A last-minute amendment insinuated into an Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act last June authorized the Tennessee Valley Authority to complete the Tellico Dam near Knoxville “notwithstanding the Endangered Species Act or any other law.” This high-handed and very dangerous precedent is thought to be the first such rider ever to put an unfinished federal construction project beyond all legal restraint. On September 25, President Carter failed to veto HR4388 as he had been urged to do by members of his own cabinet. One of the oldest and most evil-smelling public works project in the country thus achieved through procedural tricks and political blackmail what it had never been able to win in a fair hearing. On November 29, when the flood gates were lowered, a small perch called the snail darter, whose last natural habitat was the last free-flowing stretch of the Little Tennessee River, became the first living creature ever consigned willfully into oblivion.
Though only one of many urgent reasons why the Tellico Dam should never have been started, this little fish was taken up by the press and television to the virtual exclusion of more fundamental issues. Even philosophical defenders of the darter became troubled by the trivialized controversy as set out by the dam’s advocates and parroted in newspapers and on TV. Did the perpetuation of a “useless” three-inch “min-now” justify the waste and loss of energy that would result from abandoning a nearly completed $120-million hydroelectric dam? As I discovered in early November, when I went down to the Little Tennessee River to have a look at the historic valley before it disappeared, this presentation of the case was false from beginning to end.
The TVA and its long-time supporters, led by local politicians and developers, big corporations, and labor unions, claimed that Tellico Lake—which would be created by the dam—was needed for recreation, improved navigation, and flood control. Much of the shoreline of the lake, they said, would be used for industrial development, providing jobs in this depressed pocket of western Appalachia, and the dam would make a vital contribution to hydroelectric energy production in the region. In fact, twenty-four major dams and lakes already exist within sixty miles of Tellico, and most of them have large stretches of undeveloped shores. The claims that the dam will improve recreation, navigation, and flood control turn out to be hollow, and as for the energy contribution, this dam contains no electric generator of any kind; it will produce no more than twenty-three megawatts (out of a current TVA regional capacity of 27,000) by means of a diversion canal through the nearby Ft. Loudoun Dam on the Tennessee River.
How many Americans, I wonder, are even aware that the Tellico is a small dam in a 38,000-acre project and that most of the $110-million that allegedly would be “wasted” if it is not completed was actually spent on speculative acquisition and road development of 22,000 acres that were never intended to be flooded? Appreciation in value of the proposed lakeside properties has long ago offset the $22 million in materials and labor (exactly one-fifth of the figure used for public consumption) that is the true cost of the dam and its embankments. And the TVA often took over these properties by right of eminent domain, with little or no concern for the rights of the legal owners. In a typical case, the TVA condemned the ninety-acre farm of an elderly widow, Mrs. Nellie McCall, even though less than two acres were to be flooded. (“I offered to give them that for nothing,” Mrs. McCall said, “but they said everybody had to go.”) Under the circumstances, the 341 families evicted from their hard-won homesteads to make room for speculators in lakeside lots may be forgiven for calling the whole ruthless enterprise “a land grab.”
During the Depression, when the Tellico Dam was first conceived, the claims made for it later may have seemed valid: the TVA, in fact, had been set up to help the impoverished regional economy. Since then, the TVA has ossified into a huge, autonomous bureaucracy, influenced by special interest groups tied to federal agencies. Grown immense at the bulging pork barrel of highway, dam, and waterway construction, the TVA requires increasingly vast projects and appropriations merely to justify its girth—hence the oppressive grid of steel and concrete that has locked up the rivers of this region into a chain of stagnant ponds descending from the mountains all the way west to the Mississippi.
