For those of you who remember the “Snail Darter Controversy” that developed some 40 years ago, it may be that some weary chickens have finally come home to roost.
At that time, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s $100 million Tellico Dam construction project was temporarily halted due to the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency found that the project endangered the habitat of a paper-clip sized fish. Despite the best efforts of some agencies, such as the Sierra Club, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Tennessee Historical Association, the University of Tennessee Archaeology Department and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the snail darter was “relocated,” and the dam was completed.
At the time of this controversy, I was a grant writer for the EBCI. What became increasingly evident was the fact that the survival of the snail darter was almost irrelevant. The real issue was the fact that the TVA was out of control. After building more than 60 dams and acquiring an awesome amount of political power, the TVA was on the brink of destroying some of the richest farmland in America. The issue was no longer the need for additional electrical power. In fact, the real purpose of completing the Tellico Dam was merely to develop some choice real estate and expand the region’s recreational facilities. In recent months, a number of publications have finally explored the shameful consequences of greed and pork barrel legislation.
However, one of those books was written by Ben Bridgers of Sylva, a man who served as the tribal attorney for the Eastern Band for 22 years. Bridgers’ book (a novel) “Common Ground,” does not deal with the “Snail Darter Controversy”, but explores a second legal battle that was based on a more impressive issue: religious freedom. Bridgers chronicles the careful development of an injunction based on two significant documents: The American Indian Religious Freedom Act and the First Amendment of the Constitution.
The characters in “Common Ground” are usually identified by their titles, for example, “The Tribal Attorney” or “The Shaman” or “The Judge.” As a consequence, the novel resembles an elaborate chess game. As each character speaks, we gradually learn how the case based on religious freedom comes together. It is an impressive concept. In effect, the Tribal Attorney acquires some first-hand information regarding the religious significance of Chota and Tellico Plains. By gaining the assistance of a Cherokee medicine man and traveling with him to Chota, the sacred town, he begins to sense the spiritual ties between the Cherokee people and the burial grounds at Tellico.
One of the most moving episodes in the novel deals with the old Shaman’s reaction to the fact that the trees are dying in Great Smokies Park. When he travels from Cherokee to Knoxville, Tenn., and Chota, the old Shaman tells the Tribal Attorney that it is already too late. “The world is dying.” When the attorney attempts to explain that the acid rain and the poisonous smog from the TVA plants is killing the trees, the old Shaman continues to say “the world is dying.” When he sits in the federal court in Knoxville, the old Shaman senses that the Judge has already made up his mind. Near the end of the novel, the Shaman predicts that a greater evil is to come and he calls it the “evil of big money.”
This second defense also fails, but unlike the “Snail Darter Controversy”, this defense, based on religious freedom seems based on a stronger foundation. Certainly, “Common Ground” resonates with a truth that remains valid despite the court decision.