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Indian Chiefs of Cherokee (Gone)

Field review by the editors.

Cherokee, North Carolina

This report was written in the late 1990s, when we visited Cherokee several times. More recent visit report: Cherokee: Tourists and Indians.

Too many chiefs. Or, at least, too many Pose-For-A-Few-Bucks chiefs. That's the way it looked to us one summer in the classic tourism town of Cherokee, just east of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, once home of "The World's Most Photographed Indian."

Since 1985, whenever in the region, we'd snap a picture with the old feathered warrior, Chief Henry -- who is back every season, as regular as the blue corn crop or the buffalo herd. Change occurred ver-r-ry slowly in Cherokee, until the arrival of a giant casino a few years back stirred things up. And as correctness whittles at every other Indian attraction in the US, how long will the Chief hold onto his land and title? (Uh, that would be until 2007.)


Turned out we should have been more concerned about the traditional foe ofold attractions: spontaneous combustion. Fires have swept Cherokee attractions over the years: in 1994 Chief Saunooke's Village went up in flames; in 1996 half of Chief Henry's Teepee Village burned and in 1999 the entire place combusted, destroying twenty businesses. Snakes Alive, a popular attraction, was gutted.

In the wake of that inferno, a notion perhaps took hold that Chief Henry could be unseated as the town's reigning photo op. How else to explain the late-1990s surfeit of chiefs in Cherokee? The main drag of Cherokee abounded with headdress-ed chiefs and war-painted braves, and every other Trading Post and Souvenir Shop in this Indian-themed town featured a teepee -- some full size, some kid-sized -- near which stood a local warrior willing to be photographed with all and sundry.

Another photo op.

At the Indian Summer Souvenir Outlet, for example, Whagoo-Le sits under a large metal canopy, poised to apply war paint on the faces of tourist children. Whagoo-Le would also pose with the mounted Bill the Buffalo in front of the outlet, although a sign warned "Caution! Do not touch chemically treated skins on animals." Another sign advertised "Have your photo taken with Chief Sitting Bull inside the Store." Sitting Bull is Indian Summer Souvenir Outlet's manager -- and he's sitting inside.

Teepees appeared on both sides of Hwy. 19 a little further on. The one on the left promoted "Have your photo taken with Chief Henry," but the Chief was nowhere in sight. On the right, a brave stood in the porch shadow of the Cherokee Reservation Craft Shop, waiting for visitors before jumping up onto his teepee platform in the blazing sun.

This was Spotted Horse, who performs in elaborate ceremonial dances elsewhere on the strip. It was too hot midday for any dancing, so Spotted Horse helped out his relatives, who owned the Craft Shop, by enticing tourists to pull over.

Chief Henry and kids.
The original Chief Henry, who passed away in 2007.

We asked him about Chief Henry, and he said he hadn't seen him all summer. "That's his teepee, though," he reflected. "You know, he owns a mini golf up the road."

Chief Saunooke sat under an awning in front of a teepee at his sprawling Trading Post. Or at least we assume it's Chief Saunooke. "Tips appreciated for ALL photos," the sign read. Families lined up for the privilege of posing with this friendly Chief of the Mall. We crossed the footbridge over a wide stream into Saunooke's shopping complex, a string of souvenir stores connected to the Bear Pits, Alligator Alley, and a fancier set of stores. Out the back exit there was another Chief, wearing a floor length headdress. Hunched over a card table display of jewelry, he hacked briefly, then reached for a pack of cigarettes in his waistband.

Our hero -- Chief Henry!

The Chief was busy posing with families heading in and out of Saunooke's. But he was also intent on promoting "Super Magnetic Jewelry, handcrafted by Chief Henry." The signs promised that this jewelry was a scientifically proven cure for arthritis, bursitis, tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and migraines.

We could see that construction on the new Teepee Village was underway across the street -- likely open for the next season. "I have a new teepee coming," he told us between snapshots, jewelry sales, and exhaled clouds of smoke. [Chief Henry died in 2007]

Indian Chiefs of Cherokee

Drive through Cherokee, look in front of stores and teepees.

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