Meet the Managers: Cultural Resources

Issue 6 > Meet the Managers
One of the homes in Elkmont that will be restored.

Elkmont, a gently sloping area crisscrossed by rivers, has a rich human history. Here, a cabin from the 20th century.

NPS photo.

There are seven main programs in Resource Management and Science: (1) Air Quality, (2) Cultural Resources, (3) Fire, (4) Fisheries, (5) Inventory and Monitoring, (6) Vegetation, and (7) Wildlife.

In this issue, meet the managers of Cultural Resources. The area where Great Smoky Mountains National Park is now has a rich prehistoric, historic, and ongoing culture. It is the park’s job to preserve and share the stories of changing human life on this land.

For thousands of years prior to European settlement, these smoky mountains were the home of people who fished the swift rivers, hunted on high grassy meadows, and gathered food in forested coves. These people—the Tsalagi or Aniyvwiyai, as they called themselves, or the Cherokee, as they are known now—mark their place of origin as a valley tucked between the river and the shrugging shoulders of hills outside Bryson City.

In the 1800s, settlers of European descent began displacing the Cherokee, culminating in the 1838 Trail of Tears, a grueling, forced journey that forced most Cherokee to relocate—on foot—to reservations in Oklahoma and Arkansas. The few remaining Cherokee gathered in what became the town of Cherokee, North Carolina, the community at what is now the south entrance to the park. The settlers of European descent farmed in the valleys and long coves throughout the rest of the Smoky Mountains.

Rock wall.

Mossy rock walls edge many old homesites in the park.

NPS photo.

The faces on the land changed yet again in the early 1930s, when ownership passed from private hands to those of the nation. In 1934, President Roosevelt dedicated the park to the people of the United States, which meant that families living within the new park boundaries had to leave.

Although the people have moved, many traces of their lives remain in these mountains. Walk through the woods and you may see old millstones, mossy lines of old stone walls, or daffodils bursting yellow at someone’s long-gone doorstep. You may not see what lies under the ground: sherds of pottery, chips from stone tools, and even evidence of posts from centuries-old Cherokee houses. All of these cultural resources—seen and unseen—need our protection, because they represent a lifestyle long past.
Each cultural resource that the park protects has “cultural significance,” which means, in a nutshell, that the resource is over 50 years old (usually), is sacred or part of ongoing culture, represents an important event, was made by an important person, represents an important time, or was made with important materials. The science of cultural management becomes an art when managers use their discerning and experienced eye to decide what is significant and what is not.

Cultural resource managers in the Smoky Mountains maintain five types of culturally significant resources:
Return to Dispatches from the Field: Cultural Resources.

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