Experience the Land and the People

03/31/2010  | 
historic places

The new turtle shell rattles you made sound crisp and ready for the Green Corn Dance. But first you must greet this day as you greet every day. Your whole village gathers on the banks of the Oconaluftee. All enter the water, face east, and pray to the seven directions, the four cardinal points, the sky, the earth, and the center or spirit. You give thanks for the new day, and wash away any feelings separating you from your family, neighbors, or the Creator. This is duyuktv ‘the right way,’ the Cherokee Way.

When you visit Cherokee, North Carolina, you can almost imagine yourself living this way. Here, the same mountains where the Cherokees have maintained their traditions for generations surround you. People who proudly preserve a culture far older than the new nation that surrounds them, welcome you.

The Cherokees believe that they have always lived in Western North Carolina. Indeed, finely crafted stone tools and fluted spear-points confirm that ancient people lived here more than 11,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age. Ancient Cherokee tales describe hunts of the mastodons that once foraged through the upland spruce and fir.


By 8000 B.C., semi-permanent villages dotted this region. Over the following millennia, the people of these mountains developed settled towns, sophisticated politics and religion, thriving agriculture, stunning pottery, and tremendously effective archery. When the first Europeans passed through Cherokee territory in 1540, they found Cherokee hunters with great bows the Spanish soldiers were unable to pull back, propelling arrows with the power to bring down the massive elk and bear they hunted.

More than a thousand years ago, Cherokee life took on the patterns that persisted through the 18th century. European explorers and settlers found a flourishing nation that dominated the southern Appalachians. The Cherokees controlled some 140,000 square miles throughout eight present-day southern states. Villages governed themselves democratically, with all adults gathering to discuss matters of import in each town’s council house. Each village had a peace chief, war chief, and priest. Men hunted and fished; women gathered wild food and cultivated ‘the three sisters’ corn, beans, and squash cleverly inter-planting them to minimize the need for staking and weeding.

This was life that realized harmony with nature, sustainability, personal freedom, and balance between work, play, and praise. The land furnished all: food in abundance; materials for shelter, clothing and utensils; visual grandeur still vivid today, and herbs to treat every known illness — until the Europeans came.

Ostenaco and Henry Timberlake wax figures as seen in the exhibit: Emissaries of Peace at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. Image courtesy of John Warner for the Museum of the Cherokee Indian

For the first 200 years of contact, the Cherokees extended hospitality and help to the newcomers. Peaceful trade prevailed. Intermarriage was not uncommon. The Cherokees were quick to embrace useful aspects of the newcomers’ culture, from peaches and watermelons to written language. This last was single-handedly created by the Cherokee genius Sequoyah, who introduced his ‘syllabary,’ or Cherokee alphabet, to the national council in 1821. Within months, a majority of the Cherokee nation became literate.

But, by then, nearly 200 years of broken treaties had reduced the Cherokee empire to a small territory, and Andrew Jackson began to insist that all southeastern Indians be moved west of the Mississippi. The federal government no longer needed the Cherokees as strategic allies against the French and British. Land speculators wanted Cherokee land to sell for cotton plantations and for the gold that was discovered in Georgia. Although the Cherokees resisted removal through their bilingual newspaper and through legal means, taking their case all the way the Supreme Court, Jackson’s policy prevailed. In 1838, events culminated in the tragic ‘Trail of Tears,’ the forced removal of the Cherokees in the East to Oklahoma. One quarter to half of the 16,000 Cherokees who began the long march died of exposure, disease, and the shock of separation from their home.

The Cherokees in Western North Carolina today descend from those who were able to hold on to land they owned, those who hid in the hills, defying removal, and others who returned, many on foot. Gradually and with great effort, they have created a vibrant society, a sovereign nation of 100 square miles where people in touch with their past and alive to the present preserve timeless ways and wisdom.

Come to Cherokee. You will experience our land and our people with a richness that makes your visit much more than merely a vacation.

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