COMMENTARY: Are we being Fair?

by Aug 31, 2022OPINIONS0 comments


One Feather Editor


I don’t know about you, but I am ready for the Fair. That’s the Cherokee Indian Fair. You know the one we had to miss for two consecutive years because of the COVID-19 outbreak? You know, on the Qualla Boundary, the Fair is one of the life-celebration times that, even though it happens in the fall when the plants are “dying”, it is very much a time of Cherokee life and renewal.

I was honored to be able to be in on the planning and execution of many of the Fall Festivals over the last 20 years, being a coordinator or manager of some sort for at least 12 of those years. One of the great joys of the job was interacting with the people who visited the Fair. During some of those years, I would be at the Fairgrounds (Ceremonial Grounds) from six or seven in the morning until one or two the next morning, and then repeat for a four-day stretch. Needless to say, I got to spend some quality time at the Fair.

While the location was venerable, it really wasn’t the land that made Fair time special. It was and always has been the people. It is that special feeling you get when you connect in-person with your friends and family. The fun of familiarity; ribbing each other over some silly thought or action; people watching some of the very unique looks that people wear at the Fair; sharing a fried Oreo while solving all the worlds problems, or at least the Tribe’s; and generally reacquainting with each other after maybe not seeing or hearing from that person since the last Fair.

I like Fair time. I like the smell of freshly roasted corn on the cob that has been drowned in melted butter, pork chops, frybread, and fried chicken (lots of fried chicken). My wife is addicted to the kettle corn from the Cherokee Indian Fair. Loves the stuff. I sometimes made special trips to the Fair just to pick up some of that kettle corn.

The exhibits have been amazing over the years. From agricultural to the arts, our people shine through the hundreds of exhibits that adorned the exhibit hall every year. We know we have some of the most talented people on the planet. At the Fair, those extraordinary artists get to shine their brightest in front of their most beloved audience, the Cherokee people. It also shines through in the community exhibits, each community showing their pride in their home communities within the Boundary. You can get a lot of history just strolling through the exhibit area, as well as eyeball some pretty massive candy roasters.

One of my favorite pastimes at the Fair was listening to the old timers tell their stories of life. Some of our tribal elders have never left the Boundary, remaining here their life’s long, just like their ancestors. Then others have circled the globe, serving, and protecting loved ones during military service. That is another great sight to see at the Fair. For many years, Mollie Grant collected photos of Tribal military service members and created an extensive display to recognize their service. Cherished photos of loved ones, many who had passed from this life to the next, so valuable and treasured that Mollie wouldn’t let them out of her possession even long enough to be replicated. Such was her dedication to preserving those memories so that they could be enjoyed by generations to come.

One memory that, once I heard it, I could never get out of my mind was one shared by Tribal Elder and Beloved Man Jerry Wolfe. Many of our tribal elders get a boost and extra twinkle in their eye when they are asked to share their stories. Jerry was no exception. I was privileged to hear Jerry tell the story of the early days of the Fair, when carnival rides were a new and unexperienced thing on the Boundary. In the early days, when the carnival rides would appear for the Fair, Jerry explained that those rides would be more popular with the elders and adults than they were with the young people. The older generation was fascinated with the idea of riding something that went nowhere but gave the feeling of going somewhere. Back in the day, Jerry said that it was nothing to see great, long lines of older folks standing and waiting for their turn on carnival rides. There is more to Jerry’s story about the waiting line, but it is a tale better told in person, maybe we will meet at the Fair this year and I may share it with you.

The folks who assemble the day activities for the Fair are the staff of the Cherokee Welcome Center. This same group of folks have helped organize the Fair and Fair Parade for many years. They were given a particularly challenging assignment this year due to the necessity of closing the Ceremonial Grounds. If you are local, a tribal member, you will know these day planners. They are members of your communities. They take pride in their work, and they love their communities. And they are committed to bringing the best experience they can create for the community and for the visitors who attend the Fair. They are doing the same great job they have always done; they are just executing it in a different location.

Now, all that being said, it is disappointing that we will not be back on the Fairgrounds for the Cherokee Indian Fair this year. As we said in the previous edition, there have been decades of memories made on the Ceremonial Grounds and it is a tough pill to swallow after basically a two-year hiatus that the first Fair back is not going to be where it traditionally has happened for over a hundred fairs. No one, including those who had to make that decision, wanted it to be this way. But it is.

And looking at the options available to them, the leadership decided that the safest, most practical, and economical option for this year is going to primarily be at the Harrah’s Event Center, with stickball still at Unity Field and the old high school sites. I think a few of the other outdoor activities may also be scheduled at Unity. Some in our community have expressed concern or dislike of the location, primarily because of their disagreement with adult gaming. The debate over gaming will rage on long after the Fair, some saying it is ethically unacceptable while others will praise the enormous economic benefits and the ability to provide social services and cultural preservation that would never have happened without the money from the gaming operations.

We all know how difficult it is to find space that will accommodate a large event like the Fair. And being that the Fair is a once-a-year event, venues like the old elementary school site and the high school site, which would seem more user friendly, are being prepped for more long-term, continuous use projects. Or they do not have utilities in place to facilitate large events like the Fair. On the other hand, the Harrah’s Event Center was created to hold…events. It says so right there in the name. It is Cherokee land that is designated for holding Cherokee events.

When it comes to our Fall Festival, we don’t like to see change. It is like an old familiar friend, and it makes us uncomfortable when our old friend makes a dramatic change. But the Cherokee Indian Fair will still be what it has always been; an opportunity to gather, to be excited, to laugh and poke fun, and to enjoy some good, hot roasted corn and frybread.

I guess if we are intent on looking for reasons not to enjoy the Fair, we will find them. I don’t recall a single Fair in my 20-year relationship with it in which there were no complaints. Not because anyone didn’t do their jobs or there were issues with the venue. It was simply because we are all different and what pleases one will not necessarily, please all. And even though there were those who were critical each year, each year we came back to enjoy another year of the Cherokee Indian Fair.

So, ready, or not, here the Fall Festival comes. Oct. 4-8. I hope to see you there. And honey, don’t worry, I already have it my notes to pick up some kettle corn.