By ROBERT JUMPER
One Feather Editor
I thought it might be prudent to speak to our tourists and visitors, both current and prospective. It has been a rough year of missed opportunity and stressful planning for most of the tourism organizations in our area and specifically on the Qualla Boundary. The business, particularly one with gathering as a key element in its strategic plan, had to do some significant paradigm shifting to maintain visibility while being socially responsible during the pandemic.
While there is light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, we are still cautious about the coronavirus bug and still are maintaining preventative measures. Our Cherokee Indian Hospital, EBCI Public Health and Human Services Division, and the community have worked diligently to get us to an incredible benchmark. Our community, at the time of this writing, is maintaining few to no reports of infections from our reporting agencies on the Boundary.
Most of our elder population has opted to receive one of the COVID-19 vaccines and the vaccine distribution seems to have been an effective strategy for curbing infections. In other words, it looks like the vaccine works. Unfortunately, it is a bit of an education process to convince folks who have been bombarded with gossip and propaganda claiming, with no foundation, that there is somehow either an issue with effectiveness or exaggerated side effects of the vaccines. There are certainly some exceptions to every rule and there are certainly some who have been negatively impacted by the vaccine, as there are in any mass inoculation procedure. The medical community continues to tell us that the benefits far outweigh the potential hazards, and in the case of the Boundary, it looks like their prognosis is holding true.
Our Principal Chief, Vice Chief, and Tribal Council are all advising to continue certain social mandates like mask wearing indoors and in crowds, social distancing, and avoiding “large” gatherings, however, business is showing signs of Spring, just like our beautiful outdoor foliage, a bud here and a bud there.
Many of you traveled the entire stretch of the pandemic. I was amazed at how many of you drove to the mountains in the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak, which provoked a fear response in our local communities. While the borders of our town were closed via police barricade to keep tourist traffic to a minimum, residents and essential workers were allowed in and out of the community freely. This postponed infections, but ultimately, the numbers rose to the levels seen in most of our surrounding municipalities. Naturally, there was and is a level of trepidation in our community over the comings and goings of outsiders (that would be you, the tourist).
So, please be mindful that while you are welcome and needed by the Cherokee community, we also ask that you be mindful of those safety measures that the Tribe has in place. You still need to wear a mask when in our retail outlets – restaurants, craft shops, attractions, accommodations. You shouldn’t attempt to “hug up” or get close to our people for photographs. Each business may have additional protocols for you while you are in their business. Rest assured that they do not like it any more than you do. They are just protecting themselves, the community, and you. Don’t get insulted or indignant. The Tribe and business owners get no pleasure and are not trying to make a political statement by asking you to adhere to safety guidelines. They are just trying to save people from suffering and death. I think we are all capable of giving some grace under the circumstances.
And, if you are new to the Qualla Boundary, or tribal communities in general, please take a moment to research the history and culture before you get here or at least stop at our Visitor Center and ask what is appropriate for you to say and do while visiting. Good neighbors will be sensitive to the cultural norms of each other. Most non-Indian people get their understanding of Indian culture from mid-20th Century “Cowboy and Indian” western movies and we sort of muddy the water by using that perception of Native culture to make tourism dollars from you. Just so you know, Cherokee people never lived in tipis and never wore elaborate headdresses. It is offensive to traditional Cherokee people and to the cultures who truly had those traditions to continue to co-exploit cultures. The same goes for some slang terminology that is used to describe Native peoples. The best policy when discussing anything in our culture with a member of our tribe is to ask and not presume about any preconceived notion or term you may have heard in reference to us. Always leave it out when you are in doubt.
We love our land and we are protective of personal rights. It may be a bit confusing as you drive through and see burned out or dilapidated buildings, but that is part of our commitment to allowing tribal land holders on the Boundary their personal rights. We are a people who love our water, soil, and air. It is a personal insult to us when you leave your picnic or campsite trash thrown on our property or tossed on our roadsides. Please be respectful and practice a saying your parents probably told you about when you were a young camper, “Always leave a place better than when you found it”. Getting rid of your trash properly also shows love and respect for our wildlife. Your old meal remnants and wrappers are not good for the bellies of our elk, deer, bear, and other animals. So, keep your distance and your trash when taking in our fauna. And please be mindful that the rules of the road are not suspended because a bear, elk, or other forest creature is within camera-shot of the roadside. Nothing will get people’s blood pressure up or create road rage quicker than someone stopping in the middle of the road to try to become a nature photographer. Find a safe place to get out of the roadway to enjoy nature’s beauty. The same applies to scenic vistas and directional confusion. The only time you should slow or stop your vehicle in the middle of the road is to allow pedestrians-human, goose, or groundhog-to cross.
We do want you here and we do appreciate you. The Qualla Boundary is a place of mutual respect by both guest and host. We want to provide you a safe place to enjoy a time of rest and we want you to keep us safe as you travel to and through our land. The Boundary is also a place of mutual learning. You may learn many things from the Eastern Cherokee people and we are always learning from you. As we get to know each other, we will find that we have many things in common, so we should celebrate those together. We will also find that we have many differences, and it is okay for us to also celebrate those together.
I wish you a great experience while you visit the land of the Principal People. Maybe you are curious about our culture and people. Maybe some of you have roots here. If you come seeking friendship among the Cherokee people, you will find it. Welcome to our home.