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Discovering Northwest Georgia's Surprising Native American History

The first Native American newspaper started here. And the Trail of Tears.

Northwest Georgia, well known for its Civil War history—Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman marched to Atlanta and then on to the sea from here—possesses another history most people are unaware of. An hour north of downtown Atlanta on Interstate 75, overlooked sites important to the history of America’s Native people await you.

Start at the New Echota State Historic Site in Calhoun. What could—and probably should—be a bustling national park welcoming hundreds of thousands of passersby on their way from the Midwest to Florida, is instead a quiet state park you will likely have to yourself.

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Twelve original and reconstructed buildings in a serene wooded landscape share many of the most important stories in not only Cherokee Indian history, but all Native American and American history.

In 1825 the Cherokee established a national capital here. At this point, the tribe remained sovereign from the United States.

The Cherokee created a bicameral legislature, a written constitution and a Supreme Court all based on the American model thinking this assimilation would win them favor from white people. It wouldn’t.

In 1828, the first newspaper published by Native Americans in a Native language, the Cherokee Phoenix, was produced in New Echota. The weekly paper printed articles in both English and Cherokee.

That would have been impossible even a few years prior, but by 1821 Sequoyah had developed a syllabary—written symbols—to represent the spoken Cherokee language. While a formal alphabet in the English understanding of the word proved impossible, Sequoyah ultimately devised more than 80 symbols representing Cherokee speech which could be printed and read.

As a result of Sequoyah’s invention, Cherokee literacy rates often exceeded that of their white neighbors.

The progress wouldn’t last. In the winter of 1838-1839, against a direct ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court which declared the action unconstitutional, President Andrew Jackson sent the army to New Echota to round up, force out and march nearly 20,000 Cherokees by foot 800-miles to Oklahoma.

Several thousand Cherokees—men, women and children—died on the Trail of Tears. No accurate measure exists. Those who oversaw the march didn’t care and those who were marching were too occupied by their fight to survive for accounting.

They died of disease, exposure, starvation. They died without ceremony or customary burial.

They died despite trying their best to acclimate to the white man’s world.

A lack of tourists will greatly aide in your ability to reflect upon the heroic and tragic events which took place on this ground. You may find it surprising how peace and quiet, a lack of screaming kids, whirring concession stands and oblivious selfie-takers allows you to connect more deeply with a place. Turn your phone off. Think about what happened where you are standing.

Allow your tears to dry on the 35-mile drive south on I-75 to your next stop, Etowah Indian Mounds Historic Site.

Etowah mound morning, Etowah Mounds State Historic Site
PHOTO: Etowah mound morning, Etowah Mounds State Historic Site. (Photo via Etowah Mounds State Historic Site)

Several thousand Native Americans called this place home between 1000 A.D. and 1550 A.D. Etowah Mounds is the most intact Mississippian Culture site in the Southeast.

Six earthen mounds, the largest rising 63-feet, merit most of your attention, but don’t overlook the nature trails and be sure to meander down to the Etowah River. Marvel that you can find such serenity only 40 miles from one of America’s biggest cities.

Upon visiting these sites, remember that the Native American story didn’t end here. Theirs is not a story told only in the past tense. It is also a contemporary story.

For a piece of that story, drive just three miles from the Etowah Indian Mounds through charming Cartersville to the Booth Western Art Museum. Through August 4, the Booth presents Six Navajo Masters: Abeyta, Begay, Johns, Whitehorse, Whitethorne & Yazzie.

All six are living artists. All six interpret not only Navajo and Native history, but Navajo and Native present-day experiences.

“I think it is critically important to remind everyone that Native Americans did not cease to exist in the 1800s,” Hopkins said. “Their culture survives despite often overwhelming initiatives to stamp out the people and/or their way of life. Among the themes in their art is the precarious position in which they find themselves in the modern world, as they often describe it living with a foot in two worlds, the traditional Native and contemporary American.”

The exhibition came together following a trip for museum members to Sedona, Arizona led by the Booth’s executive director Seth Hopkins. Hopkins connected with longtime Native American art dealer Peggy Lanning on the trip. Lanning was convinced to curate the exhibit which features artists she had previously represented in her gallery.

Baje Whitethorne Sr, White Shell Woman, 2018, Oil on Canvas, Collection of the Artist
PHOTO: Baje Whitethorne Sr, White Shell Woman, 2018, Oil on Canvas, Collection of the Artist. (Photo via Booth Western Art Museum)

“It is a unique grouping of six master artists who have never been shown together,” Hopkins said. “Subjects range from the disturbing, dealing with the death of many Native Americans as a result of uranium mining on or near the reservation prior to and during World War II, to uplifting and inspirational, such as the graceful stone works by Larry Yazzie or the depictions of healing ceremonies.”

It is that spirituality which connects not only the six Native artists in this show, but all Native people.

“Regardless of the style or subject, the spirituality of these artists, which is a foundational part of their cultural heritage, is one of the special qualities we sought to represent in the exhibition,” Hopkins said. “It clearly comes through the moment you walk in. As each artist took a turn describing the spiritual relationship they have with their art during the opening, there was hardly a dry eye in the house.”

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As surprising as it is finding this depth of Native American history in northwest Georgia, so too is finding one of the country’s top Western art museums, hundreds of miles east of the nearest buffalo herd, tumbleweed or cattle drive. The Booth boasts the largest permanent exhibition space for Western art in the country with a continually rotating schedule of exhibits bringing the best of the genre—from Fredric Remington to Andy Warhol—to Cartersville.

The more time you spend exploring northwest Georgia, the more discoveries you’ll make.

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