Cherokee tribe pushes to restore original name of Great Smoky Mountains' highest peak

Long before the Great Smoky Mountains National Park's highest peak was named "Clingmans Dome," the Cherokee people called the mountain "Kuwahi" for hundreds of years.

Now, tribal members are hoping to return to the Kuwahi name. Last Thursday, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Tribal Council passed a resolution in support of renaming the mountain, which is located along the Tennessee-North Carolina border.

The resolution's supporters plan to do community outreach, public education and more before embarking on the final step: submitting paperwork to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to consider the name change, which they hope to do by December.

Sitting on ancestral Cherokee homelands, Kuwahi was once a place that tribal medicine people would go to pray for guidance from the creator, per the resolution, published by Knoxville's WVLT News. Kuwahi translates to "mulberry place" in Tsalagi, the Cherokee language.

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"From time immemorial, the landscape, including mountains and streams, has shaped our history as Cherokee people," the resolution, submitted by tribal members Lavita Hill and Mary Crowe, reads.

The Cherokee Nation once spread across what is now Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama, according the tribe's official website. In 1838, the tribe was forcibly relocated to present-day Oklahoma – in what was later known as the "Trail of Tears."

Through sickness and harsh travel conditions, nearly 4,000 Cherokee people died during the forced removal from their homelands. Some Cherokee were forced to hide in efforts to avoid relocation to Oklahoma – including in Kuwahi, Thursday's resolution notes.

"We're here today because our ancestors hid in those mountains, specifically in Kuwahi," Hill, treasury specialist at the Department of Treasury for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, told USA TODAY.

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In 1876, the Cherokee who remained in the region purchased 57,000 acres of western North Carolina, called the Qualla Boundary, according to NPR. Today, Qualla Boundary is located adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina.

The name change of the Cherokee's sacred mountain arrived in 1859, when geographer and professor Arnold Henry Guyot dubbed Kuwahi "Clingmans Dome." The peak was named after after Thomas Lanier Clingman, a North Carolina senator who was not connected to the Cherokee people.

"Naming the mountain after (Clingman) sort of strips down all of the history of the Cherokee people," Hill said. "It undermines everything that our people are in order to rename it after someone with zero ties to our community. He didn't even live here."

Clingman, who was notably vocal about his support for maintaining slavery in the Senate, was also expelled from his Congressional post after expressing support for the Confederacy during the Civil War. He then became a Confederate general. The resolution also notes that Guyot linked "continent locations, topography and climate to the superiority of certain races" in his writings.

"The history of renaming Kuwahi ... to 'Clingman's Dome' shows that the name Clingman was designated by a proponent of scientific racism (Guyot) on behalf of an avowed racist (Clingman), in an action that was disrespectful to Cherokee people, culture, history, and tradition," the resolution reads.

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In a statement sent to USA TODAY, Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Richard Sneed wrote, "It seems self-evident that generations of Cherokee connections to this mountain area is much more reflective of its true history, than that of a someone who passed through once. We applaud Lavita Hill and Mary Crowe for taking the lead on this and offer... our full support."

Hill noted that she and Crowe were inspired to begin the name change proposal after Yellowstone National Park's Mount Doane was renamed to First Peoples Mountain in June.

"That was a huge victory for our brothers and sisters," Hill said, adding that she hopes it's just the beginning of accurately recognizing and honoring numerous historically significant sites for tribes and Indigenous people nationwide.

"There were so many places that were special and important to Indigenous people prior to colonization," she added. "I want to be the voice for my people, for my ancestors."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Renaming Clingmans Dome: Cherokee resolution to return to Kuwahi name