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Cherokee, North Carolina

Cherokee: Tourists and Indians

Cherokee, North Carolina

Throw a rubber tomahawk in the town of Cherokee and it will probably bounce off a moccasin shop or a tourist taking a snapshot. It's been this way since the late 1940s, when Uncle Sam paved the mountain roads leading to this remote town, at the heart of an 83-square-mile chunk of land known as the Qualla Boundary, owned and governed by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation.

Bear Zoo.

Once the curious outsiders began to arrive, the justifiably bad feelings the Cherokee may have had about the Trail of Tears were assuaged by a flurry of free enterprise tourist engagement. An outdoor drama, "Unto These Hills," was created; a Colonial-Williamsburg-style Indian village was built; motels with neon signs gathered like Smoky Mountain bears at a wayside trash can. Cherokee's main street was dotted with friendly Indians in ceremonial costumes, ready to be photographed with anyone for a few bucks (An innovation later copied by today's urban tourist picture-posers). A surprising Santa's Land was built; so was a less-surprising snake farm, and pits for the bears. Gift shops jockeyed for position downtown, eager to offer white people the opportunity to buy t-shirts and fudge from a real Indian.


An influx of money in the late 1990s -- thanks to tax-free cigarette sales and the only casino in North Carolina -- gave Cherokee the cash to bankroll a fancy museum and a more upscale approach to the Eastern Band's heritage. Yet while time and changing tastes have winnowed some of Cherokee's vintage past, a surprising amount of it still remains, shielded from the upheavals that churn tourist towns on the Tennessee side of the Appalachians. Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge bulldoze the past in a race to the 22nd century, but parts of Cherokee could still be 1955.

Cherokee's west side buttresses the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, so its commercial mojo spills eastward and downhill into the town of Maggie Valley. Here, too, the attractions have a reassuring retro feel, tapping classic tourism tropes and catering to shutterbugs. People don't drive to this part of North Carolina for personal growth or visions of the future. They come to see the Indians.

Cherokee: Tourists and Indians

US Hwy 19, Cherokee, NC
The densest collection of gift shops, attractions, and Indians line downtown US Hwy 19, but Cherokee attractions spread along the river valleys north to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, east to Maggie Valley, and south to Whittier and Bryson City.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Cherokee Bear ZooCherokee Bear Zoo, Cherokee, NC - < 1 mi.
Museum of the Cherokee PeopleMuseum of the Cherokee People, Cherokee, NC - < 1 mi.
Peter Toth Giant Indian HeadPeter Toth Giant Indian Head, Cherokee, NC - < 1 mi.
In the region:
Forbidden Caverns, Sevierville, TN - 30 mi.

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