In the Great Smoky Mountains, a story of survival, endurance, and identity unfolds through the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians.
This is what you see: On the edge of the town of Cherokee sits a grown man in a costume. He’s wearing a full headdress of red, orange, and white feathers. He’s sitting in front of a tepee, waving at passing cars and smiling so big his eyes squint.
“Y’all want a picture?” he asks, smiling.
He’s one of the chiefs on the corners.
For two days, you’ve ignored the chiefs on the corners.For two days, you’ve been here searching for the real Cherokee. You’ve turned up your nose to every kitschy shop, every sign that says something like “Wigwam Motel,” and every joker with a plastic tomahawk. You’ve talked to people who know the real story, the people in the museum, the people at the arts and crafts shop, the woodcarvers, and the storytellers. (Story continues below the video.)
With fewer than 500 fluent speakers of the Cherokee language, the native community is committed to teaching that language to its youngest members. See how that language is shared in a segment from “Our State,” the television program. Produced by UNC-TV and Our State Magazine, with generous funding from BB&T.
You’ve learned about the terrible and heroic tale of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, saw with your own eyes at an outdoor drama how, following the American Revolution, your forefathers spent nearly 200 years doing everything they could to change these people, exterminate these people, disband these people, “correct” these people, and make these people more like your people.
Your heart bleeds for these people.
And so you think you don’t want to see these chiefs on the corners. You think they’re frauds. You believe they are precisely what’s wrong with the town of Cherokee. By now, at the end of the two days, you want to tell the man in the costume standing on the edge of town: “Hey, Chief, Cherokee Indians never lived in tepees. They didn’t wear headdresses, either.”
As if you know something he doesn’t.
Then you meet Ernest, the grown man in the costume. You find out he’s been working this same spot on U.S. Highway 441 near the entrance of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for more than 40 years. You learn that he comes from a traditional Cherokee family, has a hay farm with a small herd of cattle on the outskirts of town, is a stone mason in the winter, and has a well-known sister who is leading the tribe’s cultural revival. You learn he’s as close to the real Cherokee as any person in these hills.
Ernest has greeted more visitors and taken more pictures with more people than anybody at the museum. That people stop for him more than they stop for the real thing, well, that says more about us than it does about him.
He’s just playing along.
He wears the headdress not to be phony, but because it’s what visitors have wanted for years. They didn’t want to know that real Cherokee people lived in real homes with real foundations. They wanted their Indians in tepees. Ernest wears the headdress not because he’s a fraud, but because he knows his customer. He’s a businessman. And he’s good at it.
“If I stood out here with no feathers on, it ain’t going to do much good,” Ernest tells you.
And that’s when you realize something: Ernest got you. For two days, you’ve searched for the real Cherokee by dismissing one of its most authentic members. For two days, you’ve been doing the same thing your forefathers had done since the Revolution: You came up with your own idea of how a real Cherokee should act, and you were so sure of it, you wanted to tell him.
When you come here, you ask a question you’d never ask in another town.
“Are you a member of the tribe?”
You’d never ask that in Raleigh or Charlotte. You’d never walk up to someone in Durham and ask him to specify his race and origin. But you ask it here, in a place where, yes, there’s a pretty good chance the person you’re talking to is a member of the tribe.
“Every day,” says Davy Arch, one of 9,000 enrolled members living here on the Qualla Boundary. “I’m asked that every day.”
You ride into town on a Monday. That’s how they’d say it in the movies. And there’d be a sunrise somewhere, maybe some tumbleweed. But that’s not what you see today. What you see today is the hotel and casino. Big and flashy.
It’s all anyone sees when they drive into Cherokee on U.S. Highway 19. It’s 15 stories tall, and it pops out of a spot of land where Arch grew up. You walk through the place. You hear the sounds, like you’re in a giant video game, with fake change falling and numbers spinning. It’s truly a casino. You’ve been in town five minutes, and you wonder, nose up, how could they build a casino on such sacred ground?
