Whether you take it into or out of the area, make sure that you travel part of your mountain trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s not a true mountain trip unless you travel the tops of those mountains that could be considered robbers in that they steal your gaze as they just quietly demand attention as you drive along. Breath-taking, majestic, and a wonder to behold if you take the time to look, really look, at them. Flowers, rocks, trees–living things that feed back into you what life can sometimes strip away. The drive itself was a vacation!
Now, let me take you with me into Cherokee, NC. Funny, when I was planning my little getaway, two friends reacted quite surprised that I would want to spend much time there. Cherokee, NC is a town where the majority of residents belong to the Cherokee Nation. My friends’ dismay came from a good place, as they both love their Native American brothers.
I had been there years ago and knew instinctively why they were wondering about my decision. I had seen and taken part in some of the Native American “culture” in the little mountain town that sits on the “boundary” along the Cherokee Nation’s land. Brightly dressed and feather-adorned local residents had lined the streets, performing dances under large tipi’s and singing and playing drums for the tourists who were crowding the small streets for a look at what they deemed to be “native culture.” Other tourists crowded into all the small stores and restaurants whose supply of t-shirts and continuous store fronts seemed to never end. A carnival atmosphere seemed to invade every nook and cranny. Slow moving cars and multitudes of pedestrians added a certain amount of sensationalism to the entire picture. It was definitely not an experience that I look back upon with any type of appreciation, except for what it afforded me on this most recent trip.
Unless you are a Native American reading this story, you and I will never
understand what it feels like to be told that you can only live in a certain geographic area, or that you must leave land that was yours for generations without any compensation. For the purposes of these articles, the entire history of this great people will not be debated here; however, some facts will come out through the process of exploring the area. It must be said that the Cherokee Nation and other Native American peoples were forced by our “white” ancestors to leave a land that had been inhabited by the “red” man for generations before white men ever thought of looking for this country. It must also be said that our “white” ancestors initiated a chain of events of which the Native American people are still trying to recover. In order to fully experience the true culture and magnitude of a people or a particular area, you must be willing to accept the truth that is housed in both the people and the area. Only then can you be used as a change agent while you are on such a trip as this.
Wherever we go, if our hearts are where they should be, we will always be shown what is grievous to Someone Else. While we, ourselves, cannot go back into time and right was wrong, we can work in this time through acts of prayer and compassion to undo what was done in the place that it matters the most–in the spirit. A hug, a smile, and welcoming word can go a long way to bridge a gap between races that still exists due to the choices and decisions of our ancestors. There are still opportunities to build rewarding relationships with people of all races, when we are seeking to do so.
If you ever decide to go to Cherokee, NC or any other boundary for that matter, do yourself a favor: skip the tourist shops when possible. You know the ones: t-shirts, candy, toys, and items that you saw in the last town you were in–only they had a different name stamped on it. Take a real walk through the culture and history of a people and their place in American history by seeking out authentic establishments. In these businesses, you will find real people who are seeking to live a real life doing what they do best—not exploit the heritage that is theirs. You might even make a new friend or have a conversation that will turn into a memory that no gaudily stamped coaster or key chain can be compared. There are plenty of places to do that in Cherokee.
The first place that you might want to visit is Talking Leaves Bookstore. The name, Talking Leaves, is what the Indians called the papers that Americans wrote on. They said that the “leaves” spoke. And, in many ways, good and bad, they did–through the words that were written on them. The Native Americans had never seen writing, in fact, their own syllabary was created by Sequoyah in the early 1800’s and not adopted by the Cherokees until 1821. Inside of this establishment, the written words on “leaves” still speak. The pages here tell the secrets, spiritual beliefs, and practices of Native Americans, as well as the happy times and sad events in their history. In addition, one can find publications about historical figures, outlaws, and many other highly esteemed men and women who have made a difference in the lineage of all Native Americans. The Native Americans’ colorful past as well their hopes for the future are both topics that are well stocked in this great little store. Taking the time to read about what one will see in this little town can transform the perspective on the Cherokee experience.
If you are more of a casual learner, plan on attending a performance of Unto These Hills. This play, written in 1952, is the nation’s second longest-running outdoor drama and is performed nightly at the beautiful Mountainside Theater. The history of the Cherokees is played out by local residents and is an eye-opening, yet entertaining, history lesson. While watching the descendants of those whom the story is really about, it is difficult not to realize how intimately the races are connected. The truth delivered in this play is sobering and educational, yes, but packaged in fresh air, stars, and drama, it’s more touching than any account in any history book you’ll ever read.
Before the show, be sure to enjoy dinner at Paul’s Family Restaurant.
Don’t worry, a seat on the deck near the little stream with its rushing water will drown out the traffic on the main drag–trust me on this. The waitress was right: the flatbread tacos were awesome! And for dessert, give yourself permission to enter at least one tourist shop like the Cherokee Fudge & More. It’s just across the street from the parking lot for the shuttle to the play. I don’t know about the “More” but, the “Fudge” will melt in your mouth.
The Native American people are such a wondrous group. They have weathered many storms and managed to retain a remnant of their heritage in today’s modern world. They are actively seeking to maintain their culture and traditions that have supported their walk. I’m sure that their belief in the Great Spirit has something to do with their resiliency in our society and in their every day lives–and after all, isn’t that where the rubber hits the road? — Iris Lloyd, feature writer
Note: Paul’s Family Restaurant, 1111 Tsali Boulevard, Cherokee, NC