The Tellico, which proposed to throttle the last wild stretch of the Little Tennessee, seemed like one dam too many even to the US Congress, where it has been debated annually for the past fifteen years. But the TVA was only one of the forces in Tennessee that wanted this dam badly and the state’s congressmen and senators, notably Senator Howard Baker, were encouraged to persist far beyond the call of duty. Funds for the dam were finally appropriated in 1966, but construction, started the next year, was halted in 1971 by a coalition of local people and environmentalists, who were able to demonstrate in court that the project flouted the National Environmental Policy Act. Thus, the shortcomings of Tellico were obvious well before the summer day in 1973 when an ichthyologist named David Etnier discovered a small, pretty, banded perch unknown to science at Coytee Springs, a few miles above the half-built dam.
Biologists subsequently concluded that the original range of Percina tanasi—which needs a clear, cool flow of water to oxygenate its clean pebble-bottom spawning beds—included most of the Tennessee River drainage; it was only after the TVA had despoiled 2500 miles of wild river that this species has been confined to the Little Tennessee. A volunteer lawyer, Zygmunt Plater, who has fought for six years against the Tellico, recalls the meeting when the Valley farmers agreed to file a suit on behalf of the darter under the Endangered Species Act of 1973: “I lived on this river all my life and I never heard of it,” said Asa McCall (who died a few years later, and whose widow, Nellie, now seventy-five, was one of the last holdouts against TVA seizure). “But if this little fish can help us lick this thing, then I’m all for it.”
Almost overnight, the darter was taken up by the press as a cute idea, a little finny David fighting the Goliath of modern progress, but before too long (together with an obscure Maine weed called the Furbish lousewort) it became a kind of national joke. The joke was made much of by Tellico’s proponents, who saw that the public would soon lose sympathy for a “useless minnow” that was said to be wasting energy as well as money, and eventually this ridiculed small creature, used originally as a delaying action, was doing the cause a lot more harm than good. It was also claimed that the fish had been transferred successfully into nearby streams: in fact, two of the three transplanted populations have died out, and the third is threatened by the acid spills and other pollutants in the Hiwassee River.
Meanwhile, the TVA had acquired a new board of directors, and with it a strange ambivalence toward the project. In a letter to Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus, in April 1978, the TVA chairman, David Freeman, conceded that “Contrary to TVA position, forming a permanent lake is not vital to the Tellico Project and may not even be the option with the greatest public benefits.” Subsequently, a 258-page TVA document, “Alternatives for Completing the Tellico Project,” acknowledged that income from the valuable farmland to be flooded would probably exceed the “projected benefits”1 of the new lake by nearly a million dollars a year; that $14 million in additional construction would be needed before the dam could pass safety requirements; that annual dam maintenance would substantially exceed its income; that local job opportunities created by the dam were outnumbered by those that would be lost; and that aside from the Endangered Species Act, the dam was in legal difficulties on numerous counts, including the Historic Preservation Act, the Environmental Policy Act, the Rivers and Harbors Act, the Clean Water Act, the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, and the Executive Order on Floodplain Management, none of which the TVA had complied with. (“TVA does not argue the law,” one lawyer told me. “They argue that they are above the law.”)
Even the TVA, in short, had now concluded that its dam made no practical sense whatever. From other points of view—moral, aesthetic, and environmental—the dam was what the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial of September 27 called “an abomination of irresponsibility…a towering symbol of almost everything that is rotten in the District of Columbia.” A beautiful river known affectionately throughout the state as the “Little T” has been stopped up like a clogged pork barrel to create a muddy artificial lake. Silted beneath this superfluous lake will lie not only the drowned homesteads of hundreds of defenseless people but also 16,000 acres of some of the richest riverbottom farmland in the US, and a historical treasure perhaps as important as all these other losses put together: the hundreds of archaeological sites in the Little Tennessee Valley include not only ancient mounds but the buried ruins of the Seven Towns that two centuries ago were the sacred center of the Cherokee Nation, the largest and most powerful tribe in the southeastern United States.
