The Culture of the Eastern Band Cherokee


The Cherokee Tribe in North Carolina is part of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, a federally-recognized independent Native American Cherokee tribe whose home base is in Cherokee, North Carolina, south of the Smoky Mountains. The Eastern Band is comprised of the descendants of the approximately 800 Cherokee who did not join the Trail of Tears—the forced migration of the Native American nations from the Southern U.S. region to the western U.S. region designated by the U.S. government as Indian Territory following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. This relatively small number of Cherokee (compared to the 16,000 Cherokee who were relocated) avoided relocation by living on privately owned land, as opposed to communal land. For example, some 400 Cherokee lived on acreage owned by William Holland Thomas in the Smoky Mountains. Thomas had been taken in by the Cherokee in his youth and now returned the favor in his adulthood by allowing hundreds to live on his property and escape the trials and tribulations of forced migration. Another couple hundred Cherokee were permitted to stay in the Qualla Boundary of North Carolina in return for their help in capturing a Cherokee leader named Tsali, who was wanted by the U.S. government (Kutsche, 1963). This paper will describe the community and culture of the North Carolina Cherokee, their history and issues that they currently face.

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The People, Community and Culture

The majority of the Eastern Band was able to stay in North Carolina thanks to William Holland Thomas, who was a European-American who had been adopted in his youth by Chief Yonaguska of the Cherokee. Thomas had also been a state legislator and wanted to assist the Cherokee. Because of the conditions of the forced migration (Native Americans who did not live on private land were obliged to relocate), not all Cherokee accepted the terms—and Tsali was one such Cherokee leader. Unlike Yonaguska, who had access to private land and thus was able to avoid migration, Tsali opposed the terms in principle and led a resistance force against the U.S. Army. This was the main reason those other Cherokee who assisted in the capture of Tsali were rewarded with their recognized independence and permission to stay in North Carolina, too.


From these two main groups of Cherokee, today’s North Carolina community of the Cherokee Tribe is descended. They maintain many of their ancestral tribal customs and in the 19th century purchased land in the Qualla Boundary. Many of the Eastern Band converted to Christianity as a result of exposure to the European communities of the 18th century. However, a revival of Cherokee traditionalism and the traditional religion of the Cherokee has effected a blend of religious views and practices that can be described as new age, Christian, and traditional Cherokee. The Eastern Band still performs traditional Cherokee dances, for instance, and students in the Tribe are required to learn the Cherokee language (Montgomery-Anderson, 2015).

The community of the Eastern Band has commemorated the trials of their fellow Native Americans in the outdoor drama Unto These Hills, a play written by the American Kermit Houston Hunter in 1950, which describes the history of the Cherokee from the 18th to the 20th century. The Eastern Band Cherokee have performed this play in North Carolina since the mid-century and it is still being performed today at the Mountainside Theatre (Cherokee North Carolina, 2018).

Location, Environment and Ecosystem

The base of the Cherokee Tribe in North Carolina is located in the Smoky Mountain region. Originally, the Cherokee were spread throughout the region today known as North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. They mostly populated the Alleghany River area and the Appalachian Mountain chain, enjoying an ecosystem with a surprisingly moderate temperature—never becoming too hot nor too cold year round. The pine forests offered protection, security, and abundant food and game—from deer to rabbit to fish in the rivers and streams. The coastal regions also offered abundant shellfish. The climate has not changed much for the Cherokee (Carr, 2017) though their environment today is somewhat more modern in many ways.


In the Qualla Boundary region, the Cherokee reservation consists of 82,600 square miles with a resident population of more than 9000 Cherokee (United States Census, 2010). The Qualla Bounary is a land trust rather than a reservation as it was never reserved for them by the federal government. The land is, however, protected by the federal government because of its ancestral importance to the Cherokee.


The Cherokee are an Iroquois people and were always indigenous to the southeastern woodland parts of the U.S. They were mainly found in the North Carolina region, though it is probable that they migrated from the Great Lakes regions in ancient times (Mooney, 2006; Whyte, 2007). Because of their peaceful ways and the fact that they were not nomadic but had established villages and an agrarian lifestyle, the Cherokee were identified as a civilized tribe by the American settlers. Their villages acted autonomously from the Cherokee Nation as a whole and thus authority was very decentralized. As the U.S. expanded, however, there was more and more pressure on the Cherokee to move aside.


The forced migration of the majority of the Cherokee was supported by President Andrew Jackson, who viewed it as a way to protect the Native Americans from facing extinction (Wishart, 1995). Thousands of Cherokee perished from the cruel conditions of the long trek to the West. The Eastern Band of Cherokee, however, managed to avoid this fate: assisted by Thomas, hundreds of Cherokee were allowed to stay in Carolina thanks to the generosity of this legislator who donated his land to them. Likewise, those Cherokee who helped the federal government capture Tsali were also granted permission to stay.


In the second half of the 19th century, the Eastern Band Cherokee in North Carolina fought for the Confederates during the Civil War. As a result, the Cherokee were obliged to sign a new treaty with the federal government after the war. Reconstruction adversely impacted the Cherokee in North Carolina, as it did many minorities in the South.


