Unto These Hills: A Retelling - Now a rescripted version of gripping Cherokee Drama

By Albert Bender
Photos by Dawn Arneach
(Cherokee One Feather)
Cherokee, North Carolina (NFIC) 12-08

The 2008 season of the renowned Cherokee Drama “Unto These Hills” underwent a rescripting from the changes that were made in 2006. The goal of the rewriting was to further correct some historical inaccuracies and enhance the overall presentation. 

“We want the truth to be told and we will keep this version of the Drama for several years,” said Eddie Swimmer, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) enrolled member and director of the Drama.

Swimmer is the first enrolled member of the EBCI to assume the position of Drama director. He has also worked with the internationally acclaimed American Indian Dance Theater based in Los Angeles. He is also a national champion hoop dancer. It was quite evident that Swimmer did a superb job directing the Drama. This reviewer has seen the Drama in all its versions over the recent years, and this rendition was the most poignant and moving. 

Also, each year more tribal members participate in the Drama.

“We have more Cherokee cast members on stage and more tribal members in technical casting and everybody was working together as one,” said Juanita Hornbuckle, stage manager and enrolled EBCI member.

This year saw new actors from the ranks of Cherokee youth.

“We are really proud of our young in the Drama,” said Martha Sampson, costume manager and also enrolled EBCI member.  

The script, which went through several rewrites, was penned by Linda West, who works for the Cherokee Historical Association(CHA).

“In the old Drama a number of the facts were wrong. The real story needed to be told and Cherokee history is so rich there is no need to add to or make changes to the facts,” said West.

There have been some script changes over the years in the interest of accuracy. For example, some years ago, when it was learned the invading DeSoto expedition was guided by an Indian woman chief, the Queen of Cofitachequi, the role of the guide, originally male, was changed to that of a female. In the 1999 version of the Drama, a new female character, Nukwaideye, a wife of the Peace Chief, Yonaguska, was added. It was known that Yonaguska had three wives over his lifetime. The character, Nukwaideye, was based on one of those historic wives. These were all changes made in the interest of historical accuracy and improving the Drama.


Back again from their introduction in 2006, were the characters of Selu and Kanati, the first Cherokee woman and man, played by actors Tana Takes Horse, Kiowa/Crow, and Jason Kobielus of Asian/Polish descent, who oversee and make sage comments as spiritual observers of the vast panorama of Cherokee history. Both acted superbly in their respective. Among the major sequences in this season’s Drama were the DeSoto invasion; the Cherokee rebuff of Tecumseh to join his confederacy to resist the invading whites; the grudging acceptance of a 640 acre allotment and U.S. citizenship by Yonaguska; the U.S. government’s passing of the Indian Removal Act signed by Andrew Jackson; the sufferings of Cherokees on the Trail of Tears; and the sacrifice of Tsali.

Among the main Cherokee characters in the Drama are Junaluska, Sequoyah, Yonaguska, John Ross, Euchella and Wachacha. A bit of background information would give the reader a better understanding and appreciation of the Drama.

Junaluska, played by Stephen Walkingstick, an enrolled EBCI member,  first appears in the third scene fighting on the American side in the Creek War of 1813 at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. In this scene Junaluska slays a Creek warrior who has the white general, Andrew Jackson, at his mercy, thus saving Jackson’s life. Jackson expresses his gratitude and says he will always remember the Cherokees.

When the Creek War began, Junaluska was among several hundred Cherokee warriors  aiding the American Army and the pro-U.S. Lower Creeks fighting the anti-U.S. Upper  Creeks in Alabama. At the Battle of the Horseshoe, Cherokee forces turned the tide of battle in attacking the anti-American Creeks from the rear. Jackson betrayed his Cherokee allies by signing the Indian Removal Act in May 1830.

Sequoyah, played by Mike Crowe Sr., a tribal member, appears in scene five, where he is fast at work developing the Cherokee writing system – the syllabary. Two friends persuade him to go fishing. As soon as he is gone his wife burns up 12 years of work. He returns, undaunted, and simply starts again.

His efforts made possible the flowering of Cherokee literacy and the production of the first American Indian newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, and the recording of Cherokee history, folklore and medicinal formulas for preservation in perpetuity. It is worthy to note and a tribute to the Cherokee people that between 1835 and 1861, more than 13,890,000 pages of books, tracts, pamphlets and also passages from the Bible were printed in Cherokee.

There is another Cherokee version of the origin of the syllabary, that the writing system is an ancient form of Cherokee writing, far predating the European arrival and had been nearly forgotten, but still existed in secrecy among priestly scribes. In this account, Sequoyah revived the writing for the use of all Cherokees, as a means of cultural preservation, particularly the Cherokee language.  

John Ross, played by actor Mackenzie Knapp, occupies a number of scenes, with the first being when the powerful Shawnee leader, Tecumseh, urges the Cherokees to join in a mighty Indian confederacy to resist the encroaching white settlers (keep in mind that the Cherokees had been the center of Indian resistance in the South to white settler aggression in the 18th century under the great Cherokee War Chief Dragging Canoe-Tecumseh had fought along side Cherokee warriors during this time.)

cherokeedrama2.jpgRoss was elected Principal chief in 1828 and was continuously re-elected and died in office in 1866. He consistently opposed removal. During the Trail of Tears he initially advocated the people to resist removal, but to do so non-violently. He lost his wife Quatie to sickness on the Trail and this is very sharply portrayed in the Drama. 

