[caption id="attachment_174153" align="aligncenter" width="1140"] The 22-foot statue outside the Museum of the Cherokee Indian — carved from a single giant sequoia log — honors the man named Sequoyah, who developed
Museum of the Cherokee Indian
The Museum of the Cherokee Indian is not a history museum, says Executive Director Shana Bushyhead Condill. Nor is it an art museum or a natural history museum. “We’re telling the story of a living people,” she says, “so we’re all those things — and more.” Now in its 75th year, the museum — one of the oldest tribal museums in the country — is constantly adapting as Condill and her team explore how best to tell the ongoing story of the Cherokee. Part of that is educating visitors through thoughtful exhibits, of course, but an even bigger part, perhaps, is community outreach — empowering citizens of the tribe to recognize, as Condill says, “our own agency, our own power and innovation.”
Oconaluftee Indian Village
Every year, a few local high schoolers get their first jobs at Oconaluftee Indian Village, which began in 1952 to complement the outdoor drama Unto These Hills. The experience often ignites a passion for their culture. “They fall in love with learning and being able to educate others,” says Laura Blythe, program director for the Cherokee Historical Association. “Delegates” take groups past Cherokee dwellings that appear as they did during various time periods. They also lead discussions with artists, who demonstrate weaving, pottery, wood carving, basketmaking, beadwork, and weaponry. “You get to ask questions, and you get to dig a little bit deeper,” Blythe says. “Our goal is to make sure our guests understand who we are.”
Cherokee Indian Fair
In the intense, fast-paced game of stickball — the grandfather of lacrosse — players battle for control of a small leather ball using netted sticks, tackling their opponents as they try to score goals on either end of a field. Sometimes called Indian Ball or “The Little Brother of War,” stickball was once used as combat training and to settle disputes. Today, the game encourages unity among Cherokee communities through friendly competition. It’s a highlight of the annual Cherokee Indian Fair — a beloved event featuring a parade, carnival rides, exhibits, live performances, and more — now in its 111th year.
Cherokee Expo Center
1501 Acquoni Road
Cherokee, NC 28719
With the Oconaluftee River flowing nearby and a fire crackling on its banks, Oconaluftee Islands Park comes alive with impassioned Cherokee voices. In the evenings, guests sit on benches and blankets around the fire and listen to history, myths, legends, and ghost stories that have been passed down through generations. Dressed in 17th-century clothing, each ambassador has developed their own unique style — some showcase skills, tools, or crafts; some incorporate music and dance — making each experience different from the one before.
Bonfires are held at Oconaluftee Islands Park from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays through October 31.
Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual
The country’s oldest Native American artist co-op began in 1946, at a time when tourism to the newly formed Great Smoky Mountains National Park was taking off. The goal was to preserve Cherokee heritage while providing a source of supplemental income for tribal citizens. Since the beginning, artists have been paid upfront for their work, and profits are distributed evenly among co-op members each year. Today, the storefront and permanent collection include more than 3,000 items — many of which bear tags acknowledging their Indigenous creators.
The daughters of a seamstress, Nancy Maney and her sister, the late Johnnie Ruth Maney, started their clothing business at the kitchen table, sewing in the evenings while working full-time. In 2017, they opened Sew Tsa-La-Gi, whose name is a translation of the word “Cherokee.” In addition to reproductions of traditional attire from the 18th and 19th centuries, Nancy designs her own modern, culturally inspired clothing and fabrics, some of which are printed with characters from the Cherokee syllabary. “It reminds [people] of the language, which we are losing,” she says. “But there’s a revitalization of everything in the culture. It’s big right now, and I’m glad we can do our little part.”
652 Paint Town Road
Cherokee, NC 28719
Seven miles from downtown Cherokee, at the site of the very first Cherokee town, EBCI citizens nourish the body and spirit. Dating back about 10,000 years, Kituwah, which translates to “Mother Town,” is recognized as the Cherokee people’s place of origin. At its center is the Kituwah Mound, atop which stood the council house — the political and spiritual center of the tribe. Once 15 to 20 feet tall, the mound now rises just five or six feet above the surrounding earth following 175 years of non-Indigenous ownership. But in 1996, the EBCI reclaimed stewardship of its ancestral homelands. Today, citizens tend to small farms and garden plots around the mound, growing foods that have been staples of the Cherokee diet for thousands of years: potatoes, greens, pumpkins, berries, and the “Three Sisters” of beans, corn, and squash, which are traditionally raised together. By utilizing the land in this way, Cherokees connect to the spiritual power of this sacred place and help sustain their community.
