Shi-yo means hello
Cherokee, N.C., is a nation unto itself and offers visitors a chance to learn about the native culture that originated in the Southern Appalachians. It is the home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee and also known as the Qualla Boundary.
It is believed that the Cherokee have inhabited this region for more than 11,000 years. Semi-permanent villages were dotted among the mountains by 8,000 B.C. The first Europeans did not pass through Cherokee territory until 1540—at that time the Cherokee controlled some 140,000 square miles throughout eight present-day southern states.
For the first 200 years of contact between the Cherokee and the Europeans, the Cherokee and settlers peacefully co-existed. Marriage between the two cultures was not uncommon. The role of written language—which the Cherokee did not previously have—motivated Sequoyah to create a Cherokee syllabary in 1821, which made the Cherokee literate.However, broken trade agreements and hostilities from white settlers dramatically impacted the Cherokee, reducing their territory. Andrew Jackson began to insist that all southeastern Indians be moved west of the Mississippi, and despite native protests, the Trail of Tears proceeded, marching the Cherokee to Oklahoma. Nearly half of the 16,000 Cherokees on the forced march died of exposure, disease, and the shock of separation from their home.
The Cherokees in Western North Carolina today are descendants of those who were able to hold on to land they owned, those who hid in the hills, defying removal, and others who returned, many on foot.
Those who seek out the real cultural experiences that Cherokee has to offer will be richly rewarded.
A first stop should be the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, which this year again welcomes the “Emissaries of Peace: 1762 Cherokee and British Delegations” exhibit, the research for which has become the focus for cultural revitalization among Cherokee people in traditional dance, clothing, pottery, fingerweaving, feather capes, and more. The year 1762 is significant throughout Cherokee history, due in no small part to the journals Lt. Henry Timberlake kept of his explorations of the region. The 250th Anniversary of Timberlake’s journey will be marked throughout Cherokee territory this year, with special events in Cherokee and Fort Loudoun, Tenn. Cherokee’s Warriors of AniKituhwa, sponsored by the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, will partake in events, bringing to life the Cherokee War Dance and Eagle Tail Dance that Timberlake described in his journals. Other permanent exhibits at the museum tell the story of the Cherokee through the Paleo, Archaic, and Mississippian periods.
From the museum, head to Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, the oldest and leading Native American Arts cooperative in the United States. A small gallery features award-winning works and information about some of the tribe’s well-known crafters. The cases display everything from traditional basketry to modern interpretations of Native American pottery and intricate beadwork. Browse the shop filled with a wide array of locally made crafts and those from other Native American tribes. Qualla Arts and Crafts is open into the early evening during the summer season.
Spend the afternoon at the Oconaluftee Indian Village where there are live demonstrations of traditional skills including weaving and blowgun making. Small groups make their way through the shady wooded village with a guide who explains what role the skills demonstrated played in Cherokee life.
The evening brings Cherokee’s outdoor drama, “Unto These Hills,” which stages nightly (except Sunday) from June 1-Aug. 18. The show is second-longest-running outdoor drama in the United States and tells the story of the Cherokee including Junaluska, Sequoyah, Tsali, and the Trail of Tears.
Consider a pre-drama meal at nearby Paul’s where the menu features game meats and the “Indian taco,” better known as Indian frybread. In its taco form, it is served with chili and cheese; however, it also can be topped with blueberries for a dessert.
When out shopping, again look for the locally owned and locally made. Talking Trees is a fascinating bookstore tucked away behind a fastfood restaurant. Anyone with even the slightest interest in Native American culture will find a book to peruse on topics ranging from decorative patterns to war stories. There’s also a nice selection of Native American-focused films as well as jewelry and other gift items.
The Native American Crafts Shop and The Great Smokies Fine Arts Gallery are located on the end of town closest to the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and both offer quality selections including dolls, paintings, carvings, and more.
Make the short trip over to the other side of town, past Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort, to Bearmeats Indian Den. The shop’s porch is a wonderful place to spend a little time looking at the gourd birdhouses and decorative stone vessels. Inside there are canned goods, soaps, jewelry, dried herbs, leather goods, intricate carvings, and more all displaying serious craftsmanship. On the way there or back—but only for lunch or dinner—stop in Granny’s, which has a small but hearty buffet with fried chicken and vegetables, including fried squash to write home about. Granny’s is great for families and large groups. Afterwards, perk up with a cup of coffee from Tribal Grounds.
Also of note is the Shadow Box Gift Shoppe where one finds a small selection of hiking and outdoors gear, homemade lye soap, and books like Cherokee Plants: Their uses—a 400- year history, written by local authors and describing plants’ roles in religion, healing, and social activities.
Plan to spend at least one full day in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and riding the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Oconaluftee Visitor Center features a historic farmstead and easy walking trail along the river, in addition to the new exhibit space and store where there are guidebooks, T-shirts, stuffed critters, and more. Spend some time on the shady covered porch and visit with a park ranger to plan to hit a few park highlights.
Don’t miss Mingus Mill. Built in 1886, this historic grist mill uses a water-powered turbine instead of a water wheel to power all of the machinery in the building. Millers demonstrate how to grind corn into meal.
Continue on through the park to Newfound Gap. The gap is the lowest driveable pass through Smokies and takes its name from being a newly discovered way through the mountains. The drive through the gap affords amazing views.
Just south of Newfound Gap is Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Smokies. From the large parking area at the end of the road, a 0.5-mile trail climbs steeply to an observation tower at the “top of old Smoky.”
To explore the park on horseback, contact the riding stables at Smokemont. Just an hour’s ride crosses the Oconaluftee River and ventures up the mountainside where wildflowers are in bloom and wildlife often can be seen sneaking through the underbrush.
For more event and visitor information, visit cherokee-nc.com.