WCU Professor Unearths Wealth of Cherokee Culture and History

Archeological Dig between Hunter Library and Natural Science Building

In early June, Asheville car dealership Harry’s on the Hill announced that Chief Pontiac, a 23-foot-tall statue visible from Patton Avenue, would be dismantled. This decision came after tribal member Sabrina Arch received a racially charged text from a salesperson at the dealership. Although it was reported that the dealership apologized and fired the employee, the episode got Ben Steere thinking.

“As the recent incident of discrimination indicates, many Western North Carolina residents don’t know all that much about Cherokee culture and history, even though the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians still live in the ancestral homeland and represent one of the largest tribes in eastern North America,” says Steere, assistant professor of anthropology and director of Cherokee Studies Programs at Western Carolina University.

Steere is an expert in indigenous archeology: a field broadly defined as research done with, by and for an indigenous community. In 2004, Steere and 40 field technicians began predevelopment work at the Ravensford Tract, a 54-acre plot that now houses Cherokee Central School. During those years, he developed an interest in Cherokee archaeology, and, more importantly, an interest in doing collaborative archaeology—archaeology that starts by speaking with descendant populations.

His most recent endeavor, the Western North Carolina Mounds and Towns Project, attempts to map and document Cherokee mound and town sites in the state’s 11 westernmost counties. These mounds, says Steere, are monumental earthen structures built by Native Americans from A.D. 200 until the 18th century. Although they once served as sacred ceremonial sites, they have been damaged since by looting, development and modern agriculture. Some locations have been forgotten altogether.

“It’s hard to overstate how important mound and village sites are for understanding the long-term cultural history of WNC,” Steere says. “It’s also hard to overstate how important these places are for Cherokee. If we don’t know where these places are, they can’t be protected and preserved.”

On Saturday, August 11, at 2 p.m. in the UNC-Asheville Reuter Center, Steere presents The Archaeology of Mounds and Towns in the Cherokee Heartland of Western North Carolina. The talk is sponsored by the Western North Carolina Historical Association (WNCHA) and will stage Steere’s research, which, as WNCHA’s Bill Lineberry notes, “has opened new views to the native people’s locations in WNC, home construction, trade patterns and lifestyles.”

When Steere began his research in 2011—a project he coordinated with Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Russ Townsend and archaeologist Tasha Benyshek—only 16 mound sites were officially recorded on the state archaeological site file. He now predicts there being as many as 50 sites just in WNC.

“I think the most surprising part of this project was discovering how much historical and archaeological information about Cherokee mound and town sites was out there, but simply had not been systematically compiled and studied,” says Steere. “Once you can establish some tentative dates and tighter location data for mound and town sites in the region, you can start to talk about some really interesting patterns of change and continuity in Cherokee communities over the last 2,000 years.”

The UNC-Asheville Reuter Center is located at 1 Campus View Road. Guests are asked to donate $5. Western North Carolina Historical Association members attend for free. For more information, call the Smith-McDowell House at 828.253.9231 or visit wnchistory.org.

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