With the arrival of the annual performance of Tennessee’s Official Outdoor Drama, Liberty! The Saga of Sycamore Shoals, cast member Robert Pilk is reprising the role of Cherokee Indian Chief Attacullaculla.
Pilk has been involved the outdoor drama for over 20 years. He said he became involved after his granddaughter encouraged him to take part in the annual performance. Since he first joined the cast in the early 1990s, Pilk said he has played a few different roles. For the last 15 years, however, Pilk has performed the role of Attacullacullla. From the Cherokee language, the name loosely translates into English as “Little Carpenter.” Historians believe the name was given to him due to his physical stature.
As part of his preparations to play the character, Pilk said he has conducted research into the historical records concerning Attacullaculla. He noted that he has been unable to find a large amount of information concerning the Cherokee leader, but added, “There’s a lot of history surrounding Fort Watauga and our first settlers into the area. A great deal of American and Tennessee history took place right here on the banks of the Watauga River.”
Pilk commented that Attacullaculla played a significant role in the early relationship between the Cherokee and the English settlers. He explained that Attacullaculla was responsible for most of the trading of food and other goods with the early colonists. “Attacullaculla was supposed to be an expert in trading and was very good at negotiating,” Pilk said.
Born in the early 1700s, Attacullaculla was born to subtribe of the Algonquian-speaking Nipissing Indians. As a young infant, he was captured in a Cherokee raid by one of the tribe’s chiefs. Attacullaculla later married a woman named Nionne Ollie, who was a captive of the Natchez Tribe.
One of the main reasons for his ability to strike deals with the white settlers to the region was based on his knowledge of the English language. Pilk said Attacullaculla had traveled to England where he learned the language. The young Attacullaculla gained a reputation for his negotiating skills when he was part of a Cherokee delegation that traveled to Britain for discussions with the English government.
“He was also very much involved in the negotiations that led to one of the largest land deals in U.S. history,” Pilk added. He explained that the 1770 Treaty of Lochaber led to the Cherokee relinquishing all land west of the Virginia and North Carolina border to six miles east of Long Island in the Holston River, which is located in present-day Kingsport.
Prior to his part in the 1770 land deal, Attacullaculla was part of a group of Cherokee Indians who took part in a peace negotiation with the South Carolinian government in Charleston. The envoy was held as hostages by Colonial Governor William Henry Lyttleton until the Cherokee turned over a member of their tribe who was responsible for the death of several white settlers.
Despite ongoing hostilities between the Cherokee and the English settlers, Attacullaculla was active in attempting to negotiate a peace settlement between the factions. His efforts to find a peaceful compromise between the groups were limited by Oconostota, a Cherokee leader who held a more hostile attitude against the colonists.
Pilk said the process of preparing for each summer’s performance of Liberty! requires hard work and dedication from a large group of people. In addition to the actors who appear in the annual drama, he noted there are many people behind the scenes who work diligently to ensure a top-notch performance each night. “Even for those of us who have been doing this for a long time, we still have to hold a lot of practices to make sure we know our lines and where we’re supposed to be on stage,” said Pilk. “Depending on how large the part is, our actors can have a lot of lines to memorize. Not only that, but the dialogue is changed a little every year to keep the story fresh, so we still have to learn new things every summer.”
In addition to the actors who have speaking parts, Pilk said there are many others who are in the performance as non-speaking cast members.He noted there are approximately 20 actors who have speaking parts from a total cast of around 70 individuals in the 2012 edition of Liberty!
“Every year, we have the full range of people from all age groups. There are kids as young as seven or eight, all the way up to people in their 70s and 80s,” he noted. “It’s definitely a good representation of the community.”
Throughout his 22 years as a cast member, Pilk said the experience has given him a greater understanding and an appreciation for the history of Carter County and East Tennessee and how it shaped the direction of the United States. “Our cast and crew members understand what an honor it is to be able to tell this story,” said Pilk. “I know that I am truly honored to be able to have a role in telling the story of our community and American history.”
Pilk commented that he continues to look forward to the annual performance of “Tennessee’s Official Outdoor Drama.” He said that he plans to continue to take part in Liberty! for as long as he is physically able to do so.
Liberty! The Saga of Sycamore Shoals, continues over the next two weekends in July. Performances take place Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Sycamore Shoals State Park’s Amphitheatre in Elizabethton. Tickets are $8 for adults and $5 for children from 6 through 12. Children under 6 are admitted free.
For additional information, call Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park at 543-5808.