Native Ecologies: An Oral History of Cherokee Knowledge and Climate Change

Professor Gregory Smithers reflects on the lessons from ‘Native Ecologies’ - an oral history research and engagement project, aiming to preserve Indigenous knowledge about climate change, and inform contemporary decisions about our climate future.
Photo of the Smoky Mountains
View of the Smoky Mountains from the Blue Ridge Parkway, on the land of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI).

Project partners

The Native Ecologies project is led by British Academy Global Professor Greg Smithers in collaboration with and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) and the Treatied Spaces Research Group at the University of Hull. It benefits from expertise across indigenous and non-indigenous partners:


Native Ecologies seeks to understand and preserve Indigenous knowledge about the environment, while contributing to ongoing conversations about how best to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

The overall aim is to use settler and Indigenous sources to map a ‘genealogy’ of Indigenous ecologies and construct the first deep, recorded history of Indigenous responses to fluctuations in our climate. This is intended to counter-balance conventional science-based responses to climate change


I am currently hosted by the Treatied Spaces Research Group as a British Academy Global Professor 2020-2024.

I lead the Native Ecologies project, which compares two ecologically important regions transformed by colonialism: the homelands of the Cherokee in the Appalachians of the United States, and those of the Ngarigo and Walgal peoples of the Great Dividing Range in Australia.

This work recognizes that Indigenous knowledge is part of a living history that connects Cherokee people to a deep past, while at the same time being crucial to current environmental decisions. The project began in 2020 and involves a series of oral history interviews and participation in community events. 

I am committed to working in a balanced and reciprocal way with Indigenous friends and collaborators, and  eager to explore how threats, posed by climate change, can be addressed by drawing upon Indigenous knowledges rooted in the deep past. My project synergises with a series of other funded Treatied Spaces projects.


Over the first two years of the project, a series of oral history interviews have been conducted with Cherokee people and non-Cherokee allies. Interviewees expressed a deep emotional connection to the rivers and mountain watersheds of Southern Appalachia, a region stretching from the Southern Tier of Pennsylvania to northern Alabama and Georgia.

Initial conversations were framed around the question ‘What is Native ecologies?’ These discussions revealed a desire to eschew words like ‘tradition’ in relation to Indigenous environmental knowledge, because of the popular perception that such language perpetuates stereotypes about Native American knowledge as unchanging, frozen in the past, or of little relevance to contemporary climate challenges. 

I also collaborated with the ECBI in a series of public events, as part of the  ‘Honoring Long Man’ initiative. Organized by EBCI citizen Juanita Wilson, ‘Honoring Long Man’ was a Cherokee-led effort to combine community engagement, Cherokee knowledge and Western science in caring for a local waterway – the Oconaluftee River. It underscored the value of Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge as a dynamic ‘living history’, one that should inform contemporary approaches to environmental stewardship.

Information about the history of ‘The Long Man’ along the Oconaluftee River, in English & CherokeeInformation about the history of ‘The Long Man’ along the Oconaluftee River, in English & Cherokee

Taking the knowledge and data generated from oral history interviews and a series of anonymous questionnaires, these events included organising a river clean-up, educational workshops, and tree planting with students from the New Kituwah Academy, as well as publishing a number of public-facing essays that showcased our learning. 

Now in its second year, ‘Honoring Long Man’ aims to decolonise the environmental history of Southern Appalachia by applying historically important Cherokee knowledge to riverscapes, in ways that are meaningful to local communities. This includes using Cherokee language markers along the river, planting native plant and tree species with deep historical meaning in Cherokee culture, and bringing Cherokees and non-Cherokees together behind a common cause.

Lessons learned

By building trusted and long-term relationships with community leaders, I have gained a deeper understanding of the profound cultural and spiritual connection that Cherokees draw between human and more-than-human kin. I have been able to take this understanding to the research team to rethink our approaches; challenging the established power held by Western Science and applying the deep-rooted historical knowledge of Indigenous people to how we study environmental challenges. 

