Cherokee Homeland: Tribal History, Gambling in Scenic North Carolina

By Newbern, Kathy M.; Fletcher, J. S. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 22, 1999 | Go to article overview

Cherokee Homeland: Tribal History, Gambling in Scenic North Carolina


Newbern, Kathy M., Fletcher, J. S., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Driving through the North Carolina mountain town of Cherokee brings to mind the title of a Tom Robbins novel: "Another Roadside Attraction."

Today, as in the past, Indian chiefs who pose beside any tourist who happens by with a dollar are one of the most popular attractions. These "roadside chiefs," as they are known, wear outfits - including headdresses - that are far from historically accurate. Tourists, however, have enjoyed this souvenir-photo opportunity since the late 1940s.

"Many of the chiefs pride themselves with having their pictures taken with two or three generations of the same family," says David Redman of the Tribal Travel and Promotions Office.

The Oconaluftee Indian Village offers a more authentic depiction: a guided two-hour program that includes costumed Cherokees demonstrating crafts such as making pottery and masks and weaving baskets. Visitors can see the Ceremonial Grounds and the Council House in a re-created village of Indian life in the 1750s.

In addition to the distant past of the Indians, Cherokee, the place, also calls to a more recent past. The town has a 1950s and '60s feel, when small motels were premium lodging and dusty souvenir shops hawked everything from tomahawks and moccasins to peace pipes and turquoise jewelry. The same goes today, except the shops are air-conditioned and their plastic-lettered marquees push T-shirts, laser pointers and Beanie Babies.

That nothing much else appears to have changed in Cherokee during the past 30 years is part of the appeal for city dwellers faced with sweltering heat; commuter traffic; and faxes, phones, pagers and e-mail. What hasn't changed is the town's backdrop of the glorious Great Smoky Mountains, with trails to hike, streams to fish for trout and cabins to rent.

Tubing down the Oconaluftee River brings a smile and a refreshing chill to any summer day, and the glass display cases at Snakes Alive! still entice the reptile-curious for a closer look.

For 50 years, the outdoor summer drama "Unto These Hills" has recounted the story of the Cherokee people from the 1540 arrival of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto until their forced relocation to the West in 1838 on the Trail of Tears.

Yelling, chanting and whooping once were associated with tribal ceremonies and warfare, but now they come from Harrah's Cherokee Casino, where the sounds of 2,300 video games of chance compete with piped-in music, the flashes of neon lightning and the rumbles of man-made thunder overhead, screaming winners and the boom of announcements such as "Folks are winning up a storm tonight at Harrah's Cherokee Casino."

The 2-year-old casino is operated - 24 hours a day - by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, as the tribe is known here. This $90 million, 175,000-square-foot glitzy palace sits on 37 acres of reservation land at the edge of a sea of cars so large - 1,858 parking spaces - that buses constantly shuttle passengers. The gambling is the video variety only (no dealers), and the drinks are equally tame (no alcohol).

The casino, which touts big-name entertainers such as Tonya Tucker, Bill Cosby and Wayne Newton, provides about 1,800 jobs to deal with the almost 3.5 million visitors each year. One service is free child care.

Joyce Dugan, principal chief of the Eastern Band, cites the financial benefits: "We have been at a serious economic disadvantage for many generations, and hopefully, the casino will provide us with the opportunity to be on par with our neighboring communities and residents of our state."

Before the casino, tribe unemployment ran as high as 46 percent in the off-season. Now, the casino's annual payroll is $29 million, and the enterprise employs non-tribal members as well. A 1,200-seat, high-stakes bingo facility is just up the road.

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian and the Qualla Arts and Crafts Cooperative offer contrasts from the flash of the gambling operations. …

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