Story and image by Don McGowan
There is a great mountain in the heart of the Smokies. It is called Kuwahi. It has this name because it is a place where mulberry trees were found; in Tsalagi—the language of the Cherokee—Kuwahi means “Mulberry Place.”
To the Cherokee people it is sacred; and to the European settlers who came later, it is special. The latter initially called it Smoky Dome, but ultimately, in the way of most interlopers, they changed Kuwahi’s name to honor one of the area’s early European explorers and labeled it Clingmans Dome. This happened in 1859 due to the influence of Arnold Guyot who wished to honor his compatriot Thomas Lanier Clingman, a Civil War general on the Confederate side.
Kuwahi’s elevation has been measured at 6,643 feet, making it the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the highest point along the entire span of the Appalachian Trail, the highest point in Tennessee, and the third-highest point in mainland North America east of the Mississippi River.
For the Cherokee, Kuwahi’s size and mass were only incidental qualities. Underneath the mountain was the home of the chief of all bears, the White Bear, and the location of one of the bears’ townhouses. It was here each winter that all the bears gathered to dance before retiring to their dens, and it was here that sick bears went to recover in the healing waters of the magic lake, Ataga’hi. In case you have been to Kuwahi and want to claim that you have never set eyes there on a body of water with magical powers, it is your eyes that have deceived you, for Ataga’hi reveals itself in the cloud forms that float above the valleys below you.
It was here where medicine people went to fast and pray, to ask for guidance from the Creator so that they might return with instructions for the people in Kituhwa—the first Cherokee village, often referred to as the “mother town of the Cherokee,” which is located near the Tuckasegee River and what is known today as Bryson City, North Carolina. It was to the ragged slopes of Kuwahi that the warrior Tsali slipped into hiding to escape the removal that would be known as the “Trail of Tears.” It is not clear how many other Cherokee joined him before they realized that their flight was not to freedom but rather to greater bondage from which freedom would never be possible.
I go to Kuwahi for all these reasons, but also simply because it is beautiful, and my camera can express what it feels like to be in the presence of the divine.
“When we dance the earth trembles. When our steps fall on the earth we feel the shudder of life beneath us, and the earth feels the beating of our hearts, and we become one with the earth. We shall not sever ourselves from the earth. We must chant our being, and we must dance in time with the rhythms of the earth. We must keep the earth.”
—N Scott Momaday, Earth Keeper: Reflections on the American Land
Don McGowan owns and operates Earthsong Photography. For five years he was the staff photographer for Friends of the Smokies. He offers workshops and photography instruction in beautiful locations around the country, including the Smokies.