48 miles SW of Asheville
The Cherokee Nation once claimed around 135,000 square miles of land encompassing sections of South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky. When Hernando de Soto, the Spanish explorer, moved into the southern mountains of the Appalachian range in 1540, the Cherokees numbered only about 25,000 -- a very small number compared with the millions who now occupy former Cherokee land.
When Soto arrived, he forever changed the way the Cherokees lived. With him on his quest for gold in the name of Spain came misery, disease, and death. Some of Soto's men killed or enslaved many of the Native Americans, believing that they were holding back information about the location of treasure. It's estimated that during the first 200 years of European occupation, 95% of the Cherokees died of diseases that the foreigners brought with them. The treatment of the Cherokees did not improve in later centuries. When the Cherokees adapted well to the white man's ways and set up a flourishing society, greed and envy eventually culminated, in 1838, in the Trail of Tears. Most of the Cherokees were driven out of the area by military force, and their ancestral lands were taken away.
Today the Smoky Mountain home of the Cherokees has dwindled to 56,000 acres that make up the Qualla Boundary, also known as the Cherokee Indian Reservation. This land was purchased by a white man, Will Thomas, who gave it to the Cherokee people in the late 1800s. When you visit the reservation, you're entering a sovereign land held in trust specifically for the tribe by the United States government. Known as the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, the Cherokees who still reside here are descendants of the approximately 1,000 Cherokees who hid in these mountains to avoid forced removal to Oklahoma. These people can rightfully claim to be the original inhabitants of the vast Smoky Mountains.
Only a generation ago, the Cherokee language -- both the spoken form and the written form -- was in danger of becoming extinct. But since the late 1940s, annual increases in tourist-related business and the resultant growth of tribal resources have helped keep it alive. Today visitors can hear the language spoken at attractions such as the Oconaluftee Indian Village and during the outdoor drama Unto These Hills. In Cherokee schools, it's a required subject, and it has also become part of the curriculum of universities such as Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. Tourism is the mainstay of the economy; about 75% of the tribe's revenue is derived from this industry. All business locations within the Qualla Boundary are Native American-owned, but by the authority of the tribal council, Native Americans can lease their buildings or businesses to other people. Nearly 30 businesses hold trader's licenses and collect a 6% tribal levy on sales. No other sales tax applies within the boundary, including North Carolina sales tax.
On your visit here, you'll notice several "chiefs" dressed in Western attire. You can have your picture taken with them for a small fee or tip. Many of these "chiefs" have been around for quite a while, priding themselves on having their picture taken with two or three generations of the same family.
Foodies flock here at the end of March for the Rainbows & Ramps Festival, celebrating mountain trout along with ramps (the pungent, wild-onion and garliclike root vegetable). The festival includes music, horseshoe competitions, and a barbecue cook-off along with bushels of trout and ramps. For more information, call the Cherokee Welcome Center at tel. 800/438-1601.