by David Cecelski
This is the beginning of the walking trail at the JunaluskaMuseum and Gravesite in Robbinsville. The Snowbird community of Cherokees here in Graham County operates this little museum and walking trail at the gravesite of the 19th-century Cherokee leader Junaluska and his second wife, Nicie.
I enjoyed the museum’s exhibits, but what really grabbed me was the walking trail. The trail’s markers focus on plants that the Cherokee traditionally use for healing and food.
On the trail, I learned, for instance, that Cherokee healers use the twigs from spicewood bushes to make a medicinal tea for the treatment of colds, coughs, and croup. They also use spicewood to season dishes of roast groundhog and opossum. Other trail markers focused on ramps, chinquapins, serviceberries, May apples, and Solomon’s seal, among others, all with both medicinal and culinary uses in traditional Cherokee culture.
What struck me most about the walking trail was the way it also highlighted Snowbird Cherokee who know the old ways and have used them to serve their community, church, clan and family.
As I walked through the lovely deciduous forest above the museum, I learned, for instance, the story of Nora and Claude Bowman. The trail marker told how they first met at a construction camp at the Tapoco Dam in the 1920s. They later moved to the Smokemont logging camp and eventually raised a big family in Bakersville. According to the walking trail’s marker, Nora Bowman was a respected healer, mother, and community leader.
Another trailside marker tells the story of Maggie Axe Wachacha, a midwife and herbalist. Born in 1892, she regularly accompanied her husband on his walk to tribal council meetings in Cherokee, a distance of 50 miles.
Wachacha had only a fourth-grade education, but she was fluent in Cherokee and English and served as the tribal council’s clerk for half a century. During her 101 years, she also played a vital role in preserving the Cherokee language and the knowledge of traditional medicines and foods.
Other trail markers told the story of a Snowbird Cherokee outdoorsman, a leader of the volunteer fire department, a coffin maker, and a Navy sailor who died in an accident on his way home from Vietnam.
I was deeply impressed. It’s so hard for a museum to capture anything truly profound about a people or a community, so much of what’s essential is usually so far beneath the surface of things. But here in Robbinsville, I had a different feeling. This little walking trail made me feel as if I actually glimpsed something important about the Snowbird Cherokee, and it made me feel, too, that I was on sacred ground.