North Carolina’s Cherokee Heritage

By: Sarah Crossland

May 8, 2015

When Spanish explorers recorded Native Americans in the mid-16th century, it was the first time those outside of Native American cultures became aware of the Cherokee Nation. But this group’s rich history extends much deeper into what is now the United States, especially in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. Today, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation is the only tribe recognized by the federal government in North Carolina. Its sovereign nation, which is located in the mountainous western section of the state, is a picturesque natural region brimming with culture. It’s an ideal destination for those interested in learning about Cherokee heritage and history, and experiencing the beautiful setting of the tribe’s traditional homelands.


Cherokee History

North Carolina's Cherokee Heritage
Visit Cherokee for Independence Day to see the annual 4th of July Powwow festival and performances © Visit North Carolina

Today, there are more than 350,000 members of the Cherokee Nation, which makes it the largest federally recognized Native American tribe in the United States. Its history with the country and its settlers though has been a mixed one. In the 1600s the tribe had established a trading system with British and Spanish settlers, trading items like deerskins and food. By 1788, the Cherokee had organized their own national government and they acted as an ally with the United States in the war against the British in 1812. They were one of the first non-European groups to be offered United State citizenship when an 1817 treaty with the Cherokees stated that they could become citizens if they wished. However, the Cherokee Nation is also known for being a part of one of the most tragic aspects of American history: The Trail of Tears. In the 1830s, under the Indian Removal Act, thousands of Cherokee people were forcibly relocated to Arkansas and Oklahoma from their homes in the Southeastern United States. Now, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation is located in the tribe’s traditional homelands, where it tells the story of its history with both the land and the people.


Cherokee, North Carolina

North Carolina's Cherokee Heritage
The Cherokee Nation in North Carolina is in the beautiful Appalachian Mountains © Visit North Carolina

The sovereign nation of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation is located in the picturesque Oconaluftee River Valley at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Cherokee, with a population of a little more than 2,000 people, is the headquarters for the tribe. The natural scenery, gorgeous wildlife, and cultural attractions, as well as the popular Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, draw almost four million people here annually. In this charming mountain town you’ll find the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, the Oconaluftee Indian Village, and the Qualla Arts and Craft Mutual, among other area draws. Visitors here can enjoy hiking along wooded trails, swimming in the clear mountain water, or enjoying the area’s art and culture at one of its many galleries, shops, or open air markets.


Nature’s Backdrop

North Carolina's Cherokee Heritage
This region is full of mountain trails and beautiful waterfalls, such as Cullasaja Falls © Visit North Carolina

For the Cherokee people, nature is about balance, with all animals, plants, and people being equal. Spend some time in their gorgeous native home in the North Carolina mountains and you’ll see why. On warm summer days the Oconaluftee River is perfect for a swim or canoe trip, while nearby trails lead to attractions like Mingo Falls, a 120-foot waterfall tucked into the lush forest. On the southern end of the famed Blue Ridge Parkway, this region sits on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a half a million acre park which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of the Appalachian Mountain chain. The area is popular for trout fishing, with more than 30 miles of streams brimming with the mountain fish, and you’re likely to spot wildlife like elk grazing in nearby fields.


Art and Crafts

North Carolina's Cherokee Heritage
Visit the Islands Park Art Market, an open air artist market in Cherokee, to see and buy from local artists creating pieces like this pottery © Visit North Carolina

If you’re looking for authentic Native American tribal art – both from the past and present – Cherokee, NC is filled with offerings. The Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, which was founded in 1946 and is the oldest Native American arts cooperative, features both traditional and fine art for sale. To purchases pieces – and possibly even meet the artists behind them – stop by the Islands Park Art Market, where artists create woodwork, beadwork, sculpture, baskets, pottery, and more. The open-air market is open daily to the public. Or, if you’d prefer to view the tribe’s historical art on display, visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, which features cultural pieces that educate visitors about Cherokee heritage and history.


Cherokee Culture

North Carolina's Cherokee Heritage
Unto These Hills is staged throughout the summer in the town’s Mountainside Theatre and has run for more than 60 years, making it the third oldest outdoor historical drama in the United States © Visit North Carolina

For the Cherokee people, history is passed through generations via stories in performance and ritual. Nowhere is this more evident in modern day than in the famed Unto These Hills, a performance that tells the history of the tribe in Cherokee’s Mountainside Theater. The summertime performance, which debuted in 1950 and has had more than six million viewers since, shares the story of the leader Sequoyah, the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, and the Trail of Tears, among other prominent moments in the Cherokee’s history.


Visit Cherokee

North Carolina's Cherokee Heritage
Cherokee, NC features festivals throughout the year, which often include performers telling the story of the tribe through costume, song, and dance © Visit North Carolina

Nestled in western North Carolina’s mountains, Cherokee is a beautiful destination year round. But the summer and autumn may be the best times to pay this scenic city a visit. The 18-hole Sequoyah National Golf Course, which was designed by Robert Trent Jones II, is a favourite in the warmer months. Trout fishing and fly-fishing are popular throughout the year, with festivals and competitions for both held in the autumn. During the summer you’ll also find festivities like Music on the River on weekend nights in downtown featuring live music from local performers, as well as the Cherokee Bonfire on weekend nights with storytellers in period dress sharing moments from Cherokee heritage and history. Visit the destination’s website to find more information on seasonal festivals like the 4th of July Powwow with traditional performances, or the Haunted Indian Village in the weeks before Halloween in October.


Partnering with Delta means we can connect you to numerous destinations across the United States and Canada. Booking flights to North Carolina couldn’t be easier.


Have you visited Cherokee? What have you discovered about Cherokee heritage on your travels in North Carolina? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.


Written by Sarah Crosland


Sarah Crossland

Sarah Crosland lives in Charlotte and covers the city and region for numerous publications. The North Carolina native has been a travel writer for almost a decade, but her first love has always been food. She authored the book Food Lovers’ Guide to Charlotte and her next book, 100 Things to do in Charlotte Before You Die, is available in 2014.

Categories: Our Places