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The Hinged Man (tm) and Chief Henry.
The Hinged Man (tm) and Chief Henry.

Chief Henry, World's Most Photographed Indian (Gone)

Field review by the editors.

Cherokee, North Carolina

Note: Chief Henry passed away in 2007.

According to Cherokee tourism brochures, "a visit to Cherokee is like stepping into the past." Forget the "like" -- Cherokee IS the past: a New World Brigadoon guarded by a gauntlet of weather-beaten gift shops and no-name motels, founded on the principal of human dominion over nature for fun and profit, and accessible only by a godawful road system. If you want to know what vacations were really like in the 1950s, visit Cherokee.

Cherokee's two principal attractions for Roadsiders are its bear pits and Chief Henry, the world's most photographed Indian. We first visited the Chief in 1985 (officially, anyway -- we all vaguely recall posing with him as kids), when he plied his I'll-pose-for-a-buck trade outside the Old Squaw Moccasin Shop downtown. Since then the price has risen to five dollars, the OSMS is no more ("The tribal council made them rename it," Henry says), the Indians have built a giant casino and dumped Frontierland and the World's Largest Bingo Game, and the Chief has moved uptown to the parking lot of Tepee Village Mall -- out behind the bear pits.

Chief Henry, 1998.
Chief Henry, 1998. This shot cost us $5.

1998 marked Chief Henry's golden anniversary. After posing for countless thousands of photos, does he remember our single shot 13 years ago, where he posed with Roadside's six-foot tall Hinged ManTM? No. Has he ever heard of Roadside America? He thumbs through a proffered copy with an air of polite diffidence. "Yeah...someone told me about this, once...." Been there, done that -- Henry has the aloofness of a star. Which, in Cherokee, he is.

Chief Henry's stern profile -- usually swaddled in feathers and gazing toward a distant horizon -- is everywhere in town: on posters, placemats, racks of postcards ("I've posed for over fifty."), even crudely rendered on several gift shop signs along Hwy. 19. Over the past decade a younger Indian -- Dennis Wolf -- gave Chief Henry a run for his money, at least on postcard real estate. Some speculated he was being groomed as Chief Henry's successor. Not any more. "That card'll be a collector's item soon," a gift shop lady told us, ringing up one of our Dennis Wolf cards. "He died two weeks ago."

Unlike the late Mr. Wolf, Chief Henry poses on -- apparently immune to the passage of time. A small display next to his sidewalk tepee showcases his photo in a 1995 National Geographic -- perhaps the apex of his 50-year career. But except for very occasional intrusions by wayward travel writers, life in Cherokee is pretty routine, tourist season after tourist season.

Most Photographed View of the Smokies.

Does Chief Henry enjoy his work? "I wouldn't do it if I didn't like it," he replies, pulling a disposable lighter out of his waistband and igniting another cigarette.

Are there any perks to the job? Chief Henry turns the question over in his mind. "I get a discount at the Best Western," he answers, gesturing down the street with the lighter. "I eat anything I want for two dollars."

November 2007: Chief Henry passed away on November 19, 2007.

Burnt out Teepee Village.

1999: On April 12, 1999, a fire swept through the Teepee Village strip mall on the Cherokee Indian Reservation, Cherokee, destroying twenty businesses. Snakes Alive, a popular snake attraction, was gutted, killing all the reptiles. No people were injured.

Cherokee has been mysteriously put to the torch several times in the last few years, with a frequency rarely seen even at aging Wild West Towns. Half of Teepee Village burned down in 1996 -- the devastation stopped just feet from Snakes Alive. In 1994, the adjacent Saunooke Village went up in smoke.

About 50 feet from Teepee Village, Chief Henry and his roadside Teepee remain unharmed. But his namesake gift shop was gutted, and in early May Ken got over to Cherokee, NC, last week, but Chief Henry was nowhere to be found. "He hasn't been chiefin' much since the fire," said the guy in the gift shop across the street.

He was back in action when tourist season heated up...

Chief Henry, World's Most Photographed Indian

Chief Henry's Gifts And More. On Big Cove Rd, one block east of the northbound side of Hwy 441, just outside the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Chief Henry died in 2007.

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