Most Eastern Cherokee—over five thousand—now live on the Qualla Boundary reservation in the Blue Ridge Mountains, just across the North Carolina border, but the Little Tennessee remains their spiritual homeland. In the words of an Indian named Jimmie Durham, who testified before a House committee two years ago, “Is there a human being who does not revere his homeland, even though he may not return?… In our own history, we teach that we were created there, which is truer than anthropological truth because it was there that we were given our vision as the Cherokee people.” A report2 prepared for the TVA by Department of the Interior archaeologists—dated May 24, 1979, but mysteriously withheld until after the final Tellico appropriations were signed into law by President Carter on September 25—ascribes “world-wide significance” to these sites, declaring that “the physical records of American prehistory present in Tellico cannot be matched in any other area this size in the continent.”
Why were the great historical values of this river, not to speak of its sacred importance to the Indians, given virtually no mention in the national debate on the Tellico Dam? For it seems clear that if the public had been fairly informed of the true nature of what was being perpetrated at Tellico, the public servants could never have got away with it. Even seeing the valley of the Little Tennessee might have sufficed: I had not expected that the place would be so lovely. On the first day of my visit, in the soft light of early November, the muted fire colors of the fall, the white and moss-green faces of the rock walls at the river bends were reflected like memories of other centuries in the clear, swift water rolling down from the blue ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the east. The day was filled with drifting leaves, the rich mineral smell of humus, the autumn calls of birds. “You don’t have to be a Cherokee to feel the spiritual power here,” murmured Roy Warren, a local environmentalist and amateur archaeologist who had fought for years against the loss of the “Little T,” and who had kindly volunteered to share his knowledge. Mr. Warren had met me at Fort Loudoun, site of the first British outpost west of the Appalachians, and from where we stood, just upriver of the Tellico Stream, we could see the tattered cornfield that marks the buried town known as Tuskegee, birthplace of Sequoyah, the great Cherokee teacher whose name has been commemorated in a national park as well as a mighty tree. The Indians planted corn, beans, peas, potatoes, pumpkins, cabbages, melons, and tobacco, and Gerhard de Brahm, the surveyor-general who designed Fort Loudoun in 1756, recognized the superb quality of the topsoil in this “American Canaan,” which he deemed “equal to manure itself.” Yet the white men had to be restrained by the Indians from building their fort right on top of the rich gardens.
In the eighteenth century, the powerful Yunwiya or “Principal People,” whose domain extended into what are now eight states, protected the beleaguered colonists of the Middle Atlantic States from French-led Indians to westward—the safety of the colonists “does under God depend on the friendship of the Cherokees” according to a declaration of the Carolina General Assembly in 1730. But four years after it was built, Fort Loudoun was destroyed by the embittered chief Ostenaco, who had once sent warriors to help George Washington and the Virginia Militia in the Big Sandy Expedition against the Shawnee; the only survivor was saved by Chief Attakullakulla, who had been painted by Hogarth in London in 1730 (Ostenaco himself was painted at a later date by Sir Joshua Reynolds) and who said before his death, “I pity the white people, but the white people do not pity me.” By that time, independence had arrived, the proud Cherokee had been humiliated, and “Americans” were already encroaching on the Valley. In 1814, still trying to keep faith with the white men, the Cherokee set Andrew Jackson on the road to the White House by turning the tide in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend against the Creeks, an act of friendship which was promptly repaid by seizure of their lands and banishment to Oklahoma.
Driving farther up the Valley, we left the main road and crossed old fields, now condemned, that according to Warren had been farmed by the same family since the Cherokee were driven out between 1817 and 1838. (The Indians’ rights to their own land have been ignored since their first land claims in 1820.) Here Warren pointed out the sites of Tommotley (Hewed-Timber Town) and Toqua, named for a great mythic fish which inhabits the river at this place. Toqua was a Mound-Builder site before the coming of the Cherokee, and throughout the Valley the buried evidence of Stone Age man and the mysterious Mound-Builders—some of the sites are thought to be 8000 years old—is scarcely touched. In 1967, archaeologists of the University of Tennessee were invited by the TVA to investigate these sites as well as others, which they did on an emergency “salvage” basis, using the TVA’s backhoes and bulldozers. Though later work was more responsible, the early “digs” were crude and greedy.
