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Living History in the North Carolina Mountains

Set in the mountains and valleys of Western North Carolina, the nation of Cherokee and the 100-square-mile Qualla Boundary are the result of more than 11,000 years of living history. A trip to this area provides many opportunities to explore the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation--both past and present.

“We are proud to call the Smoky Mountains home,” says Principal Chief Michell Hicks. “We have endless Cherokee cultural festivals and activities to be enjoyed throughout the year.”

A Little History

The Ani-kituhwa-gi, as they call themselves, once lived in the southeastern mountains of the North American continent for centuries. This love of their homeland led many Cherokees to hide in the hills when Andrew Jackson’s army tried to remove them during the “Trail of Tears” in 1838. Those that stayed behind are now known as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and were eventually joined by displaced Cherokees who returned to their North Carolina homeland.

About 13,000 people now live on the Boundary. The main town of Cherokee is at the crossroads of US 19 and NC 441, which leads into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Locals call Cherokee a gateway to the national park, where hiking and other natural pursuits have made it the most-visited national park in the nation.

The options for Cherokee visitors are many--including two varied museums, a long-time play, hands-on Cherokee art classes, and many special events held throughout the year.

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian is known as the best place to start a visit to the Qualla Boundary and Cheokee, NC. “We understand that, while many people know we are here in North Carolina, they have no idea what significance Cherokees have in world history until they step inside our doors,” says Ken Blankenship, the museum's executive director. “We have put a lot of emphasis on making the history of our people an exciting adventure for guests.”

The self-guided tour starts in the “story lodge,” where Cherokee myths immerse visitors in the nation’s culture. Next, the Paleo period (11,000-8,000 B.C.) is represented with life-like mannequins hunting mastodons. Then, the Archaic period (8,000-1,000 B.C.) features the Cherokee development of agriculture, fishing, and trade. The Woodland period of 1,000 B.C. to 900 A.D. was next, with the development of villages, pottery, and the use of bows and arrows.

From 900 to 1,500 A.D., the Mississippian period saw the development of specialized farming of corn, the flourishing of the arts, and the domination of mounds in Cherokee villages. The Green Corn Ceremony dates from this period, as well as stickball and chunkey games, songs, and dances--many illustrated on the tour with life-size figures and Cherokee voices.

Visitors are next introduced to Sequoyah, who developed the Cherokee written language around 1820. He is apparently the only illiterate person to have created a written language in more than 5,000 years of recorded history. The Cherokee national council approved his syllabary in 1821 and, within a year, 90 percent of Cherokee people learned to read and write.

Next is the Trail of Tears exhibition. It’s the official interpretive site of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, which is administered by the National Park Service. More than 15,000 Cherokees were forced to leave the region and walk more than 1,000 miles to Indian Territory (now the state of Oklahoma). Between 4,000 and 8,000 Cherokees died along they way.

Along with permanent exhibits, the museum offers new exhibitions and special events. The Emissaries of Peace: the 1762 Cherokee and British Delegations returned to the museum earlier this year after a run at the Smithsonian National Museum of History, where more than 3.9 million people viewed it.

The exhibition is based on the memoirs of British Lieutenant Henry Timberlake. His journal detailed a three-month visit to Cherokee in 1762, providing a snapshot of Cherokee life in that period.

Oconaluftee Indian Village

An authentic working village transports visitors back to the mid-1700s. Canoe hulling (starting with a 40-foot downed tree and leading to a canoe 20-30 feet long that holds 12 people); basket weaving; pottery making; corn pone and bean bread preparation; medicinal tea brewing; storytelling take place. Just added in 2008 is “Hands-on Cherokee” featuring experiential learning classes that teach pottery, finger weaving, basketry, and beadwork (reservations recommended).

A seven-sided council house where elders met, underground cave-like rooms (for winter warmth), reconstructed cabins from the 1700s, and recreated hut-like homes with brush and clay roofs await exploration.

Cherokee guides share the history and tradition of the nation through stories, demonstrations, and dance. “Our village is the one place guests immerse themselves in our past and gain an understanding of how it shaped our rich traditions,” says John Tissue of the Cherokee Historical Association. The village is typically open from early May to mid October.

Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, Inc. (& Other Shopping)

The Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual, Inc. was founded in 1946 to secure fair prices and a year-round market for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian artists. It remains the oldest arts and crafts co-op in the nation.

About 300 Qualla Mutual artists create baskets, pottery, wood- and stone-carved sculptures, beadwork,  and paintings. Entry is a juried process and is limited to enrolled members of the Eastern Band. Qualla Mutual members have won competitions at the Sante Fe Indian Market and have demonstrated their skills at the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival.

One of Qualla Mutual’s nationally acclaimed members is Joel Queen, a ninth generation Cherokee potter who works in a number of mediums, but concentrates on creating clay pots and stone carvings. Utilizing the coil method and firing in an open pit, Queen doesn’t use electricity or a wheel. He also digs and screens the clay himself, as has been done by potters for thousands of years. Queen, who runs a gallery near Cherokee, specializes in a signature black ware--which is fired to a deep black color.

For one-on-one personalized instruction in creating Cherokee arts and crafts, the interactive “Qualla Experience” features Cherokee artisans teaching ancient craft-making skills, with attendees taking their creations (and memories) home. In addition, Qualla Mutual members can enjoy classes taught by national artisans. This year, shell carver Dan Townsend is teaching the art of carving ancient designs and symbols on varied shells.

