Public art reminds us of Native Americans’ rich and troubled history

Photo by Jack Robert

Last month, in a ceremony punctuated by Native American dance and song, Greenville Water dedicated Prospect Green, a new park at the corner of West Washington and West Broad streets, and unveiled the centerpiece of the park, a ten-foot tall bronze sculpture of a Cherokee male, titled “Water Blessing,” by artist Doug Young.

A community’s public art, statuary, monuments, and memorials reveal that community’s values and history. Upcountry South Carolina has a rich Native American past, dating back as far as 13,000 years ago, when pre-modern societies developed just south of modern-day Greenville. Between 1000-1450 A.D., a period archeologists know as the Pisgah Phase, societies developed in river valleys in the nearby Saluda and Keowee areas. Pisgah societies were the direct precursor to the Cherokee, and common cultural practices and values linked the two.

As Cherokee tribes evolved, their historical reliance on freshwater supplies manifested itself in a deep reverence for water. Cherokee communities were almost exclusively located in close proximity to streams and rivers; evidence from settlements reveals that the openings in the gates constructed for defense directly faced the river, respected as a sacred entity and known among the Cherokee as the “Long Man.” Rivers were also commonly used for transportation and for farming. The Cherokee displayed a particular proficiency in agriculture; they grew maize, peas, pumpkins, melons, squash, and potatoes. Wild fruit was an important part of their diet as well.

The Cherokee’s matrilineal society sharply contrasted with the societal norms espoused later by European settlers. Their concept of marriage was far less binding than that to which European settlers were accustomed, and involved no formal ritual other than an exchange of gifts between clans or families. Upon marriage, a husband joined his wife’s clan….

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