Tribal history says the Cherokee have been at home in the Great Smoky Mountain territory of western North Carolina for 11,000 years. That means the 99th Annual Cherokee Fair of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians on October 4-8 is a relatively new celebration. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have been reaching out to visitors with the message of “Shi-yo and welcome.”
This years 99th Annual Cherokee Indian Fair, held at the Cherokee Indian Fairgrounds on Highway 441 (Tsali Blvd.) in Cherokee, North Carolina.
“The fair was started to introduce visitors to the area, to our Cherokee crafts and culture, ” said Mary Ferguson, tribal director of travel and tourism for the tribe. “We love for people to come, and we love for people to learn about our culture.”
The fair is as colorful as its fireworks, with nightly entertainment, a lively carnival midway, food, crafts, games and activities for all ages. You’ve got Think Litefoot and Charlie Daniels on the music roster, and contests that choose not only Teen Miss Cherokee, but the man with the longest hair, the baby that crawls the fastest, and the most proficient shooter of the traditional blowgun. This is only a part of the five-day picture.
Guests who want to come along for the whole ride through a spectrum of fascinating heritage can watch the people’s history unfold through age-old artifacts or live re-enactments. Not far from the fairgrounds, the tribe maintains the lauded Museum of the Cherokee Indian as well as the Oconaluftee Indian Village, a re-created window to Cherokee life 250 years ago as a time of great change began.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is a federally recognized tribe that is separate from the more populous Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. The Eastern Band is made up largely of Cherokees who evaded the U.S. Government’s forced removal of 1838, the infamous Trail of Tears.
“The Cherokees in Western North Carolina today descend from those who were able to hold onto land they owned, those who hid in the hills, defying removal, and others who returned, many on foot,” elaborates an official history on the tribe’s web site. “Gradually and with great effort, they have created a vibrant society, a sovereign nation of 100 square miles where people in touch with their past and alive to the present preserve timeless ways and wisdom.”
Those ways that they’re preserving are part of the attraction that is marketed to visitors. On the tribe’s home page, one photo shows painted warriors commanding an awesome presence by a mountain waterfall. The caption tempts vacationers with ” tomahawks, blowguns, drumming, peace pipes, ancient clan masks, stirring legends, bows and arrows — are we there yet?”
Tourism is the second largest revenue source, Ferguson said, behind Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel, whose $650 million expansion is seen by 3.6 million guests a year, according to online information from the tribe’s Office of Planning and Development. Simply put, people are interested in Native American history and heritage, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians do a great job of showcasing their culture and tirelessly working on creating an indelible experience for the visitor.
Fair week is a vibrant time for visitors to take it all in. Some regular fair visitors are from other tribes such as Cree, Choctaw and Seminole, Ferguson said. But for the Eastern Band of Cherokee, the fair is also a time of “homecoming.”
“It has evolved into a big homecoming for our local families. Young people who have moved away for work or for whatever reason, schedule their vacation to come back for the fair,” said Ferguson, who is also vice president of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association.
“We always have a parade on the first day, and this year, the chief is going to have a run,” Ferguson noted, referring to health education initiatives of Principal Chief Michell Hicks, who was recently elected to a third term. “Our chief is focusing on diabetes and being active– walking, running, biking.”
During the 4 p.m. parade on the first day of the fair, Tuesday, Oct. 4, the fair’s theme for this year will be highlighted: “Cherokee Matriarchs, the Strength of Our Nation.”
“We’re honoring our women. From each community there is someone who has represented their people and has done work for their community and their people, chosen to ride on the Grand Marshall Float,” said Janice Wildcat, special events coordinator for the tribe. Her mother, Alice Panther Kekahbah, age 75, was selected from Big Cove, a community that has won several first-place trophies in community booth display competitions at recent years’ fairs.
Wildcat listed the planned schedule of nightly entertainment: Tuesday, the Drifters; Wednesday, Litefoot; Thursday (Elders Day) Hoss Howard and Raymond Fairchild (local buegrass); Friday, Hero and Mother’s Finest; Saturday, Charlie Daniels. The Cherokee Idol singing contest will be another big draw. Watch the “events” page of the web site for more fair details.
An exhibit hall at the fair displays an array of traditional and contemporary arts and crafts made by Eastern Band enrolled members. The Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, Inc. (“Qualla Arts”) at 645 Tsali Blvd. is a gallery that also features these arts.
“The Cherokee people are still in touch with the pottery, basket weaving, carving and tool making that go back over ten thousand years,” says the tribe web site’s introduction to Qualla Arts.
Bo Taylor of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian’s archives department extend that 11,000-plus year claim even a little farther. “I can say we’ve probably been here at least 12,000 years,” he said in a telephone interview. “A lot of stuff that they get in the museum is old…we knew this place like the back of our hands. It’s part of who we are.”
He added, “A lot of anthropologists like to say the Cherokee moved down from the north and killed off the people — well, that’s not how we do things. The people that were here more than likely integrated into what we call the Cherokee today. We’ve been in flux for thousands of years; that’s one thing that helped us to continue on.”
The Museum of the Cherokee Indian was praised as “One of the top ten native sites east of the Mississippi,” by Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian. Van Romans, of Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale, California, was also impressed when he wrote that “The Museum of the Cherokee Indian is revolutionary in its ability to tell stories, and should be a model to other museums that are struggling to engage their audience with their message,” on the tribe’s site.
The museum also features the Warriors of AniKituhwa, a dance group that performs the Cherokee War Dance and Eagle Tail Dance. Designated as official cultural ambassadors by the Tribal Council of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, they have performed at Colonial Williamsburg, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the ITB conference in Berlin, Germany, and throughout the Southeastern U.S.
The War Dance was used when men went to war, but also when meeting with other nations for diplomacy and peace, and