Of course, there are many other shopping opportunities in and around Cherokee. Some of the possibilities include Joel Queen Gallery, Medicine Man Craft Shop, Bearmeat’s Indian Den, Bigmeat House of Pottery, Traditional Hands Art Gallery and Studio, and Carol’s Handmade Crafts. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian also has an excellent shop.

Unto These Hills Outdoor Drama

More than five million people have attended Unto These Hills since its debut in 1950. This poignant outdoor drama, set on stage in a 2,800-seat amphitheater, tells the story of the Eastern Cherokee from the arrival of the Europeans to forced exile to the ultimate revival of tribal life.

In 2006, the drama received its first complete rewrite by renowned playwright Hanay Geiogamah (Kiowa/Delaware). For 2008 (ending August 30th), the show was re-scripted yet again by Linda West--with a new director, Eddie Swimmer (Cherokee/Chippewa), and new cast (mostly American Indian), traditional dress, and choreography. Swimmer was one of the original members of the famed American Indian Dance Theatre and is a champion hoop dancer.

Southeastern Tribes Cultural Arts Celebration

Now in its third successful year, the Southeastern Tribes Cultural Arts Celebration provides yet another reason to visit Cherokee. The popular event takes place on September 19-20, 2008 at the Cherokee Fair Grounds and will again be coordinated and sponsored by the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and the Cherokee Preservation Foundation.

The most outstanding artists, performers, storytellers, and athletes from the original southeastern tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole) are present at the celebration. Highlights include live demonstrations of traditional tribal dance; storytelling; crafts demonstrations; sporting events like traditional archery and running; and skills encampment, including techniques used by tribes in the 1700s and 1800s. Along with enjoying the art and performances, this is a great opportunity to purchase American Indian items.

Those who can't make it to the fall event should definitely put the Annual Festival of Native Peoples on their July calendar. This older event is more national in scope, with tribes descending from across the nation. The event honors the collected history, culture, tradition, and wisdom of the indigenous peoples of America, ranging from the Hopi, Sioux, Apache, Totonac, Cherokee, Zuni, and Tewa (Pueblo) of New Mexico to Alutiiq members from Kodiak, Alaska.

A Packed Schedule

Late-summer and the colorful fall season bring a number of events. Some of the possibilities include the Qualla Arts Open Air Indian Art Market (August 30 and October 18, 2008); the aforementioned Southeastern Tribes Cultural Arts Celebration (September 19-20, 2008); the Cruise the Smokies Fall Cherokee Rod Run (October 31- November 2, 2008); and the 96th Annual Cherokee Indian Fair (October 7-11, 2008)

Other annual events include Ramp It Up (held in March, featuring wild ramps, a scallion-like green); Memorial Day Powwow (Memorial Day Weekend); Gourd Festival (June); Cherokee Voices (June); July Powwow; Annual Festival of Native Peoples (July); and the Cherokee Bluegrass Festival (August). Of course, practically anytime is a good time to visit Cherokee.


Cherokee Travel and Tourism
P.O. Box 460
Cherokee, NC 28719
The helpful Cherokee Welcome Center is located at 498 Tsali Boulevard.


Cherokee is located in western North Carolina at the intersection of US 19 and NC 441. Those flying to the area will likely want to fly into Asheville Regional Airport (AVL, about 55 miles to the east), which is served by many major carriers.


Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Hotel
777 Casino Drive
Cherokee, NC 28719

Best Western Great Smokies Inn
1636 Acquoni Rd.
Cherokee, NC 28719

Hampton Inn
185 Tsalagi Road (US 19)
Cherokee, NC 28719

River’s Edge Motel
Highway 441 North
Cherokee, NC 28719

Cherokee Campground & Craig’s Cabins
1367 Bunches Creek Rd.
Cherokee, NC 28719

Cherokee KOA
92 KOA Kampground Rd.
Cherokee, NC 28719


Soco Diner
858 Paint Town Rd.
Cherokee, NC 28719

Paul’s Diner
1111 Tsali Blvd.
Cherokee, NC 28719

Little Princess
681 Aqouni Rd.
Cherokee, NC 28719

Tribal Grounds Coffee
A coffeehouse and roastery that ships retail and wholesale throughout the U.S.
516 Tsali Blvd.
Cherokee, NC 28719
Will be relocating to the old downtown area


Joel Queen Gallery
1036 US Hwy. 441 N.
Whittier, NC 28789

Medicine Man Crafts
482 Tsali Boulevard (NC 441 North)
Cherokee, NC 28719

Bearmeat’s Indian Den
4210 Wolftown Road (US 19)
Cherokee, NC 28719

Bigmeat House of Pottery
US 19 North (across from Harrah’s)
Cherokee, NC 28719

Traditional Hands Art Gallery and Studio
Grant Drive, Bldg. 22
Cherokee, NC 28719

Carol’s Handmade Crafts
478 Sherill Cove Rd.
Cherokee, NC 28719

Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, Inc.
645 Tsali Blvd.
Cherokee, NC 28719
Open year round

Museum of the Cherokee Indian
589 Tsali Blvd.
Cherokee, NC 28719
Open year round