator
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“Federal Recognition.” National Congress of American Indians, https://www.ncai.org/policy-issues/tribal-governance/federal-recognition.
Cherokee Preservation Foundation. https://cherokeepreservation.org/who-we-are/about-the-ebci/.
Chickahominy Tribe. https://www.chickahominytribe.org/.
Chickahominy Indian Tribe Eastern Division. https://www.cied.org/.
INTERNATIONAL EXPERT GROUP MEETING ON THE CONVENTION ON BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY’S INTERNATIONAL REGIME ON ACCESS AND BENEFIT-SHARING AND INDIGENOUS PEOPLES’ HUMAN RIGHTS, 17 – 19 January 2007, New York.Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations. Prepared by the Secretariat of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
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Rosemary Clark Whitlock. The Monacan Indian Nation of Virginia: The Drums of Life. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2008.
Robert H. Keller and Michael F. Turek. American Indians & National Parks. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1998.
Elijah Thornton. “Cherokee seek to reclaim Kuwahi name of Clingmans Dome.” The Wild Hunt: Pagan News & Perspectives, 10 August 2022.
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GABRIELLE TAYAC: Land itself is intertwined with all of these, all of these beings, these lessons, our identities, our understandings of the world of how we're interconnected and integrated into this space.
EDITH “LOU” BRANHAM: It's just the fact of, we were here first, we took care of the land, you know, the creator has blessed us with a beautiful world.
MICHAEL NEPHEW: It's where we were. And we have stories…directly tied to, to those lands,
[nature sounds fade to music]
MILLS KELLY: When you’re hiking on the Appalachian Trail, you’ll pass by many famous landmarks. Think of Clingmans Dome, The Priest, and Goose Eye Mountain. But in most cases, these names were inscribed on the map by white settlers and their descendants. They erased the original, Indigenous names from the land and replaced those names with names of their own. So, when you’re visiting Clingmans Dome, you’re really standing on Kuwahi. In the Cherokee language, Kuwahi means “mulberry place.”
KELLY: Hikers don’t often realize they’re passing through the traditional homelands of many Indigenous nations. And the lack of Indigenous place names is just one of the many ways that the Indigenous presence along the trail is obscured.
KELLY: Welcome to The Green Tunnel, a podcast on the history of the Appalachian Trail. My name is Mills Kelly, and I’m usuallyyour host. But not today.
KELLY: So far, The Green Tunnel has focused mostly on the history of the trail itself and the hiker’s experience. We’ve explored the trail’s origin story and how people have used it since sections of the trail first opened in the 1920s. The average hiker passes through the lands surrounding this 2,200-mile-long footpath. But, for Indigenous people these lands are intrinsic to their lives and culture. In today’s episode, we’re focusing on some of the Indigenous lands the Appalachian Trail happens to run through as a way of helping to recover at least some of the Indigenous history along the trail’s route.
KELLY: The Appalachian Trail stretches through the traditional territories of at least twenty different Indigenous nations. From the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, colonial settlers and later the United States government forced many Native peoples from their lands. But dispossession and removal did not erase Indigenous peoples completely from the landscape. Many Indigenous communities survived and they were still there when construction on the trail began in the 1920s. Today, they remain stewards of the lands they have called home for centuries.
KELLY: For Indigenous peoples, the past, present, and future are all intertwined with the landscape. And these lands—including the footpath we know as the Appalachian Trail—are Native lands.
KELLY: I know a lot about the history of the trail, but I’m not Indigenous or an expert in Native history. So today, I’m delighted to welcome one of our producers, Hayley Madl, to narrate this episode. Hayley is a community-engaged historian who specializes in North American Indigenous history. She also has a relationship with most of the people you’ll hear throughout the episode.
KELLY: Hayley and our guests explore the stories of some of the Native peoples who still live on the land and care for it today. Hayley….take it away.
MADL: When we talk about the Appalachian Trail, we’re describing a footpath that travels through multiple Indigenous territories across what many Native people call Turtle Island. You may know Turtle Island as “North America.”
MADL: Turtle Island is a creation story common to many Indigenous peoples in eastern North America. In a version that comes from the Haudenosaunee, or Six Nations Iroquois, Turtle Island emerged after Sky Woman fell from the heavens to the Earth.
MADL: Birds guided her down to the waters below, where a great turtle lived. Wanting Sky Woman to have a home of her own, creatures great and small dove deep into the depths of the ocean to find mud, which they brought to the surface and placed on Turtle’s back. Over time, as the animals deposited more and more mud, they created an entire continent. This land became known as Turtle Island.
MADL: Today, the Appalachian Trail traverses Turtle Island. But it was not the first great footpath in eastern North America. Centuries before the AT's creation, the Great Indian Warpath connected Florida to Canada. This path was also known as the Seneca Trail.
MADL: Although it may seem similar to the Appalachian Trail, the Great Indian Warpath and its side trails made it possible for Indigenous peoples to engage in economic and cultural exchange over vast distances. War parties traveled this route as well. This extensive footpath was a vital piece of life for the Indigenous communities it connected.
MADL: But now only fragments of this Indigenous trail survive.
MADL: The stories you’ll hear today are about the land, the communities that live on it, and Indigenous identity. We won’t be able to cover every nation the AT touches in this episode, and we won’t try to generalize the experiences of Indigenous peoples.
MADL: But to begin to understand what the Appalachian Trail’s landscape means to them, as well as how that relationship has withstood decades of marginalization and erasure, I talked with people whose traditional homelands are crossed by the trail or are near its path.
MADL: And thanks to digital technology and years of research, we now have a clearer way of seeing Turtle Island. Go to R2 Studios to see a map in our show notes from Native Land Digital.
MADL: If you begin hiking the AT north from Springer Mountain in Georgia, you’ll find yourself near the modern-day territory of the Eastern Band of Cherokee. Further north, as the trail zig-zags back and forth across the Tennessee-North Carolina border, you’ll pass through the traditional homelands of the Cherokee people.
MADL: The Cherokee people’s traditional homelands once stretched over 135,000 square miles across modern-day Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. By the early 1800s, citizens of the new United States sought more land and resources in these states. After the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830, the United States government forcibly marched more than 16,000 Native people west on the Trail of Tears. Some Cherokee did manage to remain on their lands. They became the Eastern Band of Cherokee.
MICHAEL NEPHEW: I am Eastern Band Cherokee Indian. I'm also Seneca and Cayuga descent.
MADL: Michael Nephew is a longtime activist in the Washington, D.C. area. He has held multiple positions in the American Indian Society of Washington, D.C., where he has worked with them to protect Indigenous culture and educate the public about Indigenous people.
NEPHEW: I grew up on the Cattaraugus Indian Territory in Western New York, even though I'm Cherokee, because that's where my dad's family was from… I get down to Cherokee once or twice a year.
MADL: As Nephew explains, home can be where they live now, but also where their ancestors are from.
NEPHEW: When I go up to New York, the closer I get, I feel like I'm home…And same thing with going down to Cherokee…I don't feel like I'm really getting there until I'm past Asheville, which is like an hour away and getting into those hills… then I feel like I'm home and I've never lived there. But you know, my grandfather is from there. And that's, that's where I'm enrolled in. So it's like, when we get that close then I'm home. So there's that type of connection to land, even when you're not there, you're still connected. I sometimes say I have three homes, my home here, my home in New York and my home in Cherokee.
MADL: Hiking the AT north from the traditional Cherokee homelands takes hikers across modern-day Tennessee and North Carolina into Virginia. Right around the 800-mile mark, the trail butts up against the Monacan nation in western Virginia.
MADL: The Monacan people were among the first Indigenous nations encountered by English settlers in early seventeenth-century Virginia. The Jamestown colonists became aware of them not long after their arrival in 1607, when the Alogonquian-speaking Powhatan people told the English that the Monacans were their enemies. The English made contact with them a year later during an expedition into Virginia’s interior.
MADL: The Monacan are Siouan-speakers. Their homelands once encompassed an expansive region between the falls of the James and Rappahannock Rivers and the Blue Ridge Mountains. If you look at Captain John Smith’s famous 1612 map of Virginia, you’ll find the Monacan name written prominently near the top left hand corner.