“It was infuriating,” said Roy Warren, who located the old gate of Fort Loudoun about six years ago. “Those so-called archaeologists went ripping into one of the most beautiful Indian mounds in the whole country, and when they were finished, there was nothing but a pile of dirt crisscrossed with ditches.” He showed me ugly photographs that he had taken of the damage done at Toqua and the other villages, the exposed skeletons in the broken graves, the ornaments, pottery, axe heads, and other artifacts that lay hidden in such profusion here beneath our feet; 634 graves were excavated at the Toqua site alone. Gangs of unsupervised looters—or “grave-poachers,” as the Indians call them—also descended on the place. “It was quite a while before TVA got around to putting in that fence,” Warren said, pointing at a rectangular enclosure with a sign that read “Archeological Site—Property of the US Government.” For some reason, the bureaucrats had kept the patch inside the wire carefully mowed, and the spot of caged lawn looked lonely in the autumnal colors of the valley, like an unused cemetery for dogs.
Warren turned his head toward the sound of a fast-moving car: a white van was descending upon us with undue speed, considering the fact that we were parked in a dead-end turn-off. As the van wheeled to a halt, I could see that the uniformed security guard inside was holding a microphone to his mouth, as if summoning assistance; recognizing Warren, he relaxed his vigilance only slightly. “Back again, huh?” he said. “We never give up,” Warren said affably. The guard, heavy-set with slicked black hair, in crisp khaki and a bright white, T-shirt, looked me over; he asked Warren who I was and wrote my name on a piece of paper. Annoyed by the way he did this, I made a show of reading his badge and writing down his name, then inquired if this wasn’t public land. “Fed’erl land!” he said. “That’s not public?” I asked, and he eyed me narrowly, to show me he had me spotted as a troublemaker, and certainly he was equipped for trouble: besides the hand-gun on his hip, he had an Ithaca .37 riot gun mounted upright beside him and a carbine rifle ready on the back seat. “What are you guarding?” I inquired, jerking my chin at all the shooting irons. “Berl grounds,” he said. “N’looters.” Warren sighed, “Won’t need to guard them much longer, I guess,” he said pleasantly. “Okay if we look around a little?”
We continued eastward up the Valley, on the new road along the wood edge bulldozed up out of the “borra pits” and bulwarked by stone rip-rap wall; when all the bottomland is flooded, this road will be the lakeside drive for the new shorefront owners on Tellico Lake. The fallow bottomlands were set about with gentle wooded hills, in the last oak reds and sweet gum purples and hickory yellows of the autumn, and here and there a gold leaf-burst of sassafras in one of the most beautiful prospects of river and mountains I have ever seen. On this broad and harmonious bend on the south side of what was once known as the Cherokee River were the sites of Tanasi (or Old Town), for which the state was named, and Chota, the Council Town, the secular and ceremonial center of the Cherokee nation.
Like Toqua, Tanasi and Chota had been grievously assaulted by the emergency archaeology demanded by the TVA. When Roy Warren first came here, four years ago, the old lady whose family had lived here since the nineteenth century burst into tears as she described to him the desecrations that had taken place. Warren pointed out a three-acre rip-rapped elevation that is soon to be an island: “They bulldozed that thing up and named it Chota,” he said, “as a consolation to the Indians.”
Here at Chota in 1797, the future French king Louis Philippe fell off his horse in the furor of an Indian ball game, and later slept in the place of honor between the chief’s grandmother and great aunt. And here at Chota in November 1979 the Cherokee and a number of white sympathizers, undeterred by nails strewn across the access road and some sticks of dynamite—apparently planted by those local people whose property near the new lake has soared in value—had held a cheerful rally by the river. That day, Roy Warren had gotten to know Indians from the Cherokee reservation on the Qualla Boundary, fifty miles eastward in the North Carolina mountains, where the remnant Cherokee had hidden when their kinsmen were rounded up and driven off to Oklahoma in the “Removal” of 1838: this is called the “Trail of Tears,” not only because of the shock and grief of departing from the beloved homeland but because at least four thousand people perished along the way.
