Cherokee Riverkeepers

The DHI is working with Professor Gregory Smithers, British Academy Global Professor, to develop the first data visualization of Cherokee freshwater management, ecosystem resilience and climate migration in the Tennessee River Valley.

The proposed research tool – Cherokee Riverkeepers – aims to produce the first data visualization of Cherokee freshwater management, ecosystem resilience and climate migration in the Tennessee River Valley. The visualization will take users on a journey that extends over the past 10,000 years of human history, providing detailed case studies that will make an original research intervention and inform international policy discourses about mountain biomes. 

The research tool will combine historical maps, archaeological evidence, oral histories and scientific data to transform the waters of the Tennessee Valley from lines on a map to living, evolving, ecosystems. It aims to reveal how Cherokees responded to both natural and human-induced climate change to foster biodiversity in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. 


The primary objective of this research tool is to develop a kinetic map that provides researchers and policymakers with visual access to the environmental history of the Tennessee River Valley. Current data visualizations of the American South’s rivers are fragmented and generally exclude Indigenous management of river hydrology. This research tool corrects that. The interdisciplinary use of historical and scientific sources extends Prof. Smithers’ original British Academy Global Professorship proposal (Native Ecologies: A Deep History of Climate Change) by pinpointing Cherokee migration and settlement patterns dating back 10,000 years. This research will highlight how human behavior worked in tandem with riverine management strategies to innovate flood mitigation policies, improve land use practices, and encourage species rehabilitation (for e.g. Appalachian Brook Trout) by combining Indigenous knowledge with modern science. 


The digital tool will give users the ability to click on pins that will be placed on the map and take them to

  • Specific towns, which highlight localized applications of Cherokee ecological knowledge dating 10,000 years; 
  • Data on flood histories, particularly data revealing how colonial land use patterns became the main driver of changes in river hydrology (e.g. dams) and ultimately contributed to the territorial dispossession of the Cherokees in the 1830s; 
  • Links to contemporary Cherokee ecological management strategies that reveal the impacts of Western technology on Indigenous knowledge systems. This includes how twentieth-century dam construction throughout the Little Tennessee River Valley impacted Cherokee social and economic life and demonstrate how technology has resulted in a renaissance in Indigenous ecological management strategies since the 1980s. 

Related Websites

Project Team

  • Professor Gregory Smithers (British Academy Global Professor — University of Hull)
  • Matthew Groves (Research Software Engineer — The Digital Humanities Institute)