Nonetheless, the Cherokee survived and asserted themselves and their culture through traditional customs like the artistic expressions found in the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual that the Cherokee formed in the 20th century. Today, the Cherokee rely on tourism and their casinos to support their local economy.

Politics and Economics

The Eastern Band of the Cherokee is considered a sovereign nation but one must be over 18 in order to become a member. Moreover, members must prove that they have an ancestor who is on the Baker Roll of 1924 and that they have at least 1/16th Cherokee blood (Eastern Band of the Cherokee, 2018). Its government is similar to that of the U.S. and consists of an executive branch with a chief and vice-chief, a legislative branch, consisting of 12 tribe members, and a judicial branch. Government officials are elected democratically and voter turnout is quite high, at 70%.

The main drivers of the Cherokee economy in North Carolina are tourism and gambling. Tourists come to the Cherokee territory in order to experience the natural beauty of the surroundings and step into the past to see what life was like for the Cherokee through artistic and dramatic performances. The casinos that the Cherokee operate bring in hundreds of millions of dollars annually for the Cherokee.

The Pros and Cons of Tourism in Native American Communities

Native American communities occupy a unique place in American society. In many ways isolated from the norms of Americana, they nonetheless possess a special advantage that arises from their cultural uniqueness: the ability to attract tourists to their communities. Just as the Amish have developed a niche market for the products they create, Native American communities offer an experience for tourists that cannot be obtained elsewhere.


Indeed, the tools that Native Americans have used for their cultural survival are found in their cultural and communal expressions: their traditions, their costumes, dances, stories, and performances. Just like the Eastern Band Cherokee with their dramatic performances that tell the story of their people, Native American communities use their cultural distinctiveness to facilitate their cultural survival. In today’s age in which diversity and culture are celebrated, Native American communities are in a unique position to benefit from positive interest and attention.

Yet, as Smith (1982) notes, Native American tribes are still pressed into providing an experience for tourists that is not entirely authentic. Tourists are more attracted to what they perceive to be “authentic” Native American items, such as arrow heads, blankets, belts, and pottery—yet these items are typically mass-produced specifically for tourists and have no real connection to the actual ancestry or culture of the tribe that the tourists are there to see. As a result, there is a distinct phoniness that is passed off into these wave of consumerism that nonetheless provides economic support for the Native American tribes. Tourists come to see teepees and totem poles and to have their pictures taken alongside these “replicas” without ever really considering the actual significance or meaning of these “Indian” artifacts or realizing that they have been constructed just to entertain the tourists and actually are not part of that specific tribe’s background at all (Smith, 1982). Thus, one of the tools of cultural survival for Native Americans is, ironically, their ingenuity and creative instinct, which allows them to perpetuate a stereotype that sells to tourists.

Therefore, one of the cons of tourism as a means of economic survival for Native American communities is the fact that in small ways the communities must sacrifice something of their own authenticity in order to attract tourists. Tourists are less interested in the reality of the Native American experience than they are in seeing the “iconic” imagery that they have associated with the Native American experience from exposure to cinema, movies of cowboys and Indians, and other artificial concepts that the West has come to associate with the Native American experience. Thus, while the Cherokee in Carolina made their homes out of mud, tourists might still expect to see teepees, even though the teepee was something that nomadic tribes used because it could be rolled up and transported easily. In order to satisfy the tourist’s desire for a “Native American experience,” the accommodating tribe will erect teepees, though they might actually have nothing to do with the tribe’s own actual history. In doing so, they are fabricating in a way their own existence—falsifying their origins in order to satisfy the cravings of the consumer. As Alexie (2007) puts it, the Indian’s plight in America is somewhat schizophrenic—torn as it is between being accommodating to a false sense of Native American traditions on the part of the “tourist” and being true to one’s heritage and one’s self.


Yet, the pros of tourism can be found in other ways. For instance, as Native Americans celebrate their real authentic heritage, their artistic works can be noticed and appreciated by a much larger audience thanks to the effects of tourism. So while many may come to see the knick-knacks and trinkets that they associate with Native American culture, they will nonetheless be exposed to actual culture through the works exhibited in museums and through the performances seen in dance and on the theatrical stage. Tribes can also demonstrate their use of their native language and show how their customs and traditions at the core of their culture and heritage are still in use to this day.


In fact, one of the more authentic methods of ensuring cultural survival is the passing on of the tribal language. At this endeavor, the Cherokee in North Carolina are particularly adept. As has already been shown, the Cherokee of Carolina require their students to learn the Cherokee language. Duncan (2015) points out that Cherokee members are doing everything they can to facilitate this endeavor. For instance, one particular tribal member has developed language software to make learning the Cherokee language easier for young students. Language being the main connection to the past, it is this that best helps the Cherokee to pass on to the next generation the cultural link needed for cultural survival. Language is recognized as one of the main ways that the Cherokee can sustain its culture—which is why it is viewed as being important that students in the Eastern Band learn it before graduating. This learning of the language is similar to what Jews do in Israel, or in Hebrew school, where they are taught the ancient language of the Hebrews. For the Cherokee, their language was created by Sequoyah in 1821, who made symbols for every sound in the language with a total of 85 characters being used to make up the Cherokee syllabary (Cherokee Preservation Foundation, 2018). By sustaining their language, the Cherokee can ensure that they maintain their identity into the future—and remain a place where tourists want to come—even if they are not sure exactly what they will find or even what they are looking for.


