Cherokee Indians Teach Tourists in North Carolina
Cherokee Indians Teach Tourists in North Carolina

<!-- IMAGE -->

In 1838, the Cherokee were forced to give up their land in the east and migrate to what is now Oklahoma.  More than 4,000 died on the journey known as the Trail of Tears, but some Cherokee remained behind, hidden in the mountains of Appalachia. Our correspondent visits their modern descendants, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Cherokee, North Carolina, draws many tourists, especially in the summer. If they stick to the commercial district, they may be misled by what they see:

"We didn't live in teepees," said Little Hawk Brown.

Little Hawk Brown says it's important to educate tourists

"They'll come here and might be ignorant not knowing about my culture, and I think it's my job to inform them and make sure that they know so they leave with a better understanding."

<!-- IMAGE -->

Tourists can learn at events like this, where Brown and other members of the Warriors of AniKituhwa perform traditional Cherokee dances. They can also visit the tribal museum, an arts and crafts shop and a living history museum that shows what Cherokee life in the mid-18th century was like, from how Cherokee hunted, to the types of homes they DID live in.

Tourism provides the funding for all of these cultural enterprises.

"We've been involved with tourism for many, many years," said Michell Hicks.

Michell Hicks is principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

The Cherokee say they have lived here for 11,000 years.  When the U.S. government forced the tribe to move west in 1838, ancestors of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians hid in the mountains.  

Today, 8,000 Cherokee live on the 225 square kilometer eastern Cherokee reservation. Tourism is the primary source of income for the tribe, with the casino, which opened in 1997, leading the way:

"It was controversial at the time," said Hicks. "It's a moral issue; it's a value issue, so sure there was quite a stir when it was approved.  I'm not sure if you were to evaluate it today what the approval rate would be, but I would say it would be pretty high. The casino has brought a lot of resources that have helped us."

The tribe says 80 percent of casino management and about a third of the employees are tribal members.
Like every member, Myrtle Driver receives direct income from the casino twice a year.  In June, that payment was more than $3,800. Driver used it to pay for her driveway and toward the construction of her new home. But she would like to see more businesses in town run by the Cherokee and fewer teepees:

"It's non-Indians that lease the property, put those damn things up in front of their doors and on top of the properties because they are ignorant," said Myrtle Driver. "And as long as they get that dollar they would rather stay ignorant.  In order for the tribe to bring in more income, they are going to have to manage these businesses themselves."

She believes that time is coming.   

"I am very optimistic; because more and more are young people are putting the value on education," she said.

Chief Hicks is also optimistic:

"I think over the next 5 to 10 years we are going to see significant growth here in Cherokee," he said.

And with that growth, Hicks says, will come businesses which will take into account not just tourists, but the Cherokee who live here.