Some Tennessee land could soon be returned to Cherokee Indians

A marker for the Cherokee warrior Oconastota stands in December 2015 at the Chota Memorial site about 12 miles south of the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum in Vonore, Tenn. Oconastota died in 1783. Small rocks, shells and tree nuts left atop the stone mark visitors' passaage.
photo A barred owl perches on a large branch at the Tanasi-Chota Memorial property about 12 miles south of the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum in Vonore, Tenn., on Dec. 2, 2015. The property is part of property included in a bill before U.S. Congress seeking to return 76 acres of ancestral land to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

A congressional bill seeking to return 76 acres of tribal land along the Little Tennessee River to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is making its way through a U.S. House subcommittee with no opposition and few changes so far.

Since its introduction on Sept. 24, House Bill 3599, called the Eastern Band Cherokee Historic Lands Reacquisition Act, was referred first to the House Committee on Natural Resources, then in October was referred to the subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs, according to congressional records.

That subcommittee held early hearings on the bill that seeks to place the land in trust status on Feb. 24, according to bill sponsor U.S. House Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn. The bill was "received well" in committee, and state officials and TVA "do not oppose the bill," according to Fleischmann, who noted the bill also contains an anti-gaming provision.

"The only potential changes are minor and technical in nature," Fleischmann spokeswoman Maria Dill said. "We aren't sure about the timing of a markup [revisions] yet."

If passed, the land of two former Cherokee capitals on the Little Tennessee River that was flooded when the Tellico Dam was built almost 40 years ago would be returned to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for the establishment of museums, memorials and interpretive trails. The "reacquisition of land" is part of an agreement between the Cherokee and TVA that allowed the federal utility to use some of the Cherokee land with the promise it would be returned someday.

The House bill represents that "someday."

When the 129-foot-high dam was finished in 1979, 276 families were displaced by the 15,560-acre reservoir along 33 miles of the Little Tennessee River. TVA acquired 37,900 acres for the project. Some of the displaced families sold willingly while others had to be forced out through condemnation of the land, according to TVA officials. None of the communities existing in the 1970s in the footprint of Tellico Dam were Cherokee.

The dam inundated the land of historic tribal communities of the Overhill Cherokee like Chilhowee, Tallassee, Citico, Chota, Tanasi (from which Tennessee drew its name), Toqua, Tomotley, Tuskegee and Mialoquo.

Patrick Lambert, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, said when the bill was introduced last year the lands involved "held special value to the Tribe because of their special cultural significance."

The bill's passage "would be a very meaningful action, allowing the lands to again become tribal reservation," Lambert said. "They would be under our control and ownership as official homelands of the Overhill Cherokee once again. This would, in fact, represent the official and formal return of the Cherokee to their homeland - to what is now known as Tennessee."

Max Ramsey, who worked for TVA during planning and construction of the dam and who now works with the tribe in future planning and other affairs, said he and tribal leaders in North Carolina are satisfied with progress of the bill on the House side but he noted it must make an appearance on the Senate side to have a chance at becoming a law.

"We're in close contact with our consultant on this project in Washington, D.C., and are anxious to see it move forward," Ramsey said Tuesday. "Things are on track and the tribe and the new tribal council appears to be very interested in memorializing and interpreting for educational and personal interests what the area there represents as their former homeland."

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at or or or 423-757-6569.