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COVID-19 In Appalachia: Family, Connection And Culture

Courtesy of Dakota Brown
Dakota Brown shared this picture from the first time that her family was able to get together after they were all vaccinated in March 2021.

 Over a year ago, the borders of some local counties and regions were shut to the public to help stop the spread of COVID-19. 

As part of BPR and Foxfire Museum's oral history project,  Dakota Brown, education director at the Museum of the Cherokee shares what it was like when the Qualla Boundary closed during her interview with Foxfire curator Kami Ahrens.  

Dakota Brown: When I went to school, I was gonna be a finance major. And I hated it. So I decided that I wanted to instead be a history major. Because I used to read my history books for fun. Like my history textbooks, I would just read them for fun when I was younger. And I’ve always loved history and I kind of grew up in that world. And so that’s what I decided to go to school for. I knew I wanted to work in the community with my degree. So the most logical places for me were the museum and the other place that I was looking at was the tribal historic preservation office. But the museum got me first, so that’s how I ended up here. 

Kami Ahrens: Are both of your parents Cherokee citizens?

Dakota Brown: No, my dad he is. And my mom is from Georgia. 

Kami Ahrens: What was your community’s response to the coronavirus?

Dakota Brown: I feel like they responded fairly quickly.  I think everybody was kind of on board to do something pretty aggressive. And so what they decided to do was to shut down everything—shut down our casino, shut down the tribal offices, and close the borders. Because Cherokee has tons of tourists come here every day and we were just getting into the tourist season when all this kind of happened. And so they decided to shut down the borders and only let residents and enrolled members onto the boundary. So I think that was a pretty aggressive approach. And then they also shut down anything that was tourist-based. So like our museum was shut down as well. But we had actually decided to shut down right before, like a few days before they had decided to close the boundary.

Credit Courtesy of Dakota Brown
Dakota Brown and her mom on a recent hike.

I’m an enrolled member, so I was able to like get on and off the boundary fairly easily. But my mom she lives in Snowbird. Snowbird’s an hour away from Cherokee. She’s not an enrolled member, so she could get to her house in Snowbird, but she couldn’t get here to Cherokee. So anytime we had to reach her, it was kind of difficult becausethey had also closed Graham County’s borders. So there was a lot of like meeting that had to be done if we needed to see our mom. 

I don’t think at any point in time my family was like angry about that. We were just glad that they were doing that, I guess. We were very happy that they had closed Graham County, and we were very happy that they closed the boundary. And so I don’t think at any point in time we were like, “Oh this is awful, I hate this. I wish they would open back up.” I think we were just like, “Oh, well, we got to do what we got to do,” kind of thing. 

Kami Ahrens:Can you, can you speak to some of the reasons why they took such aggressive actions? I know specifically that part of it was the threat to the language and the importance of elders; can you just kind of speak to some of that?

Dakota Brown:  Our language is endangered. We have very few fluent speakers and there’s plenty of reasons for that. One of the main reasons is BIA education, boarding school education. And the way that they’ve systematically disconnected us from our language. There’s a really small population of fluent speakers and there’s a huge population of EBCI [Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian]  citizens that don’t speak Cherokee and are maybe desperately trying. So our language is held right now with our elders, with our older population. So if something were to happen to them, our language would die. 

So right now there’s a ton of people that are working to try to save it, but it’s really hard. It’s a really hard language to learn if it’s not your first language. It doesn’t work anything like English. Like it’s completely different from English, and most of the people here are English speakers. So it’s a really hard language to learn. It hasn’t been like an easy task to bring the language back and try to have people learn it and create fluent speakers and things like that. And also our society just is kind of set up for us to speak English now. And that was systematic as well. But, yeah, our society is set up for us to speak English; it’s not set up for us to speak Cherokee. So even people that are really, really trying to learn, it can be hard for them because they—our society doesn’t function that way. So language is a huge issue right now. 

But also, just like culture in general, if something [were] to happen to [the elder population], and we were to lose them, then we also lose a ton of information. Because a lot of our traditions are still passed down orally. There are a lot of things that aren’t in books. And it’s because, one we just kind of didn’t ever do that. We didn’t write things down in books. And then, even with our written language now—the syllabary and all that kind of stuff, we still don’t really write down anything in our language or write down any parts of our culture. It’s very rare that you see a book talking about native culture written by a native person. So there’s a lot of information that’s not out there that’s really still passed down orally. And so if we were to lose that older population, and we were to lose our elder population, then we would lose a lot. And that’s scary — it’s really, really scary. 

And there’s words like “extinction” that come to mind that I don’t think that most other Americans have to think about, because then our language goes extinct, our culture goes extinct. And because we do have such a small population, if it were to hit us really hard, you know, I’ve heard many of my friends talk about, we could go extinct. And so the idea of extinction makes us approach it more aggressively than most people would. Because that’s actually like on our radar. It’s actually something that we have to think about. Is what if this, this, this, and this, or what if we as a people were to go extinct because of something like this?

BPR is gathering stories with Foxfire Museum for our COVID-19 Oral History Project. Even the smallest moment offers insight into this time in our history. Find out how to submit your memories here.  Or share your experience by calling 828-253-6700 and leaving us a voicemail.


Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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