Cherokee, the only Native American reservation located in the Southern Appalachians, serves as the southern gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Millions of visitors pass through on Highway 441 on their summer vacations, and with the community’s plethora of recreational activities, it becomes an annual tradition for many. Devoid of the traffic jams and non-stop activity of the Tennessee side, Cherokee offers a much more peaceful alternative for those who want to enjoy everything the Smokies have to offer.
The new Fire Mountain Trail system is open for all adventurous folks who want to walk or mountain bike among the beauty of the Smokies. Nearby at the national park entrance, crowds gather on the roadside hoping to catch a glimpse of the resident elk population wandering the fields. Hot summer days call vacationers to the cool waters of the Oconaluftee River, where tubers splash through waves by the dozens. If one wants a bit more action, they can stop by Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, featuring twenty-four hours of non-stop gambling and headliner entertainment.
Poker and outdoor recreation aren’t the only draws to Cherokee, however. Being home to one of the nation’s oldest tribes, the history of the Cherokee people takes a prominent stage here. Visitors may wander about the Oconaluftee Indian Village, where history comes to life as artisans turn traditional pottery, carve dugout canoes, and demonstrate time-honored dances. Those who love to collect artifacts and handmade crafts should not miss the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual Inc., where artisans create authentic crafts using techniques passed down through the generations. No trip to the reservation should be complete, however, without a stop at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.
When you first arrive, you’ll be greeted by an impressive statue honoring the legacy of Sequoyah, creator of the Cherokee alphabet and written language. Parking here is free for all visitors, and the museum is open year round, only being closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. Tickets are $10 for adults, $6 for children 6-13, and free for all younger. For up-to-date information on tickets and directions, check out the museum’s website at www.cherokeemuseum.org.
Entering the first exhibit, visitors encounter several rather mysterious-looking masks lining the walls. Displays below tell traditional Cherokee legends, such as the story of the Great Buzzard who created the earth, the more familiar tale of the hare and the tortoise, and the terrifying yarn of Spearfinger, a monster which once roamed the hills of the Smokies and ate the livers of those who had the misfortune of meeting her. As you enter the theater beyond, the door will shut behind you, and an animated story will tell the origins of the Cherokee tribe itself.
Beyond, commence your walkthrough by entering Story of the Cherokee’s: 13,000 Years. The Cherokee and their earlier ancestors have inhabited these hills and valleys for millennia, and this fascinating display will take you through each era of their history, beginning with the Paleo period. 10,000 years ago, individuals created the first hand tools; this marks the start of the Archaic age. Common artifacts of the period are prominently displayed here, along with those of the next period. The Woodland period is indicated by the construction of the first permanent villages. The last of these eras before the modern age is the Mississippian period. Interestingly, its start is highlighted by the development and growth of corn called eastern flint, which enabled the Cherokee to rely much more on crops they grew.
Contact was first made by Europeans when the DeSota expedition crossed the Appalachians in 1540. The Contact and Civilization era exhibits examine the disastrous effects that foreign explorers and settlement had on the Cherokee people, from attacks and diseases to the subsequent attempted assimilation into American culture. Of course, we all know what happened soon after, and this is perhaps the most heartbreaking part of the exhibit to journey through.
This was indeed one of the darkest times in our nation’s history, and the story as told here will no doubt bring tears to many visitors’ eyes. You’ll learn the story of the hundreds who died as well as the hardy band who refused to give up their homeland and evaded capture by hiding in the wilds of the Smokies. Finally, end the Cherokee’s rich history as you learn about the formation of the current reservations in Oklahoma and North Carolina.
While the final chapter of the Cherokee ends here, the museum continues on as it delves into the tale of Henry Timberlake. Emissaries of Peace: The 1762 Cherokee and British Delegations tells the story of this British ambassador and his visits to the Overhill Towns scattered throughout the Little Tennessee River valley. Learn about these historic communities through his eyes, and follow his adventures as he takes the Cherokee’s leaders on a global trip to meet King George III in London. Artifacts, publications, and first-hand accounts add a level of authenticity to the story as it progresses.
If you’ll be visiting during the summer months, be sure to make plans to drop by the award-winning drama, Unto These Hills. Located adjacent to the museum, the outdoor theater reverberates each evening with the sounds of song and dance as the history of the Cherokee tribe is brought to life. Interesting enough as it is in the museum, it’ll be an unforgettable experience as you see it unfold before your eyes. Visit www.cherokeehistorical.org for more details.