Published On: Fri, Aug 12th, 2016
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Summer huts and signage   





Kim F. Deas, Planning Coordinator for the Commerce Division of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), is the person responsible for compliance and enforcement of both the sign and “chiefing” ordinances currently in tribal law. Approximately three years have passed since the sign ordinance was overhauled and a new regulation was established concerning street performing in Cherokee and the rest of the Qualla Boundary.

Chiefing is a performance art that came into being in the late 1940s as tourism began to replace lumber production as a primary source of revenue. In those days, tourists had a very distinct perception of what Native Americas looked and acted like. They took their profile of “Indians” from the ones they saw in the popular western movies of the day. To the American tourist, all Native Americans should look like what they saw in the movies. Those were “real” Indians. So, as Cherokees crafted ways to make money for their families, they incorporated the tipis and large feather headdresses into roadside shows that would attract tourists. The “Chiefs” and their families would make money by dancing, storytelling and posing for pictures with tourists for tips.

The downtown areas of Cherokee, along the main thoroughfares were and are the main areas for chiefing. Shop owner sometimes hire men and women to chief in front of their stores to lure tourists closer and hopefully into their places of business.

In the period that lead up to the new legislation being passed, there was no regulation of who could put on a chiefing show and there was no guideline as to how and where a performance area would be established. Concerns had been raised that visitors were getting a warped presentation that was not representative of the Cherokee culture. Also, some performance areas were situated dangerously close to vehicular traffic and creating concerns that someone might be injured. In a few instances, some who took up chiefing harassed and threatened visitors when they did not provide tips or showed enough interest in the performer.

The new law intended to clean up the chiefing profession. Ordinance changes included designated areas where chiefing would be permitted, educational elements that provide the audiences with an honest picture of Cherokee history and culture, and a provision that only EBCI tribal members may participate in the practice of chiefing.

“You have to be an enrolled Cherokee person to do it. You have to show your tribal identification card to get the permit,” Deas said.

Permits range from $25 – $75. Anyone who performs under that permit has to be an EBCI tribal member as well. The Commerce Division built a series of “summer huts” to replace the tipis, which were more in line with the housing of Cherokee families in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Chiefing, under the ordinance, is only permitted in those summer huts.

According to Deas, this season has been a good one as far as compliance with tribal law in these areas. Some tweaking to the ordinance occurred last year, which caused some disagreements among the permit holders, but since then, Deas says that they have come to terms with the new regulations and realize that the laws are there to stay so the permit holders are following compliance rules.

One area that may need to be looked at is that some permit holders do not consistently operate or perform in their summer huts on a regular basis throughout the season. Deas stated, “It has gone really well, but I really think the reason it has gone that well is that there are at least three that paid to have summer huts but are never at them”.

As a tourist attraction, the return on investment is not where it could be with all summer huts in play during the tourist season. Deas pointed out that two of the huts are manned throughout the season and that would not be so if they were not making money and seeing good traffic flow.

Similarly, signage plays a huge role in the look and perception of tourists. Along with new regulations for chiefing, a “sign ordinance” was established to address the outcropping of unattractive “permanent” signs that obscured the view of many of the businesses and streetscapes in the business district. Deas said that, after an initial clean up and education process, this initiative has also seen positive results.

The biggest challenges have been properties that have gone out of business. With no one accountable to confront at that property, enforcement may be difficult. There are provisions in the law for the government, after attempting to get the business in compliance, to remove signage and bill the business owner for the cost of removal. Deas said that option has not been used to date. She also commented, that she is sensitive to the damage it might do to an owner’s reputation by addressing these issues while visitors are in town. Low impact and easily corrected violations are addressed immediately, but she feels it is in the best interest of all parties to wait until off-season to tackle the larger issues.

Temporary signage for special events and candidates during elections present another challenge to the appearance of Cherokee and for enforcement by the planning coordinator. Cherokee Municipal Code Section 137-17 subsection f states, “No portable signs or banners shall be permitted, except portable signs or banners placed for one period of not more than 30 days to announce the opening of a new business, or the change of management or ownership“.

Deas commented, “Those are the only ones that are really something that I can’t keep control over all of the time, because you drive in one Monday and they are everywhere for whatever is going on. I pull them up. I have notified people. I put it in the paper x amount of times back two years ago that those type of signs are not allowed. Portable, removable are not allowed. Period.”

Exceptions are tribal event signs, which are permitted a few days before an event and are supported to be removed the day after the event concludes. She has taken down as many as 102 signs in a single day that were violating the law.

In Section 136-33 subsection a, the Code specifies a $10 per sign, per candidate fee for political or campaign signs. The Code is vague with regard to how long the signs may be on display and the locations where these signs are permitted. The Code also does not address removal of the signs once the election concludes.

Overall, Deas thinks that sign ordinance has been a good thing and has achieved the goal of reducing clutter and bringing a cleaner, more organized look to the downtown and the business district.