Then you meet Leeann Bridges. She’s a member of the tribe. She’s short, blond, and has a tattoo of her son Owen’s name on her arm. She’s the vice president of marketing for Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino. She loves the casino, and she loves the Cherokee Indians more. Listening to her, you start to realize there’s more to this casino, more to this town, more than you can see.
Bridges moved away from home after high school, earned an anthropology degree from Western Carolina University and later an M.B.A. from Meredith College. She came back because of the casino and hotel. It’s her job
to promote Harrah’s. But she talks mostly about what the place means to the tribe.
When the casino opened in 1997, Swain County was the poorest county in North Carolina. Now, it’s up to 90th out of 100. Now, Cherokee tribe members who want to go to college can have their room and board paid for.
Now, every tribal member receives a dividend check every six months.
All of it is thanks to the casino.
The Cherokee Indians have a rich story. It doesn’t start with slot machines. And it doesn’t end with slot machines. But at this point in that history, slot machines are paying their way from poverty to prosperity. Slot machines are the biggest piece of the most recent history of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, whether you consider slot machines traditional or not.
“We have a middle class here that we’ve never had before,” Bridges says. “Growing up here, we just didn’t have a whole lot. It’s nice to know that my son will have a place to work here if he wants.”
At Paul’s Restaurant on Tsali Boulevard, the waitress sets down a plate filled with something called an Indian taco. It’s made with fry bread, beans, lettuce, cheese, chili, tomatoes, and onions. It is sweet and delicious, and it’s Paul’s hottest lunch item, and there’s no way you can eat it all.
But it has nothing to do with Cherokee. It’s a Southwestern meal. Navajo.
The waitress, she has black hair with squiggly curls. You’ll see her again, at another restaurant, the next morning. It’s a small town; you remember faces.
In a way, that’s all it is, a small town in the mountains. Cherokee has 13,000 permanent residents, a couple of roads, a casino, a few restaurants, a few motels, and an entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
That’s how most people first noticed Cherokee. When the park was built in 1934, Cherokee became the place at the end of the last real road of civilization, before the vacation in the mountains. People would drive through Cherokee, look at the kitschy signs and take a picture with a chief on the corner. But many never cared to ask any questions. They assumed, saw tepees and tomahawks, and then they went camping.
“The museum is the easternmost end of the Trail of Tears,” says Dr. Barbara Duncan, the education director for the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. “But, we believe the Trail of Tears started on every doorstep.”
Your feet move a little when she says that.
Duncan is not a member of the tribe. She’s a scholar with a degree from the University of Pennsylvania and an absolute passion for the Cherokee.
The museum documents the 11,000 years of history of the Cherokee tribe, as well as it’s possible to document 11,000 years of anything. There are stone spear points from the Paleo Period and medicine pipes from the Woodland Period and pottery pieces from the Mississippian Period. There’s a movie that explains how, in Cherokee mythology, a big buzzard came through flapping his wings: Each down-flap made an ocean, and each up-flap made a mountain range.
There’s even a three-dimensional projection of a medicine man. And there’s a replica living room from a replica residence of the Cherokee Indians from the 1800s. It looks like a replica living room from a replica residence of anybody who lived during the 1800s. It’s a home.
It’s all part of the narrative. The museum has undergone major renovations since Ken Blankenship — a member of the tribe and a Vietnam War veteran — took over as executive director in 1985. In 1998, Blankenship led an overhaul of the exhibits, taking advice from people at Disney.
“When I came in 1985, the exhibits were early Wal-Mart,” Blankenship says. “You didn’t know any more about a Cherokee than you did when you came in. … Everything has to tell a story.”
And that means including it all, even the parts you don’t want to see.
In the museum, it’s labeled “Contact and Colonies.” You can’t reduce it to two words, though.
In the 1700s, the Cherokee occupied land from the Ohio River to what is now Georgia. They became trading partners with the British. Cherokee chiefs even visited kings in England. These were good times, safe times, for the Cherokee. When the British lost the Revolutionary War, however, the Cherokee became victims of the new people in power.
The United States government first told the Cherokee to assimilate, to adopt American ways. The tribe tried. A man named Sequoyah came up with a written language, 85 characters deep, and every member of the tribe learned it within a few months.
