The story of the Sacred Fire began before recorded history. It has been part of Cherokee culture since long before the white man arrived on the shores of this country. The Sacred Fire burned seven sacred woods. It was kept burning in the council house of each village and was used to light the fires of every Cherokee household. It was a symbol of strength and unity among the Cherokee people. It was late September in 1838. Groups of Cherokee people gathered in Rattlesnake Springs just north of Red Clay, Tennessee. There they held the finale council of the great Cherokee Nation. On October 1,1838, the long heart breaking journey of the Trail of Tears began. The caretaker of the Sacred Fire went with his people into exile. With him, the Sacred Fire of the Cherokee people traveled the trail of heartache and despair.
A small remnant of Cherokee people hid in the mountains of their beloved homeland. It is from these people the Eastern Band of Cherokee have descended. In 1951 the Cherokee Historical Association sent an expedition of tribal leaders from the Eastern Band of Cherokee on a historical exodus to retrace the "Trail of Tears."
*McKinley Ross, then Vice Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee was chosen to go. McKinley was the grandson of the famous Chief John Ross, who beloved wife died on the journey of tears.
*Leroy Wahnetah, one time council member who would later serve as Vice Chief of the Eastern Cherokee was also chosen to go. Leroy is the father of Cherokee language teacher, Mrs.Gloriette Mills.
*Joseph Washington, great grandson of the Cherokee martyr, Tsali, was chosen to go. Joseph was the great uncle to Mrs. Mary Ann Saunooke, a teacher assistant in the Cherokee Speech and Hearing classroom.
*Rev. Arsene Thompson, council member and chairman of the tribal council was chosen to go. Rev. Thompson is remembered by many for his portrayal of Elias Boudinot in the outdoor drama, Unto These Hills. He was the grandfather of Susie Terrell, one of the Horizons teachers.
These four tribal leaders learned that the Sacred Fire was kept in the Blackgum Mountains of Oklahoma. They went to the Red Bird Smith Community to visit Stoke Smith, a medicine man and keeper of the Fire. After much negotiation, he agreed to allow these leaders to ignite a charcoal-filled bucket with live coals from the Sacred Fire. They begin the journey back to the homeland of Cherokee with those coals. Each man took turns feeding and caring for the Sacred Fire.
Upon the arrival to the homeland the Fire gave its warmth and light to the beloved mountains of the Cherokee. Arsene Thompson became caretaker of the Sacred Fire. He transferred it to a kerosene lamp until a gas-fed home could be installed. In June 1951, on opening night of the outdoor drama, Unto These Hills, Arsene lit a backstage torch from his kerosene lamp. He carried the torch to the side stage where Chief Henry Bradley stood. Chief Bradley and a white man, Mr. Harry Buchanan who was a member of the Cherokee Historical Association, used the torch to ignite what is known as "The Eternal Flame." The Flame was dedicated to "friendship eternal between the White man and the Red man."
This was not the final journey for the Sacred Fire. On Friday, April 3, 1984, the fire made another journey into history. On this day, in the ancient capital of the Cherokee Nation, Red Clay, Tennessee, a joint council of the Eastern Band of Cherokee and the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma convened for the first time since that final council in 1838. A torch lit from the Sacred Fire brought to the Cherokee homeland in 1951 was carried by runners and used to light the council fire. It was the first joint council of the Cherokee people in almost 150 years.
The Eternal Flame is an appropriate name for this Sacred Fire. We hope always to keep the Fire burning as we rekindle our culture, language and beliefs.
"I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help."
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