At Chota, the river flowed between grassy meadow banks and beautiful white rock, and Warren searched the sandy riffles, hoping to show me one of the big fish that have made this the finest brown trout stream in the East. “There’s trout in here up to thirty pounds,” he told me, “and the fishermen bring a million dollars every year to local business; nobody talks much about the trout, but they’re going to go, too.” There were still two ancient Indian fish traps in this part of the river, stone walls that once supported weirs of sticks, with a wicker basket net at the point of the V where the walls met, downstream. But today the clear river ran too deep, too swift, and like the doomed trout, the ancient fish traps remained hidden.
The easternmost of the Seven Towns (seven is a sacred number to the Cherokee) was Tseetaco, “Good Fishing Place,” located between two hills, for at this place the Valley had already begun to narrow, and the strange steep ridges known to the Cherokee as “the Enemy Mountains”—home of the dread ogress known as Spear-finger—loomed high over the river in the northeast. At Tseetaco, in 1788, in the course of the last resistance to white encroachment, a Cherokee war party surprised and killed a detachment of militia raiding the Indian orchards, in what became known as the Battle of the Peaches. Warren wonders if Tseetaco might not have been the oldest and the largest town of all: in just 1.5 acres of excavated ground, he said, there was evidence of 234 burials.
As at the other sites, the remains of the Indians, together with the ceremonial artifacts of burial, were taken away by the white people, despite the distress and protest of the Cherokee, and he believes that most of the remains wound up in the basement of the McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee. Some 1,140 Indian remains are known to have been taken, and Indian requests for reinterment in situ have been refused, whereas the graves in the white cemeteries in the Valley have been carefully relocated elsewhere. The Indians, deeply upset by the disturbance of sacred burial grounds and ancestral spirits, would prefer that the graves were damaged by the rising water rather than have the bones picked over by the curious fingers of the white man; nevertheless, they dread the artificial flood, which they perceive as an unnatural inversion that forces man out of harmony with his surroundings.
On the way back down the Valley, in the sharp shadow lines of autumn dusk, we passed the parked van of the guard. “Next time we see you,” Roy Warren called out to him, “I guess we’ll be in a boat.”
How amazing, I thought, that the congressmen of a state where the economy is based in tourism and agriculture would sacrifice a beautiful valley in the face of so much well-informed opinion that for more than a decade has dismissed Tellico as a bad idea. Yet last year Senator Howard Baker, sensing that hard times had diverted public sympathy from that pesky “minnow” to all those “wasted” megawatts and millions, co-sponsored a review committee (including the secretaries of Interior, Agriculture, and Army) whose first business would be to decide if Tellico should be exempted from the provisions of the Endangered Species Act.
To his dismay, this imposing group agreed unanimously that Tellico was economically unsound. The chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Charles Schultze, pointed out that the total projected benefits of the dam amounted to less than the cost of completing the damned thing, let alone building it. The committee therefore decided that the project did not deserve exemption: after more than a decade of court and congressional hearings, the Tellico pork barrel was sealed. But on June 18, when the House was nearly empty, Baker’s confederate, Representative John Duncan (R-Tenn.), flouting House Rule No. 21 that forbids using appropriations bills to change existing laws, used a whole bag of procedural tricks to sneak an unseen, unread, undescribed, and undebated amendment past his unsuspecting colleagues in just forty-three seconds. One of the victims, Representative Paul McCloskey (R-Cal.), warned the House that its integrity had been undermined, that the public would condemn Congress for adopting without reading “an amendment of this degree of controversy.” On its first test, the amendment was repudiated by the Senate, but on September 10, Senator Baker made last-minute deals with—let us name these heroes—Senators Danforth, Dole, Domenici, Gravel, and Wallop, to get it passed by just four votes, declaring untruthfully to the end that the dam represented vital energy and that the future of the transplanted darter was assured.