Another key figure in the Drama is Yonaguska, played by Innuit actor, Allan Hayton. His character occupies several scenes as he played such an important role in the struggle of Cherokees to remain in the mountains of North Carolina. In one scene he agonizes when the U.S. government agents tell him the only way he can remain in  his homeland is to accept U.S. citizenship and an allotment of 640 acres in the white man’s way. He feels that if he accepts he “will no longer be a Cherokee.” He decides to accept after further anguishing, but  proudly declares, “I will always be a Cherokee.” Yonaguska, although a Peace Chief, urges his people to follow the way of the warrior and never give up the land. 

In the latter scenes, Cherokee leaders Euchella and Wachacha, played by Mike Crowe Jr.. and Gregory Hunt, respectively, are told by the Army commander that their families will be held hostage until Tsali is brought in and executed. This was particularly agonizing for these two Cherokees, especially Euchella because he had been Tsali’s friend and neighbor, as history records they were from the same town. Euchella and his band, just like Tsali, were resisting removal by hiding in the mountains. Keep in mind the Cherokee actors are direct descendants of the Cherokees involved in this tragedy. Wachacha, also resisting removal, was the brother of the celebrated Junaluska. 

Will Thomas, played by actor  Tyler Adams, was the adopted white son of Yonaguska, and was involved in the success of the Eastern Cherokee to escape removal. He represented the Eastern Band at a time when Indians could not legally purchase land. As a young man, Thomas worked as a clerk at a trading post on Eastern Cherokee land. He befriended many Cherokees, learned the language, and was  given the Cherokee name, Will Usdi; Little Will in English. 

But the most significant revamping of the Drama is the return of the character of Tsali, which was excerpted from the 2006 Drama. In all versions of the Drama prior to 2006, Tsali was the singlemost important character. Tsali is played by tribal member Lloyd Arneach.         

“Without Tsali, many of us wouldn’t be here, after all he gave his life,” remarked Swimmer.

For 50 years Tsali had been portrayed as the person most responsible for the U.S. government calling off its  iniquitous, genocidal removal campaign against Cherokees in the North Carolina mountains, resisting the drive to Oklahoma. In the pre-2006 Drama, Tsali and family are captured by soldiers and are being taken to an internment stockade (a concentration camp) to embark on the Trail of Tears, when Tsali’s wife stumbles and is clubbed to death by a drunken soldier. Enraged, Tsali and his sons attack and kill the soldiers and the family flees into hiding in the mountains. Yonaguska and Will Thomas are sent by the Army to tell Tsali that if he and his sons surrender for the killing of the soldiers then the other Cherokees in hiding will not be hunted down by the Army. Tsali and his sons surrender and are executed, with the exception of his youngest, Wasituna, who is released because of his age.

cherokeedrama1.jpgIn the latest version, which is much closer to history, it is brought out that Tsali and his family were exempted from the removal because he, like Yonaguska, accepted U.S. citizenship and a 640 acre allotment of land (historical records bear this out and amazingly countless prominent historians of Cherokee history have overlooked this pivotally important fact). This fact flies in the face of countless hackneyed historical renderings of Tsali as just a remote farmer disinterested in tribal politics. What Cherokee in the 1830s was not interested in tribal politics, considering national survival was at stake?       

In the Drama, Tsali and his family argue with the soldiers that they are exempt and that their paperwork is in their cabin. A granddaughter attempts to get their papers and a scuffle ensues and two soldiers are killed. Tsali and his family flee to the mountains. The scenes covering Tsali are the most moving and poignant because audience members are inexorably drawn into this part of the story, like no other. I even heard an audience member, an elderly non-Indian, mutter he would have done the same thing.                                        

Then there are the characters of Euchella and Wachacha. History has made it seem that they dutifully captured and executed Tsali and his sons, without hesitation, carrying out the white man’s orders to kill their fellow Cherokees. The Drama presents a much likelier reality; the U.S. Army took as hostages the families of Euchella and Wachacha, conditioning their release upon the apprehension of Tsali. Also portrayed is the obvious heartwrenching agony enveloping these two Cherokees at the horrible choice before them; having to bring in fellow Cherokees who were simply defending themselves and their family against soldiers brutally carrying out orders under an illegal, fraudulent and grossly immoral treaty.

Tsali and his sons give themselves up and Tsali requests to be shot by his friend Euchella. The power of these scenes is incomparably moving, and the historical portrayal inconsolable.

The Drama concludes with Junaluska returning from Oklahoma, walking all the way back to the Cherokee homeland. The Horse Dance is then performed and all give thanks to the Creator for the survival of the Cherokee people.

This season’s version of the decades-old Drama ended as an unqualified success. It was an eclectic combination of the old and the new, the historic and the dramatic which brought out an even greater quality of performance by all the actors.

“This season the morale of everyone was even higher as there were elements put into the drama to satisfy the tourists, the local community and also the history buffs and there were also some dramatic elements from earlier versions included,” said Ruben Teesatuskie, enrolled EBCI member and board member of the CHA.

As for the future of the Drama there are plans to make even more changes for the positive. 

“We want to make it bigger and get a bigger cast and do a little more revamping of the story to make it even more accurate,” reflected Swimmer.

Each time the Drama, becomes in every way, more and more authentically Cherokee. The Drama which always  rises to great heights, closed the season this time, as far as this reviewer is concerned as the best version yet.

Junaluska was among the Cherokees captured by the army in 1838 and sent to Oklahoma. But he walked from Oklahoma in 1842 and returned to the mountains of North Carolina where he died in 1858.