MADL: Today, the Monacan are one of seven federally-recognized Indigenous Nations in Virginia. Their community is centered around Bear Mountain, an 1,800-foot tall peak in Amherst County. This sacred site is near Sweet Briar College, not far from where the Appalachian Trail passes through the George Washington National Forest.
MADL: Lou Branham is a member of the Monacan Nation and the director of the Monacan Ancestral Museum in Amherst, Virginia.
BRANHAM: I have lived in this area right here at the foot of Bear Mountain my entire life. My mother and father actually have a house, it's about three miles up the road here. This seven and a half acres of land…is the hub of our community, so to speak, it's the heart of our community is actually where everything originated, and everything started.
BRANHAM: When I say that this seven and a half acres of land, the 200 across the street that’s Bear Mountain, the 1300 acres that we just purchased last October, off of High Peak Road is also a parcel of land that when you stand on it, the view is the most majestic thing you could ever see. And to know that my family and my people worked the farms that were there, the orchards that were there, and a lot of them their housing was still within that same area, that same vicinity. When we bought that piece of land, it was just as much a part of us as this is. it’s kind of eerie, but we had our first powwow on that land this year. And we’ve been doing the powwow for 29 years. So when we had it this year, it was so awesome, because the weekend was gorgeous. But the setting of that and an eight acre lake that’s on the property and just the outlook of everything. It was just so moving and, and I can see our ancestors. At different points in time if things are going well for me and what I’m doing for our people, I have a tendency to be able to see the spirits of people that have gone on almost like a, it’s okay, you did a good job type of thing. And they were there. Their presence was there that weekend and it was so powerful and amazing. Even the public that have come here say they have never experienced anything like that weekend.
MADL: Indigenous nations like the Cherokee and the Monacan have a long and enduring connection to the landscape that has defied conquest, removal, and erasure. But that doesn’t mean they have always been visible.
MADL: Native peoples were not only forcibly removed from their ancestral homelands but also, eventually, from the public eye. White government officials believed that Indigenous people would eventually fully merge with the white population and no longer be Indigenous. Jim Crow segregation and discrimination in the early 1900s made it even easier for white Americans to accept this idea of inevitable Indigenous decline.
MADL: Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, assimilationists and segregationists pushed this misconception of the “vanishing” Native to better justify seizing lands that didn’t belong to them and work to erase Native culture and Native presence.
MADL: You can still see the results of Indigenous erasure across the country, even on the Appalachian Trail. It's extremely difficult for a hiker to learn anything about the Indigenous presence from trail guides, and only a few places along the Trail itself have any naming connection to the original inhabitants.
MADL: Throughout the Trail’s planning, construction, and now maintenance, the original stewards of the land tend to be an afterthought. But Indigenous people have never stopped fighting for acknowledgment—not just within their own local regions, but at the state and federal levels as well.
MADL: Indigenous connections to the land are deeper than legal property rights. And home can be where Indigenous people live now, but also where their ancestors are from. Dr. Gabrielle Tayac explains.
TAYAC: Physical land is not just physical land. And physical land is not just what’s beneath your feet, or what grows out of it, or what embraces, waters that go through it, or the air that moves on top of it. When we speak about physical land, land is really what we’re talking about life source.
MADL: Dr. Tayac spent eighteen years as a curator, educator, and historian at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. She is an expert in American Indian identity and social movements, and has devoted her career to centering Indigenous presence and Indigenous voices.
TAYAC: I am a Piscataway woman. And also, I am a public historian, and community engaged scholar and curator. I'm an associate professor at George Mason University, teaching public history. And I also work with long term community advocacy, development, care for place, and people.
MADL: The Piscataway lived in the Potomac watershed long before European settlers arrived. Their name means “where the waters meet.” As one of many nations on the front lines of contact with Europeans, the Piscataway were almost completely wiped out due to disease, maltreatment, confiscation of land, and other abuses. However, the Piscataway survived in small communities in Maryland.
MADL: In 1978, they were able to officially reorganize as a cultural and political entity, for the first time since the eighteenth century. Then in 2012, the state of Maryland formally recognized the Piscataway. They continue to seek recognition by the federal government.