Baker suspected that President Carter, in his eagerness for re-election, did not have character enough to veto a whole “energy” bill merely to eliminate a dishonest amendment, and although Secretary Andrus urged the veto (“I hate to see the snail darter get credit for stopping a project that was ill-conceived and uneconomic in the first place”), Baker’s instinct proved to be correct: “with regret” the president signed the amendment into law. Whatever his ambitions—to embarrass Carter, to assist a crony, to play some back-room power game promoting a “southern strategy,” or perhaps just to please those local politicians who had invested in lake-view properties back home—Baker had sabotaged the unanimous findings of the responsible review committee sponsored by himself and thereby damaged not only the integrity of Congress but the long-term welfare of the nation that he now presents himself as fit to lead.
The day after Carter caved in, the TVA rushed in its machines to complete the dam. But on October 12, the Eastern Cherokee, citing the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, appealed to the US District Court in Knoxville for an injunction against the flooding, pending a hearing on their claim that the Duncan Amendment is unconstitutional: the destruction of their spiritual homeland, which many still visited regularly, would deny religious rights that were guaranteed by the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.
The TVA lawyers, calling the Cherokee appeal “unfair,” pretended that the religious issue had been brought up too late, even though the Indians (who had no constitutional right to sue until the federal government acquired ownership of the land) have been protesting the wholesale desecration of their sacred burial grounds and ceremonial sites ever since 1967. The TVA made much of the fact that Ross Swimmer, Chief of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, in expressing gratitude to the TVA for having located Chota for the Indians, had dismissed the idea that Chota was a sacred site. His view was repudiated by a traditional band of Cherokee on his own reservation, who strongly support the position of the Eastern Cherokee. Chief Swimmer, a well-to-do banker and lawyer, has recently declared himself a candidate for Republican senator from Oklahoma, an ambition in which, interestingly enough, he has the pledged support of Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee.
On November 3, a bright blue mountain day, I drove eastward up the Pigeon River into the Great Smoky Mountains; the red dogwood leaves and berries seemed to flutter in the sparkle of the stream. Crossing the North Carolina line, I arrived soon afterward at the town of Cherokee, where I was met by a pretty young woman named Myrtle Driver. Ms. Driver, who helps the elderly people of the community as an interpreter in their dealings with white people and served as a tribal interpreter in court depositions having to do with the Tellico Dam, led me to an out-of-the-way community back in the mountains known to the Indians as Raven’s Ford, called commonly “Big Cove,” where I hoped to talk to two elderly medicine people, Ammoneeta and his brother Lloyd Sequoyah, about the Cherokees’ continued interest in the valley: they are great-great-great grandchildren of Sequoyah, full-blooded Cherokees who prefer to speak their own language.
But Ammoneeta was in the hospital and Lloyd could not be found; instead we visited their sister, Mrs. Emmaline Driver, and Myrtle’s father, a traditional healer named Charlie Johnson, who said that his great-great-grandmother was a Deer Clan woman who had lived at Chota, and that when his grandmother visited Chota as a little girl, crossing the mountains on a walk that required several days, there were a few old Indians living there still. “That place was sacred to us,” he said, “and it was also the capital of our nation, the way you people think of Washington, DC.”
The Eastern Cherokee of the Qualla Boundary are among the few Indian peoples east of the Mississippi still living in their original homeland, but these mountains were not the center of their nation. “In talking to these elders,” Myrtle said later, “it seems that a lot of our words and traditions and legends began down there at Chota: this place up here in the mountains came much later.” The Indians are under no illusion about the real purpose of the Tellico, which in the words of an old man named Goliath George, is there to “fatten a few wallets”; they are not much amused by the fact that “Tellico” is the white man’s distortion of the Cherokee ade la eqwa, or “big money.”
