Public art reminds us of Native Americans’ rich and troubled history

Sculpting the past

Photo by Jack Robert

Last month, in a ceremony punctuated by Native American dance and song, Greenville Water dedicated Prospect Green, a new park at the corner of West Washington and West Broad streets, and unveiled the centerpiece of the park, a ten-foot tall bronze sculpture of a Cherokee male, titled “Water Blessing,” by artist Doug Young.

A community’s public art, statuary, monuments, and memorials reveal that community’s values and history. Upcountry South Carolina has a rich Native American past, dating back as far as 13,000 years ago, when pre-modern societies developed just south of modern-day Greenville. Between 1000-1450 A.D., a period archeologists know as the Pisgah Phase, societies developed in river valleys in the nearby Saluda and Keowee areas. Pisgah societies were the direct precursor to the Cherokee, and common cultural practices and values linked the two.

As Cherokee tribes evolved, their historical reliance on freshwater supplies manifested itself in a deep reverence for water. Cherokee communities were almost exclusively located in close proximity to streams and rivers; evidence from settlements reveals that the openings in the gates constructed for defense directly faced the river, respected as a sacred entity and known among the Cherokee as the “Long Man.” Rivers were also commonly used for transportation and for farming. The Cherokee displayed a particular proficiency in agriculture; they grew maize, peas, pumpkins, melons, squash, and potatoes. Wild fruit was an important part of their diet as well.

The Cherokee’s matrilineal society sharply contrasted with the societal norms espoused later by European settlers. Their concept of marriage was far less binding than that to which European settlers were accustomed, and involved no formal ritual other than an exchange of gifts between clans or families. Upon marriage, a husband joined his wife’s clan. Men had no rights over their wife’s property, and their children belonged to her clan. If the parents separated or the father died, the children remained with their mother’s clan to be reared by their mother and eldest uncle.

As Europeans arrived and eventually explored this area, relations between European explorers and Native Americans were troubled, though historical records suggest that many of the early explorations would not have survived without goodwill from the native people, most of which came in the form of food. The colony of South Carolina made the slavery of Native Americans legal in the late 17th century, however, thus significantly exacerbating relations. After the Cherokee War of 1776-1777, the Cherokee lost almost all of their land in modern-day Anderson, Greenville, Oconee, and Pickens counties, and migrated west.

Currently, the only federally recognized Cherokee tribe in the Southeast is based in Cherokee, N.C. They are the descendants of the 800 or so Cherokee from upcountry South Carolina and western North Carolina who were able to stay following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. These select few were able to remain chiefly through the efforts of William Holland Thomas, a white man who grew up near a trading post in Cherokee territory and who was adopted into the tribe by Chief Yonaguska. As an adult, he became an attorney and represented the tribe in its negotiations with the U. S. government. He was named Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in 1831, the only white man to ever have that honor bestowed upon him. In the late 1840s, he was elected to the North Carolina state senate. By utilizing his position as a senator and amassing his own wealth and the collective wealth of the tribe to purchase the land in Cherokee under his name, he was a driving force in preserving the Cherokee presence in the American Southeast.

Dr. Courtney L. Tollison teaches history at Furman University. She can be reached at

Daniel Reese graduated in May 2017 from Furman University with a degree in history. He completed an internship under Dr. Tollison, in which he researched and assisted with the development of Greenville Water’s Native American memorial.




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