By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
“The Cherokee Fall Fair celebrates Cherokee culture every year during the first full week in October and has delighted visitors and hometown folks alike since 1914. You can view Cherokee arts and crafts on display, and also purchase handmade items at booths. A parade, music, dance, and stickball games take place throughout the week.
“Like other country fairs, this one includes prize-winning pumpkins and the fruits of the summer labors, but the uniqueness of Cherokee gardens can be seen in heirloom varieties of eleven-kernel corn and October beans. Beautifully arranged baskets of hickory nuts, walnuts, and chestnuts from the woods evoke the Cherokees’ ongoing connection with the natural abundance of the southern Appalachians. Every evening includes music and dancing. Food booths provide Cherokee bean bread and greens as well as fry bread and “Indian tacos.”
– From the “Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook” by Barbara Duncan and Brett H. Riggs
It is almost mystical. You can feel a change in the air as the earth slowly tilts on its axis so that the focal point of the sun dips below the equator, as it did this past Saturday, Sept. 22. The morning air has a little nip in it now. Allergy sufferers are bracing for the onslaught of pollens and allergens that typically accompany the change in seasons. Over the past few weeks, we have been noticing that the days are progressively shorter, and darkness is falling earlier at the end of the day, even though technically, we do not lose that hour of daylight until Nov. 4 (the day that Daylight Savings Time ends and we “fall back” an hour). Be sure and mark your calendars.
Long before many of us were born, Cherokee people celebrated the harvest and community. Cherokee people looked to the annual festival as a time to bring family and community together, a reunion time. Those loved ones who had moved away to find land, work, and a life for themselves beyond the Boundary knew the Fall Festival was an indication that it was time to come home. This migration still happens today. Generations of Cherokee people from all over the Americas come to the Cherokee Indian Fairgrounds (some folks still refer to the land as the “Ceremonial Grounds”) and reunite with family and friends for a five-day stretch of comradery and brotherhood.
Some of our elders have shared great stories of what the Fair was like “back in the day.” One interesting tidbit, shared by an elder, is that, back in the early days of the Fair, during the time it was being repurposed to be a tourist attraction as well as a harvest celebration, the Fair Committee introduced mechanical “carnival” rides. For many Cherokee people, this was the first time they had ever seen contraptions like these. So, instead of children, adults and particularly tribal elders would line up to experience these new-fangled machines. There are many great stories about happenings at the Fair, but some are quite risqué and not appropriate for print.
Speaking of risqué, one of the most popular shows during the Fair for our local folks is the Pretty Legs Contest. The Pretty Legs came to be as a charity event during the Fall Festival in which men from the community would dress up in dresses to when prize money for their favorite charity. While it began as a relatively tame fashion show, down through the years, the outfits began to be more revealing and the contestant commentary more provocative. For a few years, the Pretty Legs Contest was deleted from the schedule because it offended some. In recent years, the competition has been brought back in a tamer form. The Pretty Legs Contest still has an edge to it, but day organizers and the Fair Committee have put rules in place to regulate the dress and speeches, to a degree. They also hold the contest after all the other stage entertainment is finished on the last day of the Fair. All that said, parental guidance is advised.
There are always good eats at the Fair. Tribal member vendors get the first pick of food booths, so there is always a good selection of authentic Cherokee cooks on the Fairgrounds and tasty meals. From burgers to frybread to frog legs, everyone will get a treat for a small fee. There are also food trucks with snow cones, popcorn, turkey legs, and more. If your taste is for cotton candy, candied apples, or deep fried anything on a stick, the carnival will bring its food vendors as well. You won’t go home hungry from any day of the Cherokee Indian Fair.
The NC Agricultural Extension Office and the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual come together each year for the food, arts, and crafts competitions. People from throughout our communities bring the best from their gardens and the finest arts and crafts to the Fair to be judged and for the chance to win a ribbon and cash prizes. Cherokee is home to the some of the best gardeners and artists in the world, so it isn’t unusual to see incredible things inside the Exhibit Hall at Fair-time.
Photos and memorabilia of our Cherokee military veterans are used to create a visual memorial within the Exhibit Hall. Loved ones submit photos of their cherished family members to create a moving display of those who dedicated life to service of the good of the community and country, many giving up to and including the ultimate sacrifice.
Cherokee pride shows no brighter than in the Cherokee Community displays and the Cherokee Fair Parade. Money, ribbons, and pride are on the line as each Qualla Boundary Community represents their community and the Fair theme (this year, it is “Gadugi-The Heartbeat of our Tribe”). In both competitions, communities create an image with photos, crafts, and whatever they have that will fit on a float or the space allotted to them to best represent themselves. From beautiful, handsewn quilts, beadwork, and carvings to vegetables fresh from the garden and photos of beloved community leaders, each community puts its best foot forward.
The Cherokee Indian Fair is an annual event with once-in-a-lifetime moments. It is a time of putting aside differences and coming together to celebrate our heritage. It is a time of reunion, fellowship, and renewal. Make plans to join in the celebration.