On the morning of the day that I visited Chota, the Cherokee request for a temporary injunction against the flooding was turned down by the US District Court in Knoxville on the highly debatable grounds that ownership of the property involved was a prior condition of a First Amendment claim. Subsequently in early November the legal action for an injunction was dismissed by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, and by Justices Potter and Brennan of the Supreme Court, who simply scribbled on the appeal the word “Denied.” The lawyers for the Cherokees are challenging this decision. In questions of First Amendment rights, they point out, the government must demonstrate a “compelling state interest” before a constitutional protection can be overruled; “compelling state interest” scarcely describes the ambiguous situation acknowledged in the TVA’s own big book of “Alternatives.”
The next day, I telephoned Lewis Gwin, a TVA spokesman for the Tellico, who said that no definite date had been set for the closing of the dam; the last crops in the Valley, grown under lease, had not been harvested, and there were still a few people, including Mrs. McCall, who had not moved out of their homes as they were told. Mr. Gwin seemed anxious to point out that the present Board of Directors was not originally responsible for this project, and had sponsored the “Alternatives” report, hailed for its objectivity by both sides, in order that Congress might make the proper choice; true, Congress had decided against the dam three times, but once Congress had ordered the TVA to proceed “notwithstanding the Endangered Species Act or any other law,” the TVA had no choice—“Our hands are tied,” Mr. Gwin told me. As for the Cherokees’ appeal, he acknowledged that they had protested the dam for fifteen years, but as to the validity of their claim, he could not comment while the case was in litigation.
Next day, I drove over to Tellico on the highway that crosses the huge old Atomic Energy Commission (now NRC) Reservation in Oak Ridge. Off to the westward, I could see the huge stripmine scars along the high slopes of the Cumberlands; earlier, this country had been stripped of its virgin forests. When the day of gigantic hydroelectric and nuclear power schemes arrived, the poverty-stricken people of Appalachia said very little; dependent on the timber and coal companies, then big government, they were evicted from their homes again and again to clear the way for dams and lakes and AEC Reservations. In this sinister forest, unsettling signs directed the authorized traveler to such destinations as the Weapons (Y-12) and Gas Diffusion (K-24) Plants; other signs read BEAR CREEK ROAD—CLOSED TO PUBLIC; EXPERIMENTAL AREA—TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED; NO SWIMMING OR FISHING; WATER UNFIT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION. Here and there, bright yellow warnings read RADIATION HAZARD—KEEP OUT. Although it was Sunday, a line of military tanks clanked down the highway escorted by the military police vehicles, adding to the already oppressive atmosphere in which man seemed at war with his own habitat. However, public relations are still important: the TVA’s nuclear reactor in Chattanooga has been made “American” by being named after Sequoyah, and in this region big green signs try to persuade us that the TVA’s Tellico Project is “Building a Better Environment.”
Where the highway crosses the huge Ft. Loudoun Dam across the Tennessee River, one can see the small Tellico Dam where it blocks the mouth of the Little Tennessee River, a short distance to the southeast. The lakes behind these dams will be less than a half-mile apart, and largely devoid of the recreationists for which they were allegedly constructed, to judge from the sterile emptiness of Ft. Loudoun Lake on a sunny, warm, and windless Sunday morning. Annoyed to find that the Tellico was heavily fenced against the public, with a gate that brandished warning signs as well as chains, I drove down to a parking lot under the Ft. Loudoun Dam, then walked downriver, passing without difficulty through a fence in the river woods and moving inland through the fields at the mouth of the Little T to the long embankment for impounding water that leads out to the dam itself. Climbing the embankment, I could see far up into sun-misted distances of the lovely valley. In the softened autumn light of the river bottom, a farmer was working on Sunday to harvest the last crop from this “American Canaan” that has fed man bountifully for perhaps three thousand years. And seeing that lone, hastening figure, working against time and greed and folly, brought on a wave of wistfulness and profound anger.
