Beyond the Teepee
Explore the rich history of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians
A bonfire illuminated the early dark of night. Families gathered around bundled in fleeces and thick flannels — some wrapped together in blankets — while Cherokee tribal members dressed in traditional garb entertained the crowd with war chants and ages old song and dance.
The fire crackled as one of the tribal members recounted tales of the bravery of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, descendants of the thousand or so Cherokee who escaped the Trail of Tears in 1838, most by hiding in the Appalachian Mountains. Occasionally, a little one would sneak up to the fire to roast a marshmallow, but, for the most part, the audience remained silent, enchanted by stories of courage most can’t fathom.
For over five decades, Cherokee, North Carolina has stood as a stop on the Americana travel circuit, drawing in numerous tourists with stereotypical roadside attractions of teepees promising authentic “chiefing” and live Indian dancing. While the Cherokee people welcomed tourist dollars, they longed to tell the world who they really were. With the modern traveler’s desire to seek authenticity in their journeys, opportunities for the people of the Qualla Boundary to teach the world about their culture continues to grow.
The weekly Cherokee Bonfire, held select days from May through October, is one of many ways that travelers can experience and learn about these ancient inhabitants of the North Carolina mountains.
Begin your journey into the heart of Cherokee people at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. The museum traces the journey of the Cherokee over 13,000 years, beginning with the Paleolithic period through to colonialization and modern times. A museum visit promises a full sensory experience with interactive videos and fascinating displays. Immerse yourself even more and book a workshop in pottery making or basket weaving to learn more about the tribe’s ancient ways. The museum provides a good overview for the rest of what you’re about to experience in Cherokee.
Another cultural attraction to include on your itinerary is the Oconaluftee Indian Village. The live reenactment of a 1760s village allows visitors to discover how this ancient tribe once lived, through demonstrations such as canoe building, blowgun shooting and beadwork. The most dramatic demonstration, though, might be the reenactment of the villagers preparing for war.
For those looking to take home a piece of Cherokee tradition, head over to the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, the oldest Native American arts and crafts co-op in the country. Over 250 Qualla Boundary residents display their works of art like beadwork from Richard Bottchenbaugh and masks from Virgil Crowe.
Performed under the stars at Mountainside Theatre, Unto These Hills is a must see on your journey into Cherokee history. Like the overall travel experience in Cherokee, Unto These Hills has evolved since its debut in 1950 with several rewrites to more accurately depict the story of the Cherokee from 1780 to the 21st century from a historical and cultural perspective.
History & Legends
To really understand the spirit of the Cherokee, expand your journey beyond the reenactments, museums and stage productions and explore the breathtaking beauty of the land the Cherokee have called home for thousands of the years.
With each natural attraction comes a legend that will captivate you as you ponder all the generations before you who’ve explored this pristine land. At Mingo Falls, close your eyes and imagine the storm spirits Aniyvdaqualosgi, creating the thundering of the cascading water; at Judaculla Rock, feast your eyes on the petroglyphs said to have been made by the giant Judaculla, who had the power to leap from mountain to mountain; and, at Soco Falls, have no fear of getting lost because the Yunwi Tsunsdi (small spirit folk) help travelers find their way back to safety.
Much like with the bonfire, Cherokee invites visitors to be curious again — to learn more about people many adults likely haven’t read about since closing their history books back in high school, to look at their legends through the awe of a child. So, don’t be afraid to toast your own marshmallow, kick back and experience the wonder of the Cherokee people.
Call 800-374-2865 to plan your Cherokee, N.C. visit!
(Go Magazine July/August 2019)