Book Review: Up From These Hills — Leonard Carson Lambert Jr.

Up From These Hills : Memories of a Cherokee Boyhood by Leonard Carson Lambert Jr., as told to Michael Lambert

North Carolina is home to the largest population of Native Americans east of the Mississippi, and one federally recognized tribe – the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The Eastern Band’s reservation encompasses several thousand acres adjacent to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in western North Carolina. Michael Lambert, an enrolled tribe member and UNC-Chapel Hill professor of anthropology and African studies, has edited and added an excellent introduction to this memoir written by his grandfather, Leonard Carson Lambert, Jr.

The history and current reality of the Eastern Band defies popular stereotypes of Native Americans. The Eastern Band of Cherokees avoided forced relocation to Oklahoma in the 1803s along the Trail of Tears through a combination of legal maneuvers (their struggles formed the basis for much of current US tribal law) and benign neglect by fleeing to the isolated Smoky Mountains. Michael Lambert’s story of growing up as in a family of poor subsistence farmers on and off the reservation in the 1930s is one that was shared by mountain people of other races. Lambert tells tales of his grandmother’s penchant for making moonshine, going to school in a one-room schoolhouse, and raising farm animals as a boy. Readers will find his account an interesting slice of life from an isolated rural community a world apart from the ones most of us grew up in.

Michael Lambert’s introduction ends up being just as interesting as Leonard’s memoir. Lambert discusses the complex negotiation of identity among Eastern Band tribe members regarding how they choose to present (and not present) themselves to the dominant white culture. The tribe’s proximity to Great Smoky Mountains National Park has made Cherokee, NC a major tourist stop, and tribe members have long operated tourist shops selling “Indian crafts” made in China and dressed up as Plains Indians in headdresses for photo ops, finding that cowboys-and-Indians culture sells better than their own. Lambert makes the argument that these actions, rather than debasing Cherokee culture in fact strengthen it because they obscure authentic tribal traditions, protecting them from appropriation. It’s a perspective I hadn’t considered before, and one of the many ways Up From These Hills complicates our ideas of what being “Native American” really means.

Up From These Hills is available at Chatham Community Library, and is part of our North Carolina Collection.

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