MADL: While many tend to think of the AT as an iconic hiking trail with some amazing views, the Indigenous peoples that call these lands home see it as so much more. The land is not just physical land, but memory. And for many Indigenous people, their identities are inseparable from the landscape around them.
MADL: Here’s Lou Branham:
BRANHAM: When I speak of my connection with land in general, and especially Monacan land, it is part of who I am. As part of who I'll always be, I find it funny, because the people that feel like we don't exist, and that all Native Americans need to look a certain way. You know, when I look in the mirror, I see native, I'm an indigenous woman.
BRANHAM : I'm connected to this place. I'm connected spiritually, I'm connected by my heart and just life experiences, so many beautiful things have taken place on this land. …we want to hold on to any and everything that we've ever had hands on working the lands . So that 1300 acres the 200 here it's just something that you're connected to spiritually. It's hard for me to explain if you're a person and you're not linked to something that way because a lot of people aren't. A lot of people just wake up and look outside and take outside for granted. I live outside every day. Giving the tours here and walking, you know, just in walking around and walking the 1300 acres up there. And just different property line in the sacred land up there has an ash garden and our sweat lodge is up there.
[extended nature sounds]
MADL: Over time, conservation has become one of the goals of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the trail clubs that maintain the AT. In previous episodes of the podcast, we’ve talked about how protecting the natural environment and limiting human impact are key pieces of safeguarding the Trail’s future. Stewardship of the trail is an important part of the work that ensures that the AT continues for centuries to come.
MADL: For many Indigenous nations, stewardship is a way of life. According to the Secretariat of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, “Indigenous Peoples embody and nurture 80% of the world's cultural and biological diversity, and occupy 20% of the world's land surface.”
TAYAC: So these are startling numbers. And you know, you can see that when you go to places like Menominee Stockbridge in Wisconsin, the land surrounding their reservations, tends to be much clearer, right, like farmland or industrial land. And then when you get on to the reservation, it's forested, they have a sustainable forestry program, same thing, you'll often see that when you go, it's very stark, when you go into Amazonia. And other spaces, places that are within indigenous stewardship and care, tend to be much more well cared for and preserved in the sense of not preserved, like so that nobody touches it, but lived within a way that it continues to be a much more intact ecosystem. It's not just as resource but also in terms of life practices. Of course, you have variations with that individual variations, but it tends to be a general way of looking at things.
MADL: Many Indigenous nations cultivate active relationships with the land and make themselves part of the broader ecosystem. At the heart of Indigenous stewardship remains this notion of living with the land, rather than simply on the land. It becomes not just a wild environment, but a sustainable lived environment.
TAYAC:I've seen recently, conversations around the use of the term stewardship, which still implies a level of control or dominance or human centric positioning. And so thinking more about it being relationship or relational. That's often the, the core concept alongside the issues of, modern life, and the viewpoint being that it's not just for your own extraction, or that it has this minutiae of, of what we can see as boundaries or not
MADL: Stewardship is not just about protecting what’s in front of you, but protecting the whole for generations to come.
NEPHEW: The Haudenosaunee, they say, you make decisions based on seven generations, you know, well, how will this affect the seven generations down the line? Whereas people thinking from an ownership level are like, okay, what can I get now? Because I won't own it later.
MADL: There are often large governmental barriers to Indigenous stewardship. The Appalachian Trail is a national park, and federal and state agencies own almost all the lands the AT passes through. National parks exist on Indigenous homelands across the country.
MADL: In some cases, like Glacier National Park, Indigenous nations were specifically removed to create the parks themselves. And in their mission to preserve the natural spaces of the United States, the National Park Service has historically prohibited many Indigenous cultural practices or permanent Indigenous presence on park lands.
TAYAC: The notion that land can only be protected without people, or only certain kinds of people or recreational use, really is antithetical to indigenous points of view
TAYAC: Interestingly, in the case that pertains to me, my family, our people, was one that happened in Piscataway National Park, which is on the Potomac River directly faces Mount Vernon, which is George Washington's home. So on the Maryland side is the side where it was a space of our largest chiefs village, and extensive burial grounds. When that land went into Park Service, use although what's interesting was that landowners had, what they call easements and mutual use agreements.
