Greenville Water unveils sculpture honoring Cherokee heritage

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Photo by Jack Robert

With the rhythmic pounding of a drum circle providing a backdrop, more than 50 people gathered on Saturday afternoon at Greenville Water System’s campus in downtown Greenville for the unveiling of a sculpture honoring the area’s Native American heritage.

Crafted by Greenville sculptor Doug Young, “Water Blessing,” a 10-foot bronze sculpture, depicts a Cherokee man holding a satchel of water to the sky in tribute to the tribe’s connection to Upstate waterways. The man is “giving thanks for one of God’s greatest gifts, the water of life,” according to Phillip Kilgore, chairman of the Greenville Water Commission. 

The Cherokee, who used Upstate watersheds for transportation and drinking water, developed a strong spiritual connection with water. A river, for instance, was considered sacred and known among Cherokee as the “Long Man.” Some of today’s members practice a “going to water” purification and prayer ceremony, which the sculpture depicts.

“We are standing on ground populated by the Cherokee people.  This is where they worked and hunted, where they laughed and lived. This site is part of their heritage, as are the locations of the water resources that are essential to the lives of current Greenvillians,” said Kilgore. “Thus, it is good and proper for us to celebrate the heritage of the Cherokee and our shared respect and appreciation for water.”

Saturday’s unveiling marked the completion of Prospect Green, a one-acre park located on the corner of West Washington and West Broad streets in downtown Greenville. The park was the final stage of Greenville Water System’s $9 million redevelopment project that also included an operations facility, which was completed last year. 

As part of the unveiling, Gene Norris, chief of the Lower Eastern Cherokee Nation of South Carolina, blessed the sculpture and tribal members performed various dances and songs.

The Lower Eastern Cherokee Nation has 550 members across 14 counties in the Upstate and Piedmont.

The Gray Court-based tribe was granted state recognition by the South Carolina Commission for Minority Affairs Board in 2015. It had to submit more than 600 pages of documentation to meet the 14-step criteria that the Commission requires for any potential tribes. The Commission requires that the group’s members link their ancestry back to known Cherokee, have at least 100 members related by blood, and show at least 100 years of continuity as a people.

The group is considered separate from the federally-designated Cherokee tribes who now live in Oklahoma and at a North Carolina reservation. However, Norris said many members are related. The South Carolina tribe’s members do not live on any kind of designated reservation, but are scattered across Oconee and Laurens counties.

Norris consulted with Greenville Water System officials and Young for historical accuracy.

The sculpture features five educational panels explaining the Cherokee tribe’s connections to the Upstate. The panels feature research conducted by Dr. Courtney Tollison Hartness, a Furman University assistant professor and history expert.

The Jocassee, Keowee, and Saluda watersheds were once home to Cherokee, according to one of the panels. In 1816, South Carolina purchased the last remaining tribal lands inside its borders. However, some Cherokee were allowed to buy their own land and remain in the state. A few in South Carolina were affected by the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the ensuing “Trail of Tears” forced relocation to Oklahoma.

The sculpture is flanked by one fountain with three water flows representing the three watersheds in the Upstate. 

City staff said the sculpture is the “first main piece in the city representing Cherokee Indians.”

For more information, visit greenvillewater.com

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