Cherokee, North Carolina, part of the Qualla Boundary in the Great Smoky Mountains sub-chain of the Appalachians, is home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Indigenous peoples of the Southeastern Woodlands, the Cherokee lived in parts of the Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and North Carolina Appalachians before the 18th century. The 19th century brought advancements in tribal government, the development of a written Cherokee language, and a written constitution and other cultural milestones. The purchase of the Qualla Boundary, 57,000 acres of mountains, rivers, and ancient forests, seemed to solidify the Cherokee’s place alongside the European American settlers.
The European settlers classified the Eastern Band of the Cherokee as one of the “Five Civilized Tribes.” The agrarian culture of the Cherokee with its permanent villages, written language, and adaptation of some of the cultural practices of the European American settlers all contributed to what appeared to be the foundation for peaceful coexistence. A treaty in 1817 even allowed the Cherokee Indians to be one of the first non-European races to become U.S. citizens. But all that would change as the first half of the 19th century unfolded.
The Trail of Tears
In 1838, just as the Cherokee were making cultural advancements and establishing a peaceful relationship alongside the European American settlers in the Appalachians, the desire of the federal government for more land and valuable resources like gold led to the Indian Removal Act. The Act allowed the U.S. Government to remove the Southeastern Cherokee tribes from their native lands and would eventually all but eradicate the existence of the tribe in the Appalachians.
The Indian Removal Act was intially enacted as a way for the federal government to negotiate with Southeastern Indian tribes for their land. The Act attempted to recover areas such as the Qualla Boundry in exchange for relocating tribes to federal land west of the Mississippi. But as the opposition to these negotiations created resistance from much of the Cherokee, the Indian Removal Act would evolve from a negotiation tool to the forcible removal of most of the Cherokee. Approximately 16,000 Cherokee were forced to leave their home in the Appalachians and march west to Oklahoma on what has become known as the Trail of Tears.
It is estimated that up to half of the Cherokee tribe died on the Trail of Tears, nearly ending their existence in the Southeast. By 1850, the once thriving tribe that had lived in the Southeast for centuries consisted of less than 1000 Cherokee. Under an 1819 treaty, some Cherokee Indian landowners were allowed to remain, others resisted and moved deep into the mountains in hiding, and small groups eventually made their way back from Oklahoma. For the last century or so, the now decimated Cherokee tribe would work to reestablish their place once again in the Appalachians.
Resurgence and Restitution
Today, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has rebuilt their tribal membership to over 14000 members. Now recognized as a sovereign nation by the federal government, the Cherokee have slowly recovered as they struggled to regain their independence and preserve their culture in the Great Smoky Mountains. For much of the 20th century, the Cherokee have worked to evolve from a nearly extinct presence to a self-sustaining, flourishing people. The Cherokee have survived by working in manufacturing, textiles, and the tourism industry from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Just as the Indian Removal Act of the 1800s negatively changed the cultural and economic fate of the Cherokee, 1997 would bring positive change for the tribe with Harrah’s Cherokee Casino. As the manufacturing and textile plants closed or relocated, the tourism industry had become the primary source of income for the Cherokee. Until the casino was built, many tribal members worked in the seasonal tourism industry and depended upon government assistance the rest of the year. But the new casino would bring not only an economic boom that would allow the Cherokee to become once again self-sustaining, but it would also be the catalyst for the revival of the Cherokee culture.
Thanks to the revenue from the casino, the Cherokee tribe has been able to create significant improvements in education, employment, healthcare, and preserve their heritage, all without government assistance. With over 3.6 million visitors annually, the revenue from the casino generates a per capita profit of $8000 for tribal members, in addition to the income from employment at the casino and the other industries that have been created. Cherokee schools now teach the native Cherokee language, and the tribe fosters an on-going commitment to preserving and promoting their heritage. The creation of cultural attractions like the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, the Oconaluftee Indian Village, and the outdoor drama,“Unto These Hills,” that tells the story of the Cherokee from the 16th to the 21st century ensure that the Cherokee culture survives and flourishes in the Appalachia of North Carolina.