TAYAC: But in terms of native presence and practice, that was considered to be that we were trespassing
TAYAC: that somehow we were going to be intruding or disrupting the, quiet of the place. And this is a place now that has people that are you know, they come with their dogs or Frisbees, their, you know, picnics and all this
TAYAC: So, over the years after intense, I mean, intense lobbying, protests, letters, actions, it's been a much more friendly turn, but we still have to get permits to have ceremonies in the space. And it's not just like one permit a year. It's like every single time there's no memorandum of understanding or cooperative agreement.
MADL: The Appalachian Trail is a special place for a lot of people. But of the three million people that touch the trail each year, very few know the broader history and significance of the lands they’re crossing—and that the Indigenous inhabitants of those lands are still there.
MADL: So how can we as hikers gain a better understanding of where we’re hiking? How can we work with Indigenous communities who still call these lands home? And how can we come to see the Appalachian Trail as part of a bigger, much older landscape?
TAYAC: A major way is begin by educating yourself about who are the indigenous people around you? What are the policies that are taking place? How you can get in touch with or look at, you know, who the local tribes and tribal communities are, what are they asking for
MADL: Beyond educating themselves about Turtle Island and the Indigenous communities whose lands lie along or near the Appalachian Trail, hikers can help steward the environment.
NEPHEW: Find out what are the issues that are going on there? Runoff issues is one of the big things that, you know, a lot of people don't think of, when they're fertilizing their lawn, where does that go? Well, it ends up with a creeks. But they're just thinking, Oh, I get a green lawn now. What effect does it have?...There's those types of things that can also be done that aren't necessarily related to a particular tribe or something like that.
[very quiet music]
TAYAC: All Mother Earth is beautiful, and, and I also like to think about what another teacher my name is Tyler Montez said and she said, you know, native people don't have a monopoly on Mother Earth, right? Like we're all part of it. So that's really the viewpoint that it's a comprehensive, all-encompassing space that we have distinctive relationships with understandings of and can approach in millions of ways. But always said it's a living, breathing and part of us.
MADL: Though their connections might be different, hikers and Indigenous communities care deeply for these lands. The Appalachian Trail is only a small piece of a vast and beautiful landscape that needs responsible stewardship—from everyone that sets foot on them. Because it’s not just about the individual pieces or the individual people—it’s about the whole.
MADL: Thanks for listening to The Green Tunnel, a production of R2 Studios at George Mason University. Today’s episode was produced by me, Hayley Madl. Jeanette Patrick and Jim Ambuske are our executive producers.
MADL: A special thanks to our guests for this episode: Edith “Lou” Branham, Dr. Gabrielle Tayac, and Michael Nephew.
MADL: Thanks also to Sara Jefferson, a member of the Chickahominy Indian Tribe of Charles City, Virginia for her help with this episode. Sara is an active member in her community at home, as well as with the Native American and Indigenous Alliance at George Mason University.
MADL: Original music for The Green Tunnel is performed by Scott Miller of Swope, Virginia, and Andrew Small and Ashley Watkins of Floyd, Virginia.
MADL: At R2 Studios every podcast we produce is free and always will be free.
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MADL: So, head to R2Studios.org and click on the “Support Us” link to help us make the best history podcasts out there. And while you’re there, sign up for our newsletter.
MADL: Thanks for listening and we’ll see you soon.
Michael Nephew is an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee and is also of Seneca and Cayuga descent. He has lived in Washington, D.C. area since 1974 and has been involved with the American Indian Society of Washington D.C. and other Indigenous organizations and activism within the district.
Edith “Lou” Branham is the Director of the Monacan Ancestral Museum in Amherst, Virginia and an enrolled member of the Monacan Nation. Lou has also served two terms on their tribal council. Currently, Lou oversees the running of the museum, as well as conducts educational programs for local schools on Monacan history and culture.
Dr. Gabrielle Tayac is a public historian, community-engaged scholar and curator, and a member of the Piscataway Nation. Dr. Tayac is an associate professor at George Mason University teaching public history and has had a long and distinguished career as a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C..