COMMENTARY:  Showcasing Cherokee

by May 10, 2024OPINIONS0 comments


One Feather Editor


Family tourism became of primary interest to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians as a source of income in the 1950’s. As lumber harvesting declined on the Qualla Boundary, it seemed the best, most achievable resource to tap. As early as 1914, tribal leaders were investing in family tourism.

“During the early part of the century, logging and farming provided income and sustenance, but the tribe also turned to tourism as a source of income. The first Cherokee Indian Fall Fair, in 1914, was subsidized by the tribal council specifically to encourage tourism. The opening of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in 1934, adjacent to the Qualla Boundary, although controversial with the tribal government, was finally welcomed as a way to attract visitors, who brought a new source of income.” – from the “Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook”, Barbara Duncan and Brett H. Riggs, 2003, Museum of the Cherokee People (formerly Museum of the Cherokee Indian) and the University of North Carolina Press

As pointed out by Duncan and Riggs in their book, marketing culture can be a mixed blessing. The clients that the Cherokee people of that day sought had gotten a romanticized image of what it means to be Native from watching wild-west shows and Western movies. The image of the noble savage pervaded American visions and when they heard the term “Indian” they had a very distinct, if misguided, look in mind.  And, back in the day, we knew who we were, and if we had to play a role to keep the interest of the visitors, who had the revenue we desired, so be it. It wasn’t just a show for the tourists. Even visits to heads of state in those days might include a tribal official donning a “war bonnet”, which was not a piece of ceremonial clothing for the Cherokee people but did and does have ceremonial importance to Plains peoples. Up until the early 2000s, it was common to see roadside “chiefs” wearing war bonnets in front of movie set-style tipis (a façade with no living quarters) selling opportunities to take a picture with an “authentic Indian”.

Maintaining cultural purity, especially in the marketing of Cherokee and other Native tribes, is especially challenging due to the internal cultural exploitation we have helped perpetuate over the years. In recent years, specially designed “hutches” were built throughout the town of Cherokee to replace the tipis to achieve a more authentic Cherokee look. Strict regulations were put in place to curtail “chiefing” in town. While the wearing of war bonnets slowed, pow-wow style dancing, which features primarily western Native American tribal influence continues to be popular with the tourists. Western dance regalia is colorful and visually striking, so those now in roadside entertainment leverage it to draw customers. While many attempt to educate the visitors who stop by that their dress and dance are not traditionally Cherokee, authentic culture takes a backseat to what the customer wants, or at least what the performers think they want. And those tribally funded hutches are now used for pow-wow style dancing and, in some cases, extended seating for the restaurants to which they are adjacent.

Some studies and polling of travelers have shown that most visitors desire to see “real Cherokee”.  The visitor perception is so skewed that a traveler often walks into the Cherokee Welcome Center and asks two questions, “How do I get to the reservation?” and “Where can I find the Indians?”. And these questions are not asked sarcastically or maliciously. They simply are used to a different image of Native Americans, and specifically what it means to be a member of a unique people group. To further confuse the traveler, they are frequently seeing messages and designations like “federally”, “state”, and “other” recognized Indian tribes.

Now, as members of an Indigenous people, we know that being Cherokee means something, and being Eastern Band Cherokee means something even more specific. Each federally recognized tribe has a distinct language, history, and culture. Simply saying “Indian” or “Native American” doesn’t do justice to the uniqueness of the tribes. Each federally recognized tribe is essentially a nation apart from the United States. The federal government sees and treats each tribe, by its unique name, as a people unto themselves based on those unique attributes.

So, when someone or some organization “appropriates” Cherokee cultural elements, including name and language, it slows the education process for those who might want to truly learn about the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. And it makes the job of tribal marketing officials even that much more challenging.

For Cherokee people, the land, history, and traditions are a big part of who they are. If you have ever been or dealt with an artist or craftsperson you have gotten a taste of the ownership and pride individuals have when they either create something or pour their heart into something. They become very much like parents. They reject scrutiny and bristle at negative feedback on their creations. That painting, sculpture, photo, poem, book, carving is their baby. A piece of them is invested in whatever you are looking at or reading. Any criticism of it is a criticism of them. If you try to take it, steal it, or copy it without blessing, you are taking a part of them and they will fight you. It is akin to a physical violation to them. And while they might take pride in showing it to you, they will be very reluctant to allow you to possess it without paying a price. Some things an artist makes they will not share with anyone at any price. That is how it is with Cherokee people, and with Indigenous people in general.

The challenge for the tribe’s cultural marketers is finding the right balance between what is acceptable in the eyes of the tribe to share with others and what is considered sacred and un-shareable. The tribal museum just went through the exercise of identifying items that should be exposed to the public and things that are too culturally sensitive to be on display. In the process, the leadership of the museum removed items from display that, in their estimation, should not be viewed by the public and should only be seen by tribal members. It is a daunting task. Previous leadership had exhibited the items deemed not for public consumption for five decades. What makes something for tribal eyes only and what is okay for all to see?

And that goes to the heart of the work of showcasing Cherokee. Some have suggested that we should get out of the tourism business because we want to keep outside influence on Cherokee culture away. Every year in recent history, there has been a spirited discussion on the purpose of the Cherokee Indian Fair. Many in the community say that the Fair or more commonly, the Fall Festival, belongs to the community and no consideration should be given to outside visitors. Others point to the history of the Fair and that from its inception, the government provided funds to encourage tourists to come to it.

I can imagine our pre-contact ancestors being very open and welcoming to the newly arrived immigrants to their land. Not a lot of the water that has gone under history’s bridge had taken place, the land grabs, resource hoarding, the Indian Wars, and the Removal (or the Trails of Tears that occurred across the continent). Our people helped the immigrants survive. We traded with them. We worked and played with them. We taught them to use plants to heal the injured and the sick. Indigenous people have fought alongside the immigrants who took land and life from them for centuries. In modern society, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is a major contributor to the regional economy, benefitting both tribal members and immigrants (again, immigrants include all who are not of indigenous blood). We have treaties and friendly relationships with many other nations and governments. If we have not been assimilated, we at least have taken on more ways of the immigrants than our ancestors would have ever imagined.

The work of our marketers is not easy. In addition to outside competition for the tourist dollar, they must navigate a minefield of cultural sensitivity, whether perceived or real. They also must be wary of those who claim to want to come alongside the tribe (for a small fee) to “make tribal marketing better”.   We have had our share of those who promise the moon and then moon us as they carry off our dollars with unfulfilled agreements and leave our tourism effort worse for the experience.

So, there is a balance to be struck when showcasing Cherokee. We are a proud people with a proud history and heritage. We also must remember the history of our relationship with tourists and their ancestors. And we must be diligent in building relationships with trustworthy tourism partners where mutual respect and goals will keep us both working together for a positive impact for our tribe and our partners’ needs. We should have no room for those who come to us grinning and patting us on the back with their hands out for money for a promise. We should choose to associate with those who have a well-vetted resume and demonstrate that working with them is a win-win situation. We must always keep in mind how valuable our culture is to us and to those who admire us.