Eastern Band of Cherokee Flourishes with National Park and Culture

By Sandra Hale Schulman
 - News From Indian Country -

Cherokee North Carolina is a small but special place at the base of the magnificent Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With a population of just over 2000, the tribe has quietly thrived after their tumultuous and tragic history. The densely wooded hills and the sparkling shallow Oconaluftee River considered “sacred waters” that flows through it have provided food, shelter, and now tourism attractions for the proud band.

The rock studded river flows rapidly, dropping 2000 feet in elevation quickly over 10 miles and picking up many tributaries along the way down from the mountains before joining the Little Tennessee on the way to Lake Fontana.  The Oconaluftee River is known for large brown trout in the lower elevations along with many aggressive rainbow trout. It holds the North Carolina Record Brown Trout weighing in at 15.9 pounds. Fishing licenses are a big source of income, and trout is on the menu at Paul’s Restaurant in town. Wading, tubing,  and canoeing are all popular here.

Historical Cherokee figures at museum

All Photos by Sandra Hale Schulman

The best things to experience include The Museum of the Cherokee Indian, which takes visitors back to the beginnings of human existence here in these gorgeous, storied mountains of western North Carolina.

The museum provides an educational and interactive experience with concise, chronological stories retracing the 11,000 year documented history of the Cherokees. I was surprised and delighted to see two films narrated by the late Floyd Red Crow Westerman, who wears period costumes and dramatically tells the stories of how the Cherokee believe the world and fire and animals were created.

In one interactive segment he throws herbs onto an actual sculptural fire pit in front of the screen which leaps into flames.

The story of Sequoyah is an inspiring one, as he invented the first written tribal language in 5000 years in 1809 or “talking leaves” as they were then called. One side note to the story is that a young obsessed Sequoyah worked for two years on the language only to have his ignored wife burn all his work. A determined Sequoyah just started again. A painted bear outside the museum – there are many scattered around town – depicts Sequoyah in his trademark red turban with the Cherokee lettering on its side.

Many dioramas, murals and wall texts tell the troubled history of a prosperous band that was repeatedly duped by the new US government and sent on the infamous Trail of Tears to relocate to Oklahoma. This is a personal journey for me as my maternal Hale family is from this area and was trekked across the country to be resettled. The family name shows up on the Western Dawes Roll but not the Eastern, which means they either came back later or hid in the hills with hundreds of others to escape the forced relocation. Either way I got emotional as I walked through several rooms that told the Trail of Tears story with pictures and figures.

Painted Black Bear in the downtown (above) and the Black Bear Gift shop below are some of the attractions in Cherokee, North Carolina.

This story and many more in detail are played out in a live drama at Unto These Hills, a show in an amphitheater with a cast of 50 that tells the history in dance and song, with dramatic sets that roll in from the woods on train tracks. This show has run in various incarnations since 1950 and has been seen by over 6 million people. Costumes and songs are beautiful and effective with projections onto rocks and even fire torches and wedding, birth and war ceremonies played out. It’s a must see when on the reservation.

Another must see is the Qalla Art Center that displays historic and contemporary crafts of basketry, pottery, carving and finger weaving.

The Oconaluftee Indian Village is a re-created village of the 1700’s. Visitors experience the everyday life of the Cherokee through artisans who display tasks done by their forefathers. You can witness war council meetings, war re-enactments, traditional dances and more. Scenes from movies such as Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier,  Forces of Nature, and The Fugitive, were shot all in Cherokee.  

Harrah’s Casino opened in 1997 and changed everything from jobs to education to health care for Cherokee tribe members. By 2005, nearly four million people visited the casino and shops within to generate a per capita profit of about $8,000 annually.  Before the casino came to the area, national park tourism provided work for about half of the year, and most tribal members lived off public assistance during the winter.

The shopping is intense, with dozens of stores clustered in three areas with moccasins, jewelry, blankets. I found some small fringed leather bags made for Cherokee kids to hold their marbles in from 1954 at the Medicine Man Shop.

There are many hotels right on the river to stay in, and Island Park is a great place to stroll into the shallow pebble filled river with your dog on a hot summer day. A short drive into the National Park finds elk in dewy fields and clouds hanging in the valleys.

The Cherokee have rebounded from their tragic past in a steady, productive way in a setting that has many natural wonders. Well worth a visit.


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