In Cherokee, Noquisiyi–sometimes rendered in English as Nikwasi–means “star-sky.” The word is an ode to the cosmos, a constellation of all that is possible when you understand the interrelated nature of water, plants, and the sky.

“Our elders are deeply observant,” said Juanita Wilson, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. “They would watch the river for hours,” noticing the waters swell and deplete, the animals who came to drink, the birds soaring above. Patterns of connectivity are everywhere, if you know where to look.

In this part of Western North Carolina, one of the most important patterns is tucked inside an apple. Slice open the fruit, and at its core is a star shape—gesturing to the future, formed by seeds of the past. 

Today, the past and future are merging at the center of a nascent orchard in Macon County.

In early February, I met Wilson, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians horticulturists David Anderson and Will Tushka, and several members of the local nonprofit Nikwasi Initiative. The wind that day was ferocious; huge wires swooped above, running a surge of electrical power through the trees. Despite the cold, Anderson was bright and beaming as he recalled the many uses of apples from his childhood: apple vinegar, apple butter, apple sauce, apple jelly. 

“Every apple has its purpose,” he says proudly. 

Juanita Wilson and friend on a planting day at the Nikwasi orchard. (Photo by Colleen Hamilton)

The orchard is the brainchild of Barbra McRae, Nikwasi Initiative’s co-founder; Anderson; and dozens of volunteers who have spent the past year identifying, planting, and growing apples. Their focus is on cultivars developed by Cherokee farmers and later embraced by non-indigenous settlers—fruit that the group rightly claims is tastier than the transportation-optimized but flavor-deficient galas and red delicious apples most often found in supermarkets. This is a bona fide apple fan club.

But the team’s interests run deeper than flavor. The orchard is one of the only sites in the U.S. dedicated exclusively to Cherokee pomology, or fruit-growing.

Clustered in a small clearing, the fruit is an edible historical archive: evidence that stretches back long before the American Revolution, Civil War, and Nunna daul Tsuny, or “The Trail Where We Cried,” the forced relocation of the Cherokee people from North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. Inside each varietal—including the Cullasaga, the Horse, and, most importantly, the Junaluska—lies a history that has survived against almost impossible odds.. 

Although the land upon which the orchard sits is a tangled web of bureaucracy, with ownership split between the city and local power company, Anderson and Tushka hope that the emerging generation will embrace these crops as their own.

“All of this used to be ours,” Tushka said, gesturing to the abundant, tree-marked hills that expand for miles around us.

“Surely the apple is the noblest of fruits,” naturalist Henry David Thoreau wrote in his 1862 book, Wild Apples. In the 19th century, the writings of Thoreau, Thomas Jefferson, and Silas McDowell cemented apples as the quintessential American fruit for white homesteaders. 

Apples, in all their red, hardy glory, symbolized the voluptuous bounty of the emerging United States. Fruit spilled from trees in a seemingly endless—and by extension, endlessly exploitable—fashion.

Image of the Cullasaga variety of apples, U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

There is only one problem with this narrative about heritage apples. The fruit is not native to the continent, and many of the apple types most prized for human consumption were developed by the Cherokee, not colonists. 

Pomologists believe that apples originated in Kazakhstan and spread to Ancient Europe around 1500 BC. Over hundreds of years, they proliferated across the continent, where they were embraced by the Spanish, who became well-known for their funky, cloudy ciders. When they colonized the southern United States, the Spanish brought their taste for cider, particularly people from the Asturias along the Atlantic coast—the same salty, oceanic waters that crest along the Southern United States, the ancestral homeland of the Cherokee people. 

According to Anderson, the Cherokee nation had one of the most advanced agricultural systems in the world prior to European contact. Records show an annual surplus of corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and pumpkins, which were grown in interwoven networks around family homes. Upon the arrival of colonizers, the Cherokee successfully integrated new crops—including apples, peaches, and watermelons—into these pre-existing systems. 

Given their size, sturdiness, and nutritional value, apples quickly became an important crop along Cherokee trade routes. Women, who led trade in the Cherokee’s matrilineal society, sailed up and down the Congaree River in boats filled with fragrant, apple-filled baskets. “When [settlers] came to trade with us along the river, they asked, ‘Where are your men?’ And we replied, ‘Where are your women?’” Wilson said.

