Somewhere between kitsch and history, Cherokee, North Carolina finds its stride. Amongst a seemingly endless amount of Native American gift shops offering items imported from China and “authentic Native American dancers” adorned in makeup and headdresses lies a city rich with culture, history and outdoor adventure.
The community serves not only as a gateway to the Smoky Mountains with boundless outdoor activities that include fishing, horseback riding, kayaking, canoeing, river tubing and camping but it’s also the home of the Eastern Band of Cherokees. Street signs convey the culture here, written in both English and Cherokee and as you traverse the streets of Cherokee you’ll hear the greeting, “shi-yo”, meaning “hello” in the Cherokee language.
The Museum of the Cherokee Indian lets visitors delve deeper – telling the history of the 11,000 year-old culture. Tools, weaponry, baskets and pottery are on display and you’ll hear Cherokee stories and customs from the Paleo period until the 2,220-mile Trail of Tears trek in 1838. Kevin Gover, Director of the National Museum of the American Indian calls it “one of the top ten native sites east of the Mississippi.”
Located across the street from the museum is the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, which truly does offer authentic Native American, hand-made items. Visitors can shop for white-oak splint basketry, jewelry made from porcupine quills and beads and various wood-carved items from more than 350 artisan members.
For a more immersive dive into the Cherokee culture, the Oconaluftee Indian Village is a recreation of an 18th century Cherokee Village. A guided tour will include stops at different “stations” where you’ll be shown how they make pottery, weapons, baskets and clothing by Cherokees in period appropriate clothing. After the tour, wander through the village and learn more about the seven tribes and how life in the village was governed and the day-to-day life of the Cherokees.
During the summer months, be sure to catch Unto These Hills, one of the longest running outdoor dramas in the U.S. Since 1950 the play has been telling the story of the Cherokee’s rich history through the years.
A fairly new addition to the city’s summer line-up is Bonfire Nights at the Oconaluftee Islands Park. Held May through August on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, this free-to-the-public event features Cherokee storytelling and dance.
Sample local Cherokee dishes such as Indian Tacos, a nachos-chili type concoction atop a large piece of Indian Fry bread or sample rabbit, pheasant or a buffalo burger at Paul’s Restaurant.
There’s no doubt that the Harrah’s Casino is a huge draw. The casino resort sits on 56-acres and has 1,100 guest rooms, a 150,000 square foot gaming floor, 10 restaurants, retail shops and an 18,000-square foot spa. A 3,035-seat event venue brings in top acts and concerts and the resort boasts one of the largest permanent exhibitions of contemporary Eastern Band of Cherokees art work. Golf lovers will love the nearby, Sequoyah Golf Club, an 18-hole championship course.
Anglers will delight with the Oconaluftee River running throughout the city. The 30-mile crystal clear river is kept well-stocked and is home to some of the finest fishing for brook, rainbow and brown trout found anywhere in the U.S.
An evening drive along Big Cove Road or into the Smoky Mountain National Park is also a popular summertime activity. The elk were reintroduced to this area more than 10 years ago and have thrived in the cool, mountain community.
Smaller kids will enjoy a day at Santa’s Land theme park and zoo. One park goer described it as a Clark-Griswald’s-Walley-World-meets-the-State-Fair-in-an-enchanted-forest-in-the-70’s kind of place.
There’s no word in the Cherokee language for goodbye so as you see Cherokee in the rearview mirror- Do-nv-da-go-hv-i or “until we meet again”.