In the War of 1812, the Cherokee came to the aid of the Americans. In the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, one legendary Cherokee warrior, Junaluska, saved the life of one legendary American general, Andrew Jackson.
It wasn’t enough.
Sixteen years later, Jackson was president and signed the Indian Removal Act, which led to the Trail of Tears. In 1838, when most of the Cherokee tribe refused to leave the land behind, United States troops moved in and forcibly removed 15,000 people. They went into the homes — like the one you see in the exhibit, the one anyone could’ve lived in during the 1800s — and pulled men, women, and children right from dinner tables. And then they marched them from North Carolina to Oklahoma. Along the way, 4,000 Cherokee Indians died.
The easternmost end of all of that was right here at this spot, at the museum.
Your feet move a little again.
“There have been so many efforts to get rid of the people and take them out of their homes,” Duncan says. “The fact that they are still here, really, is incredible.”
The actors are circling counterclockwise. And they’re smiling. They do this every night. And they’re still smiling. Genuinely.
It’s well into the night at the Mountainside Theatre, and this is the final dance of the show. You’re about the six-millionth person to see Unto These Hills, which opened in 1948 and is now the second-longest-running outdoor drama in the United States.
It’s the museum, acted out. The story starts in the early 1800s, when your forefathers came along. A young man plays Sequoyah and develops the language. Others play Junaluska and Andrew Jackson. Another plays a man named Tsali, who agreed to be killed to allow some of his fellow tribe members to remain on their homeland during the Removal. The sounds of blank shots firing make you jump, thanks to the updated sound system.
This is where the museum’s story comes to life. Most of the actors are current members of the tribe, pouring their hearts into the performance, every night, same as the members before them have done for 62 years.
Then there’s the final dance. And they’re circling counterclockwise. And they’re smiling.
The kid behind the counter at Qualla Arts and Crafts has his mouth full. You say hello anyway, walking past him, figuring you’d get a nod and never see him again.
But he throws up his index finger, telling you to hang on. Wearing a University of North Carolina at Greensboro T-shirt, he finishes the last bites of his breakfast, and he swallows. Then he gets out what he wanted to say to you.
That’s it. He just wanted to say hello back.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a person in this town — where tourism is the most important industry — would be polite. But coming from an 18-year-old, it does.
Jacob George is a member of the tribe. He graduated from Swain County High School in May, and at the ceremony, he hung a feather in place of his tassel. His mother told him it was a tradition.
Just the other day, he tells you, an old lady told him that on the first big spring rain, the thunder wakes the snakes. Also, if you’re swimming during a storm, the thunder will hold you under. He listens to every story. And he remembers them. He knows traditions die with generations, unless they’re passed down.
“If it’s lost, there’s no going back,” George says. “It will be too late. We need to know about this stuff.”
Davy Arch walks onto the deck at the Oconaluftee Indian Village and begins to direct the actors. The village, a replica Cherokee village from 1760, features a trail that travels past woodworkers, basket weavers, finger weavers, and arrow makers. It feels real.
The actors are about to attack the village — with the visitors in it — as they do every Tuesday at noon.
Arch is the assistant manager. If there’s one person you need to talk to about Cherokee traditions, everybody’s told you, it’s Arch.
When he’s not managing the village, he’s seven miles outside of town, on an 80-acre farm his grandfather once owned and later passed down to him. From his house, he can see Waterrock Knob, one of the highest peaks on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Also a master woodcarver, Arch spent two years living outside of Cherokee, in Morehead City, where he taught at Carteret Community College. Like so many people from Cherokee, he had to get back here. There’s something about these hills — a calmness that extends deep into every member of the Cherokee tribe.
“If you’re raised here, it’s just part of your soul,” Arch says. “It’s a combination of the setting and the culture, and an attitude toward life.”
You see that. Nobody ever yells here. The Cherokee people, despite all the reasons they have to be angry, are absolutely at peace. You see that. But here’s what you don’t see.
When Arch talks to you, he’s looking around you. Not rudely or shyly. He’s looking at the trees and the animals and the insects. In the evenings, he listens for the bird calls — when they start singing, he knows there’s exactly an hour left before nightfall. Certain frogs indicate a shift in the weather.
He believes it. He knows it. It’s in him.
He also shares this with you: Cherokee people believe in seven directions. There are the four cardinal directions — north, south, east, and west. There’s the center. And there’s above and below.
In dances, the upper world is symbolized by counterclockwise dancing.
It’s why the actors, the ones you watched in Unto These Hills, were smiling.
The woman with gray and black hair tied in a bun is the one you’ve been waiting to talk to all week. If there’s one person you need to talk to about Cherokee traditions, everybody’s told you, it’s Marie Junaluska.
She’s a member of the tribe.
She’s also involved with the North Carolina Arts Council. She also sits on the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians Tribal Council as an interpreter, typing up the minutes on a computer with an English-to-Cherokee program. She’s also a grandmother of seven. She’s also helped with the advancement of the Kituwah Academy, an immersion school where children are speaking Cherokee from early childhood — a school developed to help make sure that language doesn’t die, after generations and generations of tribal members were told they could not speak it. She’s also helping with adult programs that teach the language and traditions. She’s also one of the key promoters of the message: “We are still here.” It’s a statement of fact, softly defiant, completely true.
Yes, she’s a member of the tribe, but like so many people here, she’s so much more.
Today, she stands in the back room of the Little Princess Restaurant. “Let’s sit back here,” she says. “There’s more privacy. A little quieter.”
For the next two hours, over a plate of bean bread, fat back, and fried chicken, she uncoils her story.
Her great-grandmother’s grandfather was Tsali, the Cherokee who gave up his life to save his fellow tribe members.
Her parents went to the boarding schools, where students were punished for speaking the Cherokee language or practicing Cherokee traditions. But her mom didn’t waver; when she finished school, she still brought the traditions to her children, including Junaluska.
They grew up in the hills, Junaluska and her siblings, and they learned how to live with only a few stores. When they cut plants one season, they made sure they’d grow back the next. They also did things that all kids do, play with slingshots and such. But they were as Cherokee as Cherokee can be.
Their grandfather was a medicine man. Junaluska and her siblings would watch as he went into the woods, found plants and herbs, came back, mixed them together, and, with a traditional prayer, helped heal earaches, toothaches, and cuts. He could even heal pain one might feel from a family member’s death, Junaluska says.
She and her siblings would watch, learn, and carry the Cherokee traditions with them into adulthood. One of those siblings is a man named Ernest — the chief on the corner you’ve been ignoring since you got here.
Junaluska has no problems with Ernest’s job. In fact, she once worked in one of the places that sold tomahawks.
“It’s a living,” she says.
Then, Junaluska — with her voice never shaking, showing that calmness that runs through these hills — teaches you the most valuable Cherokee tradition.
“What’s in here,” Junaluska says, lightly wiping her hand down her face and chest, “is what’s real.”
Here’s what you see: a member of the tribe.
Ernest is about to pack up for the day. It’s time to get back home to his life without the costume, the life on his farm, the traditional life.
He has hay to cut, he tells you.
You ask him if he ever tells his customers that his character is not authentic. “Whenever they ask,” he says. “I do tell ’em it’s Western-style. But the kids, they just want the picture.”
Just then, a man, a woman, and their young son walk up. The father has on a bright-green shirt that reads, “Lucky’s Irish.” Maybe he’s Irish, all the way here in Cherokee. Maybe he’s promoting his heritage. Maybe he just likes green.
It’s hard to tell just by looking at the shirt.
Either way, there on a corner in the town of Cherokee, you see a young boy in a baseball cap and a grown man in an Irish shirt sitting on either side of a grown man in a costume. All of them are smiling. And mom snaps the picture.
777 Casino Drive
Cherokee, N.C. 28719
Owned by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, the 15-story hotel provides a base from which to explore the town. Have dinner at the hotel’s Selu Garden, and browse the extensive art collection, which includes work from Sean Ross and Darrin Bark.
Michael Graff is the associate editor of Our State magazine.