For whether tourism places constraints on the culture and community of the Native American community or whether it supports it economically, the fact of the matter is that tourism is a main source of stability for the Native American community. It is a tie between the tribe and the rest of the U.S. It is not the only one, though. Indeed, in some ways, the Native American community is much more in line with the surrounding United States than it might at first appear. For example, the political system of the Cherokee in Carolina is very similar to that of the U.S. The Cherokee have a three-branch system of government consisting of a legislative, judicial and executive branch. At the top of the government is the chief, and all government officials are elected via the democratic process. The big difference, of course, is the size of government. The Eastern Band consists of roughly 13,000 members today (Cherokee Preservation Foundation, 2018), whereas the U.S. numbers into the hundreds of millions. Yet, the smaller numbers make the democratic system more effective in the Eastern Band: voter turnout is much higher here than it is in the U.S. and the connectedness of members is much more grassroots and localized than it is in the United States.


The land is also important to the Cherokee in the Eastern Band and also plays a part in the tribe’s appeal for tourists. Being so near the Smokey Mountains, the Cherokee benefit from tourism year round as the southernmost portion of the Appalachian Mountains are inviting in every season. The Cherokee offer a different sort of attraction than that found at the Smokey Mountain lodges, however. They have 68,000 acres that they call the Land of Blue Smoke (Cherokee Preservation Foundation, 2018). The land connects the Tribe to nature, which facilitates their spiritual strength and devotion. Their commitment to the land also helps to foster their ancestral agrarian ways and their earthly and humble devotions. Preserving the Cherokee culture is related to their preservation of the land that they purchased and that is today theirs by right. This land is open to tourists in a number of ways—there are places to stay, places to sight see, and places where tourists can experience a way of life that used to be common in the land now known as America.


Thus, in this sense, tourism helps the Native American community to remember its own identity and place in history—and serves as a reminder of what has passed and where things stand today. The Cherokee of the Eastern Band serve as a testament to the great charity that enabled hundreds of the tribe to escape the forced migration of the Trail of Tears—and in this manner the community reflects a bond between white America and Native America.


Today, the Cherokee of the Eastern Band engage with the tourist industry by offering tickets to see its plays, opportunities to revisit the past in the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, the chance to see the Oconaluftee Indian Village, and the experience of Cherokee art in the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual. The Tribe performs “Unto These Hills” in its outdoor auditorium and offers tourists who want more convenient ways to relax the Sequoyah National Golf Club and the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort. Those who want to experience the outdoors in their fullest can enjoy fishing, hiking in the mountain trails, golf, scenic waterfalls, tubing, birding, horseback riding, biking, and more. The Cherokee Historical Association offers tourists of all ages the chance to learn more about the actual real-life history of the Cherokee, and historic sites like Mingus Mill are available for tours. Cherokee art is also available for purchase and provides tourists with plenty of wood-carved ornamental pieces that hold both charm and mystery for tourists.


In conclusion, tourism plays a significant role in the life of the Cherokee of the Eastern Band. The casino industry itself helps to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue every year. While the culture of the Cherokee may not be fully appreciated by tourists, the Eastern Band does make strides in engaging the tourism industry by offering ways in which tourists can learn more about the Cherokee, their history, their culture and their current setting. The Cherokee themselves look to preserve their culture by preserving their language and their land—and that is more than many Native American communities can say for themselves, especially when it comes to sustainability. Some must adopt stereotypical images—Indians with tomahawks and teepees and totem poles—in order to have any appeal.


Alexie, S. (2007). The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.


Carr, K. (2017). Cherokee environment and climate. Retrieved from


Cherokee North Carolina. (2018). The original ‘Unto These Hills’ is back. Retrieved from


Cherokee Preservation Foundation. (2018). About the Eastern Band. Retrieved from


Duncan, B. (2015). Cherokee man receives patent for language software, makes Cherokee easier to learn. Retrieved from


Eastern Band of the Cherokee. (2018). Cherokee. Retrieved from

Kutsche, P. (1963). The Tsali legend: Culture heroes and historiography. Ethnohistory, 10(4), 341-356.


Montgomery-Anderson, B. (2015). Cherokee reference grammar. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.


Mooney, J. (2006). Myths of the Cherokee and sacred formulas of the Cherokees. Fairview, NC: Bright Mountain.


Smith, E. (1982). Tourism and Native Americans. Retrieved from


United States Census. (2010). Eastern Cherokee Reservation. Retrieved from


Whyte, T. (2007). Proto-Iroquoian divergence in the Late Archaic-Early Woodland period transition of the Appalachian highlands. Southeastern Archaeology, 26, 134–144.


Wishart, D. (1995). Evidence of surplus production in the Cherokee Nation prior to removal. Journal of Economic History, 55, 1-13.

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