Spiral of Fire
The Great Smoky Mountains The Great Smoky Mountains

Spiral of Fire takes you with author LeAnne Howe (Choctaw) to the North Carolina homeland of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to discover how their mix of tourism, community, and cultural preservation is the key to the tribe's health in the 21st century. Along the way Howe seeks to reconcile her own complex identity as the illegitimate daughter of a Choctaw woman, fathered by a Cherokee man she never knew, and raised by an adopted Cherokee family in Oklahoma.

Howe's search leads you on a journey of discovery to one of the most beautiful places in America where Cherokees, live on land they've inhabited for 10,000 years and manage their own schools, hospitals, cable company, tourist attractions and multi-million dollar casino. Yet, despite these successes, diabetes threatens 40% of the population, racism undermines self-confidence, and greed threatens to divide the community. Spiral of Fire shows you the forces at work to restore health, prosperity and sovereignty to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

You meet "Chief Henry" Lambert, who poses with tourists in full Hollywood "Indian" garb — a feathered headdress that the Cherokee never wore. Playing to the stereotype disappoints Howe.

Through Joyce Dugan, former teacher, school superintendent and the only woman elected principal chief, we learn about the revolutionary plan to create a K-12 cultural and academic campus on the reservation, where older students can mentor younger ones. We watch as 18-year-old Corey Blankenship testifies before Congress to convince legislators to allow a land exchange with the National Park Service that will provide the site for the new school.

The school and other construction projects are made possible by the influx of casino money into the tribe's coffers. As Dugan says, "There's been criticism of Indians and casinos. I think when Congress passed the law to allow this they just never in their wildest dreams envisioned what has happened with Indian gaming. Whether anyone likes gambling, whether they despise it, whether they agree with it or not, because of it we're finally seeing a sense of independence that we have not seen in over 200 years."

But, as Howe says, "Casino profits have swelled the tribal budget to $150 million and made the community more self-sustaining. But it's also raised some very contentious issues. Who is controlling this new wealth?" To answer this, Howe delves into the complicated arena of tribal politics, where issues of absentee voting, blood quantum, and what it really means to be a Cherokee are being debated in the community.

Howe discovers that what really binds the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians together is a strong sense of community. Whether expressed at a high school football game, the 90th annual Cherokee Indian fair, or at a meeting to protest tribal council actions. The tribe's strong sense of identity comes from knowing who their neighbors are, who their families are back several generations, and the Native values that make them Cherokee.

Howe sees first-hand many of the advances that tribal money is paying for, including not only new schools but much-needed education about health, diet, alcoholism, domestic violence. New parenting, and mentoring programs to try to break negative behavioral cycles while children are still young. So, despite her initial concerns about tacky tourism and flashy casinos, Howe is inspired by the way the Cherokees are healing their community. And her own personal connection with the tribe, through her long gone father, is renewed and revitalized.

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