A couple of hours north of Atlanta exists a culture that dates back 11,000-plus years. Archeological evidence indicates that the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has inhabited the Southeastern United States since the end of the last ice age.
At the time of contact with European explorers in the 16th century, the Cherokee were living mainly in what are now North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. They were the largest tribe in the southeast, numbering about 29,000 in the 17th century.
In the early days of contact with European settlers and for the next several hundred years the Cherokee welcomed visitors to their lands and often thought of the visitors as needing help to survive. Generosity was considered a virtue and hospitality was extended to all who came.
Soon after Andrew Jackson was elected president, the federal government established policy making it legal to remove Indian tribes from their native lands and relocate them west of the Mississippi River. The Cherokee were forced to cede their eastern lands in 1835 and were forced from 1838–1839 to Indian Territory. On their journey, known as the Trail of Tears, more than one-fourth of the Cherokee population perished as a result of the forced relocation. An estimated 1,400 hid in the Smoky Mountains, and were later allowed to remain in North Carolina. Today, there are an estimated 280,000 Cherokee living in the United States.
Those who remained in the mountains and those who returned to their ancestral homeland have repopulated the 100-square-mile Cherokee Indian Reservation, otherwise known as the Qualla Boundary. Once again the spirit of generosity and hospitality are exhibited in daily life as they welcome the world to their home.
Recently the town of Cherokee has gained popularity as a tourist destination because of the Harrah’s Cherokee casino; however there is more to see and do in Cherokee than gambling. On the must-see list for a Cherokee getaway are the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, the Oconaluftee Indian Village, Unto These Hills outdoor drama and the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual Co-op.
At the top of the must-see list is The Oconaluftee Indian Village, an authentic reproduction of a circa 1750s Cherokee village. Visitors may explore the area at their leisure or participate in a guided tour. Inside the walls of the village are residential structures dating back to the 1500s, sweat houses, canoe carvers, pottery making, basket weaving demonstrations as well as other artisans dressed in period-appropriate attire, practicing skills and crafts that have long been forgotten by many.
Visitors also have the opportunity to interact with the “villagers” as they hull canoes, make pottery and masks, weave baskets and beadwork and participate in what would have been routine daily activities 500 years ago. Once inside the fortress-like village, it is easy to briefly forget about the outside world as there are no sounds reminiscent of modern conveniences such as radio, television or telephone. Other than the sounds of nature, the smell of wood burning in open pits, the senses can concentrate on the tranquility of the setting and on absorbing the historically accurate depictions of Native American life prior to their forced removal from ancestral lands.
Nestled in the hills beside the village is the Indian Botanical Garden, featuring many native plant specimens, free-flowing streams, an herb garden and an amazingly beautiful walking trail that meanders throughout the rugged but breathtaking terrain.
The Museum of the Cherokee Museum exhibits portray chronologically the beliefs of the origins of early Cherokee inhabitation of the Southeastern United States, early settlement periods, initial interactions with European explorers and settlers and the Trail of Tears period. The exhibits are extremely well presented and thought provoking. According to information provided “it’s a museum where some of the most modern technology, computer-generated imagery, and special effects are used to present some of the oldest technologies in existence, as embodied by the most extensive collection of Cherokee artifacts anywhere.” Adjacent to the museum is a gift shop featuring locally produced pottery, beadwork, wood and stone carvings as well as the more traditional gift shop selections such as T-shirts, blankets and other items of interest.
At Qualla Arts and Crafts Co-op visitors may learn about ancient crafting skills from descendants who were taught by their forefathers. Founded in 1946 with the purpose of preserving and advancing Cherokee arts and crafts, the Qualla Arts & Crafts Co-op is the oldest Native American Arts cooperative in the United States.
Although the historically accurate outdoor drama Unto These Hills had ended for the season when I visited, it is recommended based on research and reviews as an option for those visiting during June through August. Since the first presentation in 1950, some 6 million tickets have been sold, according to the Web site and it is one of the longest-running outdoor dramas in the nation. The play traces the Cherokee people from their earliest known history, through the period of developing the Cherokee alphabet, building of permanent structures and settlements, the heartbreak of the Trail of Tears and ends in the present day.
For additional information visit www.cherokee-nc.com.