At both ends of the embankment stood large herds of huge yellow earth-moving machines. Because it was Sunday, these dinosaurs were still, but at the sight of a loose citizen, a security vehicle came in a great hurry down the road. “Ain’t supposed to be in here!” the guard exclaimed, instructing me to get into the back. I said I had seen no signs to that effect down by the river, and he accepted my excuse in a way that suggested he was happy that I had one. “They knock ’em all down!” he said. “Can’t keep a sign up for two days!” He drove me out to the chained gate where another guard in big black shades, thumbs hooked into his holster belt, awaited us: this one’s manner suggested that I was getting off too easy. When I asked him why the Tellico needed so much security, he said they had had a bomb threat just four days ago. Both guards blamed the destruction of the signs on “environmentalists,” probably the ones that had planted that dynamite up there at the Chota Mound two weeks ago, and strewn nails on the road while they were at it.
The first guard, going off duty, was kind enough to offer me a lift back down to the “T.” He was an older man, born up the Little T in the region of the Indian villages, and he admitted that the dam was a poor idea, but like most people, he felt that not to finish the job now would be a waste of money. Anyway, he said, there were no snail darters left in the Little T, they had all been transplanted out of Coytee Springs and other places. The old man pointed at the mud-gray Tennessee. “Hell,” he said with groundless optimism, “they’s a big sandy bar down here on the T, they doin’ better there than they ever done up the Little T! Why, right out here where we’re lookin’ at, they’s so many of them darters, the fishermen been dippin’ ’em up right with the minnas, usin’ ’em for bait!”
But the Cherokee, he thought, had a case. “Hell, they’s Injuns buried all over the place up here, and UT’s [University of Tennessee] got people all over, diggin up graves.” He shook his head in disapproval. “I don’t blame them Cherokees for bein’ so upset. Anybody tried to dig up my son, I mean, I’d do sump’n about it!” I nodded. How would a white community react if more than a thousand of its forebears had been excavated without ceremony and heaped up in a museum basement?
The following week, official vehicles descended upon the last holdouts in the Valley, Mrs. Nellie McCall and Thomas Moser, who were evicted from their homes by federal marshals. Mrs. McCall had been promised that her belongings would be spared, including her mother’s china, but when she returned that afternoon, her house had been burned down, china and all. Mr. Moser’s house, also destroyed, was the house where he was born.
On the morning of November 29, without waiting for the Indians’ court hearing, the TVA closed the Tellico Dam, and the clear waters of the Little T backed up behind it; in a few weeks, the darter’s spawning beds will be silted over. Soon the twenty-fifth artificial lake within sixty miles will rise to flood the Seven Towns, and meanwhile the Cherokee (supported now by the ACLU and the National Council of Churches) will keep on fighting for a hearing in the courts, still hoping the flooding can be stopped before the waters reach their sacred grounds. They have made four desperate appeals to the White House in the last two months without receiving so much as an acknowledgment; and they have abandoned any hope of honest dealing with the TVA.
The Tellico is a transgression against whites as well as Indians. Will we help the Cherokee by demanding an immediate court hearing, or will we permit so much that is vital to our national well-being to be lost forever under the dead waters of Big Money Lake? If the Valley is filled, let them drain it again. The cost of opening the dam with dynamite would be the first money for this project that was well spent. The Tellico should stand as a monument, not to short-sightedness and greed but to the wise prevention of a national calamity; as a symbol and a deterrent, it would more than justify the wasted money. A beautiful river can be restored, invaluable farmland and historic sites can be recovered without undue damage, and perhaps one day the farmers, too, will have their day in court. Only a small pretty gleam of river life called the snail darter will have been extinguished, like the old way of the Cherokee before it.
As Jimmie Durham, a western Cherokee, has said, “We want our universe, our Eloheh Land, with all of its fish and all of its life to continue. And we are sure that this cannot be against the interests and wishes of the American people.”
February 7, 1980
TVA’s candor about “projected benefits” would be more impressive in the absence of a congressional study made by the General Accounting Office in 1977, which concluded not only that the dam was uneconomic but that all but about 1 percent of its dam benefit claims were unreliable. ↩
“Cultural Resources of the Tellico Project” (May 24, 1979) (TV-50461A), Interagency Archeological Services, Department of the Interior. ↩