The apple trees were so valuable that the chief of the Cherokee Nation, Junaluska, cultivated his own small orchard, where he experimented with different sizes, flavors, and shapes. As the threat of the Trail of Tears became reality, Junaluska refused to leave his land until he received compensation for his favorite apple tree. Federal commissioners paid him $50—roughly $1,200 in 2023 dollars.

Silas McDowell, the most renowned pomologist in the South during the mid-1800s, scoured the Cherokee orchards after removal. He managed to save the Junaluska, which now grows in the Nikwasi-managed orchard.

North Carolina erected a marker near McDowell’s home site. (Photo by Colleen Hamilton)

But it is McDowell whose name has been passed down in horticultural textbooks. McDowell is so renowned in this part of Western North Carolina that a plaque bearing his name stands proudly on Highlands Road, a few minutes away from the Nikwasi orchard.

“All I can think about is how much we lost,” said Tushka as we walked through the orchard.

Junaluska felt the same. A few months after Nunna daul Tsuny ended, the chief returned to western North Carolina against federal orders. He stayed there the rest of his life, refusing to settle in an unfamiliar land, laying the foundation for the eventual homecoming of a few Cherokee who formed the Eastern Band. The tribe still hosts a celebration for him each year. 

The seeds of the current orchard were planted in soil rife with conflict, though of a more contemporary flavor. In late 2012, the city of Franklin, North Carolina—Macon County’s seat—used herbicide on a sacred Cherokee mound at the center of the city. 

The fertilizer transformed the grass from bright green to a deadened brown in a matter of weeks, reigniting deep historical debates between members of the Cherokee Nation and Franklin residents. The patches on the mound looked like physical manifestations of these unhealed wounds.

When you drive through the town, the mound is the first thing you see. It is one of three surviving structures in the area that Cherokee people built more than 900 years ago, though historians believe there were nearly 800 spread across Cherokee and Cree lands.

The mound in Franklin, North Carolina. (Photo by Colleen Hamilton)

In Cherokee cosmology, the mounds contain the Nunnehi, or “the immortals.” During periods of conflict, the Nunnehi would pour out of the mound to protect the Cherokee people, Wilson told me. They are also burial sites: During excavations, researchers found hundreds of human remains. “They are our greatest ancestors,” she said. 

Almost instantly, the town of 3,000 became embroiled in the intense conversations about monuments, historical preservation, and selective memory that had swept across the country, but had particular salience in the South, where symbols of the Confederacy remain commonplace. 

These conversations pivoted on questions involving who is served by history and why. Also relevant: when did “American” history really begin? White citizens of Franklin had rallied together to save the mound from development in the 1940s; did they also have a claim to the mound, which had functioned as the iconic center of their city? Everyone had a distinct opinion.

“It got pretty bad on Facebook,” Tushka said.

After almost a year of difficult back-and-forth, Wilson and others received a call from the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina. They had heard about the escalating conflict and believed there was an opportunity for repair.

A few weeks later, a small group met at the Jackson County Courthouse. To begin their conversation, each person shared a memory of the mound. Over several months, the group met to discuss the mound, their differences, and their shared vision for North Carolina. Eventually, this became the Nikwasi Initiative.

At the behest of Barbara McRae, vice mayor of Franklin and co-founder of the nonprofit, one of the first projects they decided to undertake was an orchard. For McRae, long a historian of Cherokee pomology, the apples represented the intertwined nature of the Cherokee people and homesteaders who had lived in Appalachia for generations.

From a distance these groups seem almost impossibly separate. But when you lean in closer, a much more complicated, messy picture of grief, but also shared love for this bright, abundant land comes into focus.

Walking through the orchard, it struck me how many hands touch a single fruit before it arrives to us for a bite: The people who planted the original cultivar, the people who passed along that knowledge for generations, those who drive it to the market to sell. A web of immense complexity that we each benefit from every day.

When I toured the orchard, the word that Wilson used again and again was honoring. Honoring whose land we were on, honoring the people who had passed down this knowledge for centuries, honoring the people—like Wilson and Tushka and Anderson—who care for that wisdom and ensure that it reaches the next generation.

Colleen Hamilton reports on grassroots movements for social justice, queer liberation, and hope as a catalyst for change. She is on Instagram @colleenrhl.