“It’s a part of the story of who we are. It’s a definer of what is being a Cherokee.”

The large, flat soapstone boulder carved with Indian symbols known as Judaculla Rock, is more than a landmark to Thomas Belt, a native Cherokee speaker and Cherokee language program coordinator at Western Carolina University. The 10,000-year-old boulder is sacred to the Cherokee people, surrounded by legend and history.

“First of all there’s the namesake of the rock itself,” said Scott Ashcraft, US Forest Service archaeologist and co-director of the North Carolina Rock Art Project. “‘Judaculla,’ one of the Cherokee spirit beings, a giant—his handprint has a story behind it.” He’s referring to the large handprint carved into the rock.

“Then there’s the long line. One story is that Judaculla did it with his nail and it represents a boundary,” Ashcraft said. “We think the carvings are also a map of not only this local area but also a map for the spirit world.”

Ashcraft explained that this petroglyph is important not only for North Carolina, but for all of the eastern U.S. “It’s the most densely carved that we know of. It’s one of the most important places to the Cherokee people.”

It gives me a place on the face of the Earth that I’ve been granted to share with my relatives.

Thomas Belt

Jerry Parker’s family has been living on the property where Judaculla Rock currently sits since the 1850s. “We’ve been the caretakers or stewards, for lack of a better word, of this property. Father transferred the rock to the county to preserve it in 1959,” Parker said.

“I’ve traveled many places all over the world, but I always come back here. So I just look at this as my spiritual low stone that always brings me back.”

Brett Riggs, Sequoyah distinguished professor of Cherokee studies at Western Carolina University, said Judaculla Rock is a spot that “embodies Cherokee belief and embodies Cherokee belonging to this place.”

For Belt, with his Cherokee heritage, the place brings feelings of home. “It gives me a place on the face of the Earth that I’ve been granted to share with my relatives,” he said. “It tells me that I’m home.”