By Bonnie and Bill Neely
One of my favorite childhood memories was an exciting weekend at the small town of Cherokee in Western North Carolina. At that time, in the 1950’s, excitement captured everyone’s attention seeing several black bears chained at the street corners. Each car stopped to feed these amazing creatures, which seemed as tame as the Teddy bears in our beds at home.
The town, as far as I knew, was one wondrous street with several friendly, live Indian chiefs in full-feathered headdress inviting us to enter their stores, where we found many fascinating handmade items. I remember the small drum and corn-cob pipe my little brother chose. My sister was thrilled with the child-size bows and arrows. I thought I could close my eyes and select anything in the store and would be happy. The colorful bead jewelry fascinated me, and beads decorated many items. I had difficulty deciding between the beautiful little Indian squaw and papoose doll or the soft deerskin leather moccasins with decorative beadwork on the toes. My parents bought me a beadwork kit so I could learn to make bracelets and rings in the Native American way. After looking in every store to my heart’s content, I tried on the moccasins and wore them proudly for many months.
I have wanted for decades to return to Cherokee, and we finally did. Although now the town is much larger and this generation of the Cherokee Nation enjoy the same conveniences and lifestyle typical of all Americans, they have diligently kept alive their native culture, history, arts, and language; and tourists can still enjoy the same things that live in my memory, with the exception of captive bears!
The outdoor drama “Unto These Hills” is in a huge stone amphitheater, which has 2,100 comfortable, chair-style seats on the original stone steps. Local actors in costumes typical of their native ancestors in the 1700’s present the heart-rending true story of their “Trail of Tears,” in which thousands were forced to walk 1,200 miles to re-locate in the Indian Territory (now Tale qua, Oklahoma.) This history enactment has brought understanding and tears to the eyes and hearts of audiences for over six decades. It is a MUST SEE and is performed nightly (except Sundays) during summer months.
Physically challenged ticket holders can request to ride the golf cart to the mid level of the amphitheater, but the steep stone steps are not possible for some people who need accessible seating.
In the center of Cherokee town is a lovely shallow, rocky creek and is the favorite place for picnicking, wading, and just enjoying life. In my childhood we munched sandwiches and cookies beside this rippling stream, tried to walk the rocks in the water, and my little sister always fell in and required a change of clothes. The little shops with all kinds of typical items are still special for visitors, and there are many more now. But only one man in the Chief feathered headdress performs Cherokee dances in a small area on the main street. Harrah’s Casino is now also a favorite entertainment for many.
Several motels and restaurants are in one area at the edge of town, and just outside are many campgrounds and RV parks. We chose to stay at Indian Creek Campground, about 8 miles from town. The setting is perfect: in the Blue Ridge Mountains’ deep forest with a creek swiftly gurgling by on each side of the campsites. The clean grounds provide all you need for tents or RV’s with hook-ups and clean restrooms. At dusk when campfires started we saw trout caught right at several campsites sizzling on grills. Fishing is almost always successful, and the day license at the camp office is $17. Wading or tubing in the swift, shallow creek is great fun.
Other MUST SEES in Cherokee are Oconaluftee Indian Village, an authentic replica of a typical 1800’s life here. The daily tours with dramatic war dances are fascinating. At each little wood hut you learn about the various arts and crafts every male and female child learned for life and survival skills. And many today are still learning in order to keep the Cherokee historic culture alive through lovely artistic creations.
Two other places you cannot miss are the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, where interactive displays and videos reveal the history of this peaceful nation. Cherokee is not a Reservation because the people bought their land from the U.S. government and now it is called Tsali Boundary within which the Cherokee have all rights for governing themselves and are considered a Nation within a Nation and still are American citizens.
Tsali Parents can choose to send their children to a local boarding school where only Cherokee is spoken. The written language was created in the early 19th Century by a well-educated man Sequoyah, whose father was Caucasian and his mother was Cherokee. A jeweler, he inscribed 72 phonetic characters, so anyone could easily see how to write whatever word he or she pronounced. Today it is fun to see the strange syllables on the street signs in town beneath the English words.
You will find other fun tourist attractions nearby including the steam engine train ride through the mountains. Santa Land and Zoo are great stops for families. Plan your next holiday to be in Cherokee, NC. You will create great cultural appreciation and lifetime happy memories.
IF YOU GO: