case study:

The Cultural and Spiritual Significance of Nature in Interpretation, Management, and Governance at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Southeast USA

Photo above: Smoky Mountains National Park at Dawn
(Source: Bernbaum)

Edwin Bernbaum
Co-Chair CSVPA

Great Smoky Mountains National Park has some of the greatest biodiversity in the world and has great cultural and spiritual significance for the Cherokee as their ancestral homeland and for descendants of Scottish-Irish settlers who created Appalachian culture and built culturally important buildings and graveyards throughout the park, as well as for outdoor enthusiasts and conservationists who find inspiration in nature. The case study draws lessons and best practices from an innovative project that brought park management together with the Cherokee to develop a series of bilingual wayside sides illustrated by Cherokee artists linking natural features to Cherokee stories and traditions along a trail walked by the public and the Cherokee themselves. The collaboration enabled the Cherokee to disseminate what they wanted known about their sacred sites and practices and also helped to address health issues, reinforce the teaching of their language, and pass their heritage to the younger generation. In addition, the positive aspects of working together on a project of mutual interest helped park management and the Cherokee to deal with a dispute over a controversial land swap.

Cultural and spiritual significance of nature

Great Smoky Mountains National Park has particular spiritual and cultural significance for two local groups – the Eastern Band of the Cherokee and descendants of Scottish-Irish settlers who created what is known as Appalachian culture. Outdoor enthusiasts and conservationists from the wider region also value the park for its spiritual significance.

Cherokee tradition holds that Cherokees have lived here since the creation when the Great Buzzard formed the mountains and valleys of the region with his wingtips while fanning the soft, muddy new earth to dry it out and make it habitable. Various features of the environment, beginning with the mountains as places of refuge, are sacred to the Cherokees. Rivers have particular importance as sources of life and places of spiritual cleansing. Various species of flora and fauna each have their stories and traditions.

Appalachian culture places more diffuse, Christian values on nature as divine creation and on culturally and spiritually significant man-made features of the park, such as the finest collection of log buildings in the United States and old graveyards scattered throughout the area that still receive flowers today. Outdoor enthusiasts and conservationists place particular value on features of the environment for their natural and inspirational significance.

Ecology and biodiversity

Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers 210,876 hectares of mountainous terrain, ranging in altitude from 256 to 2023 meters. Within its relatively small area lies some of the greatest biodiversity to be found anywhere in the world. Over 14,000 species of flora and fauna have been identified. Nearly 95% of the Park is forested with 25% of that still preserved as old-growth forest.

The higher elevations of Great Smoky Mountains National Park get some of the highest acid depositions in North America, damaging various plant species. Dogs and horses brought by hikers and campers have contaminated streams with Giardia. Tourism and backcountry use lead to litter, waste, and poaching of plants. Uncontrolled economic development in the gateway communities has degraded scenic views and contributed to air and noise pollution.


As a National Park, Great Smoky Mountains is an IUCN Management Category II site. It was designated an International Biosphere Reserve in 1976 and inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1983, under criteria N (1), (ii), (iii) and (iv) for its natural values. The US National Park Service under the Department of the Interior is in charge of the park. The adjacent Qualla Boundary, the ancestral homeland of the Cherokee, is owned and governed by the Eastern Band and held in trust for them by the Federal Government. Key areas of contention have to do with gathering of flora and fauna for traditional purposes by the Cherokee and disputes over a land swap between the Park and the Cherokee. These have direct implications for management.


Great Smoky Mountains National Park is managed by the US National Park Service, under a comprehensive management plan based on conservation zones. 92% of the Park is designated a natural zone. An additional 1% is set aside as an historic zone and 7% as a development zone. Park management enforces regulations and there have been issues over traditional collection of certain flora and fauna by Cherokees and a contentious land swap. The Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation is in charge of managing land adjacent to the park in the Qualla Boundary in North Carolina. The main land use and management problems lie just outside the Park, where rampant, tasteless development has led to perhaps the most notorious gateway communities of any national park in the United States.

Lessons Learned

A collaborative project between park management and the Cherokees, titled “Mountains, Spirituality and the Cherokee,” created between 2001 and 2006 a series of bilingual wayside signs in English and Cherokee, illustrated with works of art by contemporary Cherokee artists, linking Cherokee stories and traditions to natural features along a heavily used trail running from the Oconaluftee visitor center to the edge of the town of Cherokee. Since many Cherokees, both adults and children, walk this trail for exercise, the signs helped them pass on their traditions to the younger generation, promote health and good nutrition among tribal members, and reinforce the revival of the Cherokee language in their schools. The waysides also enabled them to reach the wider public with the messages they wished to disseminate about their sacred sites and practices. In addition the waysides included quotes from other religions and traditions, such as Hinduism and Christianity, as well as scientific quotes. At the time Cherokee demands to exchange a piece of their land for a pristine portion of the Park where they wanted to build a school had created tensions with park management. The wayside collaboration provided a positive opportunity to work together that helped the parties the disputereduce the tensions and move toward a resolution of the dispute.

Lessons learned/best practices include:

  • Promote mutual respect and appreciation for different traditions and points of view
  • Work closely with representatives of indigenous traditions to make sure that only the views and practices they want to reveal are made public
  • Develop projects on the cultural and spiritual significance of nature that benefit local people and communities as well as protect the environment
  • Make interpretation of indigenous views and traditions contemporary and in the voices of traditional elders and storytellers
  • Use artwork addressing the spiritual and cultural significance of nature to enhance interpretive messages and management policies
  • Generate multiple messages for different audiences rather than a single message, where feasible use languages appropriate for different audiences
  • Work on positive projects of common interest to all parties as a way of developing relationships that make it easier to work together on other, more contentious issues.

Bernbaum, E. (2006), “Sacred Mountains: Themes and Teachings.” Mountain Research and Development 26, no. 4 (2006), 304-309.

Bernbaum, E. (2007), “Great Smoky Mountains (Shagonage) and Qualla Boundary Tennessee and North Carolina, Southern Appalachian Mountains, United States of America.” In Protected Areas and Spirituality, Proceedings of the First Workshop of The Delos Initiative, ed. J.M. Mallarach and T. Papayannis, 201-117. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) and Publicacions de l’Abadia de Montserrat, Gland, Switzerland, and Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain.

Duncan, B. R., ed. (1998), Living Stories of the Cherokee, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, USA, and London, UK.

Duncan, B. R. and Riggs, B. H. (2003), Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, USA, and London, UK.

Kephart, H. (1922), Our Southern Highlanders: a Narrative of Adventure in the Southern Appalachians and a Study of Life among the Mountaineers, Macmillan Company, New York, USA

Mooney, J. (1992), James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees, Historical Images, Asheville, NC, USA.