You can feel an ever so slight chill run up your spine. But it is not from the mountain winds shifting their direction in anticipation of the coming dusk, it is from your anticipation of the coming drama. It is a feeling that millions before you have felt as the lights dim and you are transported back to the beginning of time, through the pageantry of one of the longest running outdoor dramas in the U.S. It is the same reaction visitors have had since the first showing of "Unto These Hills" nearly six million tickets ago. But it is also very different from the drama of days past. The show today has been revamped to better portray the unique story of the Cherokee from a historical perspective. The new play traces the Cherokee people through the eons, through the zenith of their power, through the heartbreak of the Trail of Tears, finally ending, appropriately, in the present day, where the Cherokee people, much like their newly re-scripted drama, continue to rewrite their place in the world. A place based on traditional Cherokee values and modern sensibilities.
The play opens with the arrival of the Spanish Conquistador, Hernando DeSoto in 1540. The appearance of DeSoto and his army establishes an ominous portent of what will befall the Cherokee Nation during the next three-hundred years. Early on the famous Cherokee leader, Yonaguska deliberates the fate of all Native peoples, and yet charts a peaceful course with his white neighbors and the American government. He even joins forces with Andrew Jackson at the famous Battle of Horseshoe Bend where another famous Cherokee leader, Junaluska saves Jackson’s life. Despite this, Jackson will later develop policies as President that usurp previous promises of Cherokee sovereignty and deliberately charts a course for the removal of the Cherokee from their traditional homelands. The discovery of gold in Cherokee County in 1835 sets the stage for tribal lands to be overrun by the whites, who illegally occupy lands, build settlements and town, and generally disregard the cultural practices and freedoms of the Native population. Also during this time, unscrupulous land agents descend upon area, carrying out the Manifest Destiny ideology, as well as creating deep divisions among the Cherokee people. It is at this point where the heartbreaking story of Tsali and his family begins to unfold. His unrelenting mistrust of the United States Government, along with his intense love of his people and their traditional ways, gives rise to an inevitable – and ultimately deadly - clash between him and the over-powering forces of the United States Army. Tsali’s resistance to removal leads to the untimely death of his beloved wife, Wilani, as well as him and his sons near the end of the play. They sacrifice themselves so that a small group of Cherokee will be able to remain in their homeland. But sadly, shortly following the men’s execution, the infamous Trail of Tears begins. Despite this dark and tragic episode in the lives of the Cherokee, the ending of the play is filled with beautifully sculpted imagery and effective emotional symmetry, symbolizing the re-emergence of a people whose spiritual fortitude, social complexities, and human courage will never be broken.