COMMENTARY: Give Cherokee a makeover

by Feb 22, 2021OPINIONS





We love our home. The Qualla Boundary is one of the most beautiful parcels of land in the world. More importantly, it is our home. A remnant of Cherokee people hid in the mountains of western North Carolina until a deal could be cut for them to remain in their ancestral homelands. Many of our ancestors paid a price for the forced removal to Oklahoma of our blood relations. And many paid with their lives. Those who remained in North Carolina were not reservation Indians, as some have mistakenly assumed. This land was bought and put into trust by the federal government specifically for the remnant that remained after the removal.

In the beginning, we were probably living in the land as our ancestors did, except that European influence and indoctrination were probably putting increasing pressure on the Cherokee people to conform and assimilate. And, as we have discussed before, our people were intelligent, creative people who would take the very best of what they saw and heard from cultures they met and make it a part of their own. So, if a particular type of housing structure provided better lives for a Cherokee family than the ones traditionally used, they incorporated that new structure in their buildings. And, so it was with many traditional practices of our people.

For much of the early life in our reimagined homeland, logging was a sustaining industry of our Tribe. In the mid-1900s, we began to rely more heavily on those we have come to know and love as tourists. By the 1950s, other cultures were fascinated by the indigenous peoples of America. By then, they were watching popularly themed movies called “Westerns”. And even though the typical Western portrayed Indians as “murderous savages”, people of other cultures who watched the films realized that Native Americans were “civilized” now or at least were living in civilized society. They did, however, have a hard time separating their romanticized images of Indians from the reality of Native cultures.

We knew that all Native cultures were not the same, but our visitors didn’t. The visitors were looking for the Indians they had come to know in the movies. And we wanted the visitors, and their dollars, in Cherokee. So, we imaged ourselves for what our potential customers wanted. Instead of traditional Cherokee, the visitors got Apache, Navajo, Sioux, and other western region Native Americans’ outward appearance. There were tipis, and war bonnets, and western dances throughout Cherokee in an effort to attract those customers from all over the country and some from outside the United States, who were looking for the Indian experience.

Surely, there were efforts to interest the visitor in Cherokee way, like the “Unto These Hills” Outdoor Drama, and the Oconaluftee Indian Village, but even as late as the early 2000s, you could still find men dressed in full head dresses standing in front of tipis and entire families making their living wearing western powwow regalia and dancing the dances of western tribes.

In this new age of resistance to cultural appropriation, our brothers from the west would certainly be justified in being offended by our hijacking of their cultures for our economic gain.

Early in the first decade of 2000, as the Tribe realized a new prosperity with the introduction of adult gaming to the Tribe, we began to reverse the imagery that was not our own and replace it with traditional Cherokee imagery. We had changed and so had our clientele. They were more educated and wanted authentic experiences. They did their homework and understood the difference between Tribes, at least to some extent. And we wanted to make that change as well. We were and are proud of our history and culture. Some of our leaders coined the phrase “Cherokee cultural renaissance”, meaning that we were bringing back and celebrating (and in some cases exploiting) the traditions and cultural markers of our people and land. Tipis were eventually banned from the business district, replaced by more traditional huts.  And the presence of the street-side head-dressed “Indians” and fancy dancers were reduced and regulated. There was even an effort to remake the facades of the businesses downtown into being more “Cherokee-like”, but it has been stalled for years because it is dependent on store owners and leaseholders making the changes. Most of the town has aging buildings, signage, and facades. Many of the storefronts are hold-overs from pre-gaming days and many of the tourist-targeted retail stores still sell either outside Native crafts or fabricated Native crafts.

Part of reinventing our tourism efforts needs to be a recommitment to our cultural renaissance. You will see aging pieces of the initial efforts throughout Cherokee. The Cherokee Art Bears were first painted by local artists based on a theme of their own choosing. Each was unique in style and artistic design. Funded by the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, the bears became an instant hit with the tourists. But, over time, the bears have become weathered, chipped, and the victims of some vandalism. Artists, resources, and planning are needed to refurbish the bears so that they may continue to be a tourism draw and a source of community pride. The same is true of the effort to “re-facade” the downtown. Effort and resources need to be applied to recreating the downtown in a traditional Cherokee image campaign.

Current efforts to shore up the greenways and parks are positive steps. More aggressive regulation of cultural crafts and artwork in Cherokee retail stores will lift our artisans and provide another “authentic” experience for our visitors. A recommitment from government to revitalize the downtown while creating a sense of the traditional and cultural values must be part of the overall tourism plan. And there must be better regulation of storefront look and signage, including the elimination of billboards in the downtown area and throughout the business district. Surely billboards have their place, but not in a space that we are trying to use to showcase our culture. Other areas, even locally, have successfully tailored a look that even outside entrepreneurs adhere to when building businesses in their spaces. Biltmore, for example, has a strict exterior look policy that even international chain McDonald’s adheres to. And we have complete control of how and what is built on Cherokee land. We don’t have any excuses.

Cherokee needs a makeover, but it must be one with purpose. Allowing haphazard advertising placements and disjointed building facades will not achieve the uniform traditional look that will represent us in the light we desire. Our customers and potential customers want the authentic and even historic experience of the Cherokee culture. They do not want worn, dilapidated, or fake places or experiences.

One of the shining examples of what we need to be focusing on is the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. A perfect blend of tradition and innovation, the Museum has for years reinvented itself while staying true to culture and tradition. Even in its event planning, great care has been taken to highlight Cherokee craft, traditional living, and, most importantly, the Cherokee people. This is what needs to be captured in planning of the overall makeover of Cherokee. Much planning work has been done in the past to bring the cultural renaissance to fruition. Maybe it is time for someone to dust those plans off, update, and implement them.