Mayas lived in this North Carolina Mountain town . . . three centuries ago

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

The evidence of Maya immigration to North America was always as close as the welcome sign in this artsy community in the Southern Highlands.  Perhaps because the key to unlocking the past was so obvious that scholars missed it for three centuries.

Brasstown is located in a valley of the Nantahala Mountains

Brasstown, North Carolina is a picturesque village near the Hiwassee River in the Western North Carolina Mountains. If it was moved a couple of miles farther south, it would be in the North Georgia Mountains. It is a nationally famous center for the arts in which most of the residents are either professors, instructors, students or shop owners catering to the community’s many visitors.

Unincorporated Brasstown Community probably wouldn’t exist at all today if was not for the John C. Campbell Folk Art School.  Founded in 1925 by Olive Dame Campbell and Marguerite Butler, the school now draws students and visitors from around the world.   It was modeled after the Danish Folk Schools and incorporated the research into Southern Highland culture done by Olive Campbell’s late husband John.

John C. Campbell Folk School – A working farm on its sprawling campus

The campus is far larger than the adjacent village of Brasstown. Each area of the arts & crafts has its own studio or studios on the beautifully landscaped campus. Here one can chose classes from 44 subject areas that vary from pottery making, painting, weaving, woodcarving, broom making, soap making to story telling.  One of most popular curriculums is blacksmithing. One can take 32 courses in that area. Some students take extended coursework to gain certification in an aspect of their career.  Others only want to gain skills in a hobby.  Dances and musical concerts are scheduled throughout the year and heavily attended by residents of the region.

The campus is open to the general public for classes, entertainment or purchasing crafts. Readers can obtain more detailed information about the John C. Campbell Folk Art Center, at their website: https://www.folkschool.org.

An ancient Native American fish trap on Brasstown Creek

The forgotten meanings of three Native American words

When English colonists first settled at Charleston, South Carolina in 1674, there were numerous Native American towns in the Southeast that were members of an ethnic group named the Itsa-te. In the mountainous regions of Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia their towns were often named Itsa-te, but also went by the “nickname” of Cho-te. Itsa-te meant Itsa People in their language. The Itsate were from Chiapas, while Cho’i-te meant the Cho’i People from Tabasco. Itsa-te is pronounced, Ĭt-sjhă-tē.

In the early 1700s, the Cherokee Alliance expanded southward into Itsati territory. After occupying an Itsati town, they often kept its original name.  By the mid-1700s most of the Cherokee towns that originally were named Itsa-te, were better known by the name of Cho-te or Chota.  One town on the Hiwassee River became known as Itsa-yi, which in Cherokee means “Territory or Place of the Itsa.”

During the early 1800s, Christian missionaries arrived in the Cherokee Nation with dictionaries that were inaccurate. The missionary assigned to the Hiwassee River Valley looked up Itsayi and noticed that it was similar to the Cherokee word for brass, tsayi. decided that Itsayi was really the Cherokee word for “brass.” 

That is a different word in Cherokee, but the name stuck. Brass Town became the official name of the town; the name of the creek that flowed through it, and eventually, the name of a tall mountain a few miles to the south in Georgia.  Before long, people forgot about the faulty origin of Brasstown, or if they stumbled across the word, “Itsayi or “Itsati” on old maps, they assumed that these were “ancient Cherokee words, whose meanings had been lost.”  New settlers assumed that the Cherokees had always lived in the same locations.

Dr. Morales points out art, which is very similar to that of the Creeks in Georgia.

The same words are found in Mexico

The Itza Mayas were generally on the periphery of Maya culture between 200 AD and 900 AD, when the “Classic Mayas” were a their peak of cultural advancement. They lived south of the largest cities in the mountains and were primarily farmers. However, when the Maya cities began collapsing in the 800s, the Itza Maya quickly expanded northward the soon became the dominant people in the Yucatan Peninsula. Their first capital was Chichen Itza, which means “Mouth of the Itza sinkhole.” 

The Itza Maya originally called themselves the Itsa-te, which means Itza People.  That, of course, is the same name that most Creeks in Georgia, western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee called themselves. The Itzas speak a dialect of the Cho’i-Maya language so they also went by the name of the Cho-te. The majority of “Mayas” did not call themselves Maya, until the Spanish told them to!

The Itsa-te (Hitchiti) language in the Southeastern United States contains many Maya and Totonac words from Mexico. The Itsa-te (Hitchiti) Creek Indians looked different than the Muskogee Creek Indians, but were almost identical in appearance to the Itza Mayas. 

There is no doubt that at least some Itza Mayas migrated to North America.  They probably were traders, illiterate commoners and slaves, who were fleeing the wars, droughts, famines and volcanic eruptions in Central America.  Some of those Maya refugees lived on the land that is now part of the John C. Campbell Folk Art School.  That fact should inspire a future generation of artists that will be produced by this highly respected institution.

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