Wednesday, August 15, 2012

UNTO THESE HILLS


Cherokee story recounted onstage

On a pleasant evening in Cherokee, N.C., I scrambled up a quarter-mile mountainside staircase to an open-air amphitheater to watch "Unto These Hills," a historical drama that traces the Cherokee from their years as a great American Indian culture in the early 1800s through the tragic Trail of Tears in 1838 to the present day.

With the Smoky Mountains, huge trees and a rock ledge in the background, this theater, which seats 2,800, is impressive. The Cherokee story has been dramatized here since 1950 by the descendants of the Cherokees who avoided the Trail of Tears by hiding in the mountains. The actors do double duty by becoming re-enactors during the day at Oconaluftee, the nearby Cherokee village.

The first act moved somewhat slowly, probably because I was familiar with much of the early history, but there were some interesting twists. For example, during the War of 1812 at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, the Cherokee leader Junaluska saved Col. Andrew Jackson's life, and Jackson gave the Cherokees credit for the victory. Later in the play, we learn that when the Cherokee pleaded with Jackson not to force them to the reservation in Oklahoma, he rejected them brusquely. I hadn't previously been aware of the impact of the discovery of gold in Georgia hastening the increase of white settlers in the area.

After the Cherokee were herded into stockades, they soon began the 1,200-mile march, which resulted in much suffering and death. Some of them escaped into the mountains, among them the leader Tsali. When he and his family were captured and mistreated, he killed two soldiers and escaped.

Col. William Stanhope Foster, the U.S. military leader, made a deal with the Cherokee that if Tsali was captured and executed, the Cherokees who escaped into the hills would be allowed to stay in the area. Tsali gave himself up, but he insisted that he and his sons be killed by his own men. The rifle that killed him is part of the artifacts in the museum I had visited earlier.

Besides the military action, the play features many songs, such as the one performed by an American Indian woman describing an awareness that danger is coming. Along with the war dances, which look authentic, are some fun-filled dances, one of which looked like it was straight out of "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" and another similar to something from "West Side Story." Still, I found the play an educational and worthwhile experience. It runs through Aug. 18.

"Unto These Hills" is the premier show, having been viewed by more than 6 million people. However, other shows by American Indians also are produced. This summer, "Unto these Hills" alternates with a new production, "Cherokee Family Reunion." There also is a pre-show of singers playing both country and Cherokee music.

The outdoor stage on which Unto These Hills is performed






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