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Ravensford Oral History Project: Folklore and Mitigation, A (Relatively) Happy Case Study

Michael Ann Williams
Western Kentucky University


Executive Summary

The Ravensford Oral History Project is unique as a form of cultural mitigation in many ways. Landlocked largely by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Eastern Band of Cherokee was searching for a land to build a new K-12 school to replace schools that were over-crowded and outdated. Their hopes finally landed on a 168- acre tract of land owned by the park. A deal was negotiated to swap for Cherokee land adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway. The land swap was controversial, mostly due to environmentalists’ objections to any land being transferred out of park protection. There were, however, also objections from descendants of land owners who lost their property to eminent domain in creation of the park during the 1930s and had been told that the land would remain national park in perpetuity.

Nevertheless, the land transfer was ultimately approved and the cultural resources, by law, needed to be accounted for. A multi-million dollar archaeological project was initiated by of TRC Garrow Associates in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This was perhaps not an obvious project for folklorists. The land was unoccupied parkland and the project was largely archaeological in nature. However, along with an extensive pre-historic excavation, there was also an investigation of a historic site, the former timber town of Ravensford, which existed primarily in the 1920s. Paul Webb of TRC was convinced that oral history could be an important component of the historic investigation and it gave us a significant opportunity to integrate the work of folklorists with that of historic archaeologists. The topsy-turvy nature of the project itself was neatly summed up by one of my first fieldworkers on the project: "They are digging up Euro-American culture, so Native Americans can build!” This essay explores the role of folklorists in the Ravensford project, including two by-products: a CD-Rom and documentary video.

The former site of Ravensford, North Carolina, was the subject of a study integrating oral histories by folklorists with the work of historic archeologists. Photo courtesy of Michael Ann Williams.

Folklorists and Mitigation

The vexing issue of the role of folklorists in environmental impact study has been debated since the 1970s when, under pressure from influential individuals in the discipline, the American Folklore Society withdrew from the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Project. My own exposure to the issue was up close and personal. After my first year of graduate school in folklore, I was hired by the Historic American Buildings Survey to document buildings impacted by the construction of the Tenn-Tom. While I was isolated from the controversy surrounding the AFC’s project, I certainly was not from the human toll of the construction project. While I understand the objections to participation in these types of "mitigation” projects, I still feel that folklorists would have done much more good than harm in participating in the project.

Most of my experience in historic preservation has been from the sunny side of survey and documentation, which for the most part created positive outcomes for everyone involved. Mitigation is far thornier, although it is admittedly where the money is in cultural resource work. In this case study I will examine one project in which I was involved which suggests some realms in which folklorists can work positively in a mitigation project.


Folklorists and the Ravensford Project

My own introduction to the Ravensford project came in spring of 2004 when I received a series of telephone calls from Paul Webb of TRC. Webb was insistent in his interest in having me participate in this particular project and was not taking no for an answer. My own reluctance was not on ethical grounds, but practicalities. At Western Kentucky University, we had finally achieved departmental status for folklore and starting in June, I was to be its first department head. Not only was I feeling overwhelmed by the changes coming, but for the first time, I would also not have free time in the summer for my own research. Despite my demurrals, Paul kept calling. Finally, intrigued by the project, my resistance began to crumble. After establishing that the work would be conducted by graduate students, we were off and going.

One of our first decisions was decide on the need to update our field equipment and move to solid state digital recording. With folklorist Doug Boyd as our technical advisor, we purchased our first Marantz digital recorders and some very pricey data storage media (one gig CompactFlash at that time cost about $200). Two graduate students, Ross Fuqua and Kevin Murphy, began the first summer’s work in coordination with personnel from the National Park Service and especially the Tribal Preservation Office and the Cherokee Museum. While copies of all material were provide to the Park Service, the materials were ultimately owned by the Eastern Band and we were careful to try and abide by their guidelines in drawing up release forms and in other fieldwork matters.

Throughout the project, there was an interesting intercultural dimension. The land, although adjacent to Big Cove, one of the more traditional Cherokee communities, had not formally been owned by the Cherokee for two hundred years. The timber town largely employed non-Cherokees, as did the Civilian Conservation Corps that followed after the creation of the park. However, in terms of locating individuals who remembered Ravensford during the timber era of the 1920s or the CCC period of the 1930s, it was actually easier to find people of Cherokee descent since they were more likely to be still living in the immediate area. We also made the decision to do some interviews that focused specifically on the land transfer, rather than the distant past. Ultimately we interviewed 46 individuals, a third of who were members of the EBCI.

The majority of those interviewed who had firsthand experience with Ravensford were in their eighties at the time of the interview. Their memories are therefore largely of a child’s perspective on the logging era of the 1920s. One of the few who remembers the logging era of Ravensford as an adult was Bess Nations, who was born in 1902 and was 103 at the time of the interview. Perhaps the most detailed memories of Ravensford during the 1920s came from Virginia Zachary, who was born in 1916 and who lived in Ravensford from 1919 to 1927. The daughter of Dr. J. L. Reeves, Mrs. Zachary provided a portrait of life in the community during Ravensford’s heyday in two different interviews. She also sketched a memory map of Ravensford as she recalled it.

Memory map by Virginia Zachary, former resident of Ravensford. Image courtesy of Michael Ann Williams.