‘Native Ecologies’ emphasises the importance of interdisciplinary methods, and different ways of applying knowledge. Cherokees believe that human and more-than-human beings are interconnected in landscapes and waterscapes, but it is the responsibility of humans, late commers to a diverse and delicate ecosystem, to act as good stewards. The opportunity to embrace Cherokee values and apply them to how we engage ecological issues in education, policy and public spheres has been a major tool in building reciprocal relationships between research and native communities.

It has also supported improved physical and emotional wellbeing. Historically, a physical connection to riverscapes has been vital to tohi - a Cherokee concept that translates as wellness, or wellbeing. In this sense, reconnecting to local waterways helps to promote individual and community health.

Embracing Cherokee principles like tohi has proven essential in overcoming the most significant (and enduring) challenge in conducting this type of research: community suspicion that scholars will try to impose their thinking and methodologies on research activities related to Cherokee history and culture. This in turn fosters a long-held concern among indigenous communities that their knowledge will be misused or misrepresented by Western scholars. 

Overcoming this challenge, and building trust, means following the lead of Cherokee community organisers and creating new historical insights as co-creators. Working as equal partners also makes it possible to further develop protocols that decolonize research processes. 

An ethos of collaboration, trust and mutual respect proved especially important during the initial stages of this research. In 2020, we had to quickly adjust our project goals in response to the issues faced by both our researchers and community collaborators as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. This prompted positive changes to the project research outcomes. For example, the team reached out to Sheffield Digital Humanities Institute to help produce the Cherokee Riverkeepers digital map, an output that continues to have impact far beyond the original goal of producing a conventional monograph.

Clean-up crew at the Oconaluftee RiverClean-up crew at the Oconaluftee River

Impacts and Legacy

Through interviews, I have been able to build an ongoing database of oral histories that centres valuable Cherokee knowledge and expertise, and that will enrich future generations of Cherokees and people interested in the environmental history of Southern Appalachia. All interviews will be deposited in the tribal archives and research outcomes will help to inform EBCI policy discussions.

Conversations with EBCI citizens have provided interviewees with an opportunity to put felt experiences into words, thereby solidifying deep convictions about care for the environment. A recent essay, ‘Water Stories: Deep Histories of Indigenous Ecological Knowledge, Climate Change, & Cherokee Resilience’, published in the Journal of the British Academy, dove into the foundations of the Cherokee’s living history and innovations in the face of climate change.  

Juanita Wilson, the organizer of the ‘Honoring Long Man’ event, explained to me why the Oconaluftee River is special to her. In making this point, Wilson reflected on her childhood:

“I grew up playing in the small spring that ran behind our house. I caught lizards and crawfish. I loved to watch for anything that moved in the water. I turned over small stones to see what might be hiding underneath. I loved the moss that lined the spring. To this day, I love to watch the waters closely for signs of life”.

Michael Bolt is not Cherokee, but has overseen the ECBI’s water quality standards since 2000. He explained how he uses the tools of modern science to maintain the tribe’s water quality, to ensure water is fit for ceremonial purposes, and to help tribal policy makers understand the threats posed by climate change. Michael says:

The tribe made a decision to use the tools of modern science to ensure the community’s water quality. Water quality data helps with pollution prevention and the flow data [helps] to manage water in the watershed. By combining the two sets of data you learn what you need to know about climate change”.

Oral storytelling reminds us all of what is at stake in maintaining clean freshwater supplies. It has an important role to play in informing how the tools of Western science are used in both monitoring and maintaining water quality standards. My interviews with both Cherokee people and non-Cherokee allies highlight the value of embedding a deep cultural respect for local ecologies with twenty-first century tools to keep those cultural traditions alive and, in doing so, make better, more informed decisions about our climate future. 

Key to making it work 

  • A trusting, reciprocal relationship between tribal community members and researchers.
  • Respect and acknowledgement for the value of local community knowledge and beliefs.
  • An emphasis on issues that benefit Native communities.

Find out more

For further information, please contact Gregory D Smithers at