A rich journey through Cherokee history and culture

Email|Print| Text size + By Ellen Albanese
Globe Staff / March 29, 2006

CHEROKEE, N.C. -- ''In Cherokee, I cannot tell you goodbye," Davey Arch told the visitors assembled at the dance grounds of Oconaluftee Indian Village. ''I can only say 'until we meet again.' "

Arch is one of 65 Cherokees who work at the village, one of several attractions that interpret the tribe's history and culture. Others include the Museum of the Cherokee Indian; Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual; ''Unto These Hills," an outdoor historical drama; and the Talking Leaves bookstore. It is possible to visit all in a day and leave with a deeper understanding of this Native American culture.

Some 11,000 Cherokees live on the 56,000-acre reservation in the southwestern corner of this state, near the southern entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and about 50 miles west of Asheville. The reservation was officially called the Qualla Boundary, said James Bradley, executive director of the Cherokee Historical Association, which manages Oconaluftee village and ''Unto These Hills." The 56-year-old production is getting an overhaul this year, Bradley said. The script has been rewritten to reflect more accurately the experience of North Carolina's Cherokees and highlight a spiritual dimension, and a Native American composer and choreographer have updated the music and dance. Performances will be held from June 8 to Aug. 19.

On a guided tour of the village, visitors get a crash course in beadwork, pottery, weaving, canoe building, basket making, carving, cooking, and flint napping. They see the shelters Cherokees lived in at different periods in history. Cherokees never lived in wigwams or tepees, our guide told us, because they were a farming tribe and constructed permanent homes.

At the seven-sided council house, a fire is always burning to symbolize the strength and unity of the Cherokee people. Seven walls are lined with benches for the seven clans. Michael Youngdeer explained the clan system, which is passed through the female line, and spoke eloquently about the Cherokee traditions of tolerance and other so-called Christian principles the tribe followed long before the introduction of Christianity to the continent. He talked of the devastating effect of smallpox and said the tribe has evidence, in the form of a letter from a government official encouraging the dispersion of contaminated blankets, that the introduction of smallpox was deliberate, an early example of biological warfare.

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian features exhibits and collections spanning 11,000 years. There are tools, weaponry, jewelry, clothing, pottery, basketry, games, photographs, and manuscripts. A visit begins with a short movie about the origins of the Cherokee and how they came to be known as fire people. From there, visitors move into rounded galleries with soft green walls, topped with tree branches, and with faint bird sounds in the background. Legends are retold and customs explained: In a traditional marriage ceremony, for example, after exchanging gifts the bride and groom tie their blankets together -- hence the expression ''tying the knot."

In the ''Chamber of Dissenting Voices" visitors hear the debate over the federal government's ''removal policy." As we began the Trail of Tears walk, the carpet ended and we were walking on cement. The trail moved from fall into winter, with snow-covered rocks. The voices of two missionaries related the agony of burying children every day.

Exhibits conclude with the story of William Holland Thomas, who was adopted by the Cherokees and as an adult negotiated their recognition as US citizens. In 1868 the federal government recognized the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and established a reservation from lands purchased by Thomas and lands obtained by treaties. That is the same area the Eastern Band occupies today.

Just across the street from the museum is Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual, featuring items handcrafted by artists and craftspeople of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians -- baskets, beadwork, pottery, masks, and carvings of wood, alabaster, and soapstone. You can buy a one-of-a-kind basket for upward of $1,000 or a whistle carved from a rhododendron branch for $3. The shop offers an authentic alternative to the ''princess this" and ''wampum that" emporiums nearby. There is also a gallery of handcrafted works by members of other Native American tribes.

At the Talking Leaves bookstore -- which stocks Cherokee-language books, census records, movies, musical instruments, clothing, and crafts -- teacher Margaret Rose was stocking up on educational materials for her second-graders in London, Ky. ''A lot of my students have Cherokee heritage, and when we study Native Americans, they want to focus on Cherokees," she said. Her prize acquisition was a talking stick. In a Cherokee meeting, only the person who is holding the talking stick is allowed to speak. Rose was hoping her students would get the hint.

Contact Ellen Albanese at

Cherokee Welcome Center

498 Tsali Blvd.
Information and tickets for Oconaluftee Indian Village, ''Unto These Hills," Museum of the Cherokee Indian, and Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual.
Talking Leaves Bookstore 828-497-6044

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