As with most projects of this sort, the processing of the materials took far longer than we anticipated. After the first summer of fieldwork, my graduate assistant toiled away at transcription. In the second summer I hired Jill Breit to do some follow up fieldwork and Christie Burns to transcribe. Christie turned out not only to be a whiz bang transcriptionist, she also fell in love with the interviews and offered, as an independent study, to create an innovative CD-Rom, Remembering Ravensford. Every person who participated in the study was given a CD of their interview, a transcription, and a copy of Remembering Ravensford, which provided easy access to portions of the interview according to theme, as well as historic photographs that we were able to locate. We would have liked to have been able to have a web-based version, but with the restrictions in the EBCI-approved release forms we were hesitant about permissions. I was glad, however, that we had a product beyond the report and the recordings themselves (copies of which were made for both the Eastern Band and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park).

The Remembering Ravensford CD-Rom is one of two media projects—not part of the original deliverables—that grew out of folklorists’ involvement. Image courtesy of Michael Ann Williams.

Remembering Ravensford also spawned a second media project. Christie and another graduate assistant Sarah Schmitt traveled with me to Cherokee to meet with members of the EBCI, TRC, and the Park Service and we shared Christie’s CD-Rom. The park and TRC personnel folks seemed very excited about it but the EBCI folks said, "It’s really nice, but we would really like to have something that focuses more on the Cherokee side of the story to use for the groundbreaking of the new school. Do you think you could do that?” The groundbreaking was only a month away and in the meantime Christie was to take her comprehensive exams and Sarah was getting married, but they said "sure, let’s do it.” Amazingly enough (to me) they produced a 22-minute video projection, "Ravensford: The Story of Our Land,” which was broadcast on the local TV, shown in schools, and at the groundbreaking. Although in format it was not as innovative as the CD-Rom, it was more easily shown to a crowd and it achieved the goal of integrating the oral history and archaeological research. Although neither media product was part of our original list of "deliverables” we were excited to have some non-archival products to share. They did make me wish that I had thought more about visuals when we started the product. We were so caught up in our digital audio transition, I think we didn’t do a good enough job the first year of visually documenting our interviewees.

The video project also included a small, but happy, story of cultural repatriation. I had mentioned the Cherokee fiddler Manco Sneed to Paul Webb who had suggested that we use some of his music in our project. As it turned out, no one in Cherokee, including his relatives, had any recordings of Manco. I knew that Blanton Owen had recorded and written about Manco Sneed and found out that his recordings were at the Western Folklife Center and Steve Green was able to locate them. We also found out at that Ray Alden of the Field Recorder Collective was about to release a CD with some of Manco’s recordings. Steve at first was hesitant to provide us with access because he had heard that there had apparently been some ill-will between folklorists/field recorders and Sneed’s daughter, Dakota Brewer. However, our main contact in Cherokee, Carmaleta Monteith, one of the main shaker and movers behind the new school, turned out to be Sneed’s great-niece and she was able to smooth the waters with Dakota Brewer and other family members. In turn, Steve and Ray Alden created CDs of Manco Sneed’s music which they sent to Carmaleta to be distributed at a family reunion. Carmaleta happily wrote back to say that Manco’s music was the highlight of the reunion. All projects have unexpected consequences—it’s good to know that sometimes they are happy ones.


Lessons Learnedand the Impact of Folklorist Participation

As I mentioned in the beginning, this was an unusual mitigation project because the property that was affected was uninhabited park land and the intent was to give it back to a Native American community. We weren’t involved in preserving extant buildings, only memories of a place. These sorts of projects don’t usually include an oral history component, but we were fortunate that in this case that the head of the project saw its importance and asked folklorists to participate.

One of the primary ways that this project was innovative was in its collaboration with archaeologists. However, it was also one of the areas that was most frustrating. Our video integrated the research of the prehistoric archaeologists with our oral histories. However, I never did get much of a sense of whether our work was specifically useful to the historic archaeologists or not. We did ask them if there were specific issues that they wished us to pursue, but they didn’t provide us with specific areas of investigation. One issue that most of the individuals that we interviewed remembered Ravensford from a period when they were very young and their memories were not concrete in a way that the archaeologists might have wished. The historic archaeologists seemed mostly to appreciate the historic photos we were to uncover and were especially excited about Virginia Zachary’s memory map.

Whether our research was fully integrated into the archaeological research, I do feel that we helped create a far richer record of Ravensford as a place. All our interviews were transcribed and archived at both the Cherokee Museum and the Great Smoky Mountains Folklife. We also analyzed census data, and scanned and analyzed Cherokee Industrial Census from the 1920s and 1930s. We also, of course, produced an extensive report, as well as the two media projects. From our end, we made the important transitional into digital audio recording (learning a lot along the way) and the grant paid for assistantships and summer employment for approximately ten graduate students.

Most importantly, I hope that we were also able to facilitate was an understanding that Ravensford existed as different places for different people. I think we can take the time to understand why former residents were bitter that the land taken away from their families was no longer going to be park land "in perpetuity” as they had been told (for some just one more example of the bad faith of the government) and environmentalists were aghast at land being no longer protected by the park service. At the same time, we can also rejoice with former EBCI chief, Joyce Duggan, who recalled: "So one day I had to go to the Job Corps for something. . . . And, on the way back I, you know, you have these epiphanies, you know, it’s like, 'My gosh, why didn’t I think of this?' I was coming through that Ravensford property, and I thought, 'Here it is. Here’s where were suppose—this—we can get this land.' . . . . I said, 'I think I’ve found our place'.”


References Cited

Ravensford Oral History Project Draft Report, submitted to Cherokee Central Schools by TRC Environmental Corporation, 2009.

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