To make bean bread, the dough of cornmeal and pinto beans must be piping hot before it’s shaped — by hand — into patties. It’s not a job that Kimberly Smith envies, although, she says, “I will holistically enjoy eating it.” Her grandmother Marie Swayney makes dozens of patties at a time for the Cherokee chapter of the North American Indian Women’s Association, which sells “Indian Dinners” for fundraisers and community events. In addition to bean bread, the meals often include fried chicken, fried potatoes, and beans with hominy. “The sustenance of Indigenous traditional food is the corn, so you’ll find our meals don’t vary far from its inclusion,” says Smith, who is also a member of NAIWA. While certain ingredients have been part of the Cherokee diet for thousands of years, Smith says that foods don’t have to be ancient to be considered traditional. “We’re modern people,” she says, “and the basis of humanity is evolution and change.”
Fire Mountain Trails
At just over 11 miles, the Fire Mountain Trails pack a lot of jumps, tables, and berms into a fast-paced ride. The single-track trail system was conceived by Tonya “Tinker” Jenks, who sought to introduce the EBCI to a form of physical activity that previously had not always been accessible. Now, six years after Fire Mountain’s completion, mountain biking has gained traction in Cherokee, and a new multi-acre, multiuse bike park is planned for 2024. In addition to locals, cyclists from across the region seek out the thrills of the intermediate Spearfinger and Uktena trails — named, respectively, for a shape-shifting witch and a giant serpent of the woods, figures from Cherokee lore — and the beginner Tinker’s Dream trail, named for the real-life woman who started it all.
A herd of elk often welcomes travelers heading to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center at the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In the mornings, especially, they laze and graze in the meadows around the Mountain Farm Museum — a collection of restored 19th-century farm buildings — before retreating to the woods along the Oconaluftee River. They roam throughout the Qualla Boundary, where they share the land with human residents: It’s not uncommon to see them wandering around town.
According to Cherokee lore, the evil spirit Tsul-ka-lu, or Judaculla — a slant-eyed giant who was lord of the hunt — lived, danced, and held court in the cave beneath the sinister-looking rock face of Devil’s Courthouse. Today, hikers can see the mountain from an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway before climbing the steep half-mile trail to the summit. At the top, they’re rewarded with sweeping views of Cherokee ancestral homelands and the present-day Qualla Boundary.
At the Qualla Boundary’s eastern edge, Soco Falls and a tributary drop about 50 feet in a double waterfall just off the side of the road. The best view requires a steep descent beyond the observation deck to the base of the falls.
At 120 feet, the ancestral Big Bear Falls — known today as Mingo Falls — is one of the tallest waterfalls in Southern Appalachia. The hike to the falls is a short quarter-mile — with 161 stairs. But it’s well worth the climb. At the top, a wooden bridge carries hikers over the Raven Fork, providing an unobscured view of a natural wonder. — KK
After years of walking past the snarling bear statue with damaged front paws at Saunooke’s Mill and Shop, owner and artist Charles Saunooke decided that it was high time to fix it.
He had grown up understanding the importance of tourism at his parents’ gift shop in Cherokee, so he took the fiberglass bear home and painted it with symbols of the industry’s impact on the region: the man dressed as a chief who posed with tourists on the roadside for 60 years, the basket weavers and potters who sell their crafts, the fish that attract anglers to the area’s abundant rivers. To top it all off, he painted moccasins on the bear’s hind paws and red sneakers on its forepaws to show how times have changed: “Converse high-tops,” he says. “This boy’s in style.”
Saunooke’s bear — now called Tourist Bear and back home at the shop — inspired the “Bears Project,” which began in 2005 to showcase the artists of the Qualla Boundary, the home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Today, visitors come to Cherokee with hopes of finding all 19 painted bears, which stand on sidewalks, at intersections, and near rivers and trails around town.
In Cherokee culture, bears are the symbol of a spirit guide or elder, representing great strength. Each painted bear has a theme: Some feature Cherokee stories or symbols, like Eagle Dancer Bear and Legends Bear. Some represent the seven Cherokee clans or aspects of Cherokee culture, like pottery and language. Others depict scenes from nature, like sunrise and sunset. Many of the artists embraced a bright color scheme: blues, greens, yellows, and reds.
Though the colors and patterns vary, all of the bears have one thing in common: They were painted by talented Cherokee artists who don’t always get the recognition they deserve, Saunooke says.
“There are some tremendous artists on this reservation who are highly underrated,” he says. “People are just now discovering how truly creative and talented the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are, from their baskets to their wood carving to their pottery. There’s some really fine art here.” — HK
For more information about Cherokee’s painted bears — including where to find all 19 — visit the Cherokee Welcome Center at 498 Tsali Boulevard or call (800) 438-1601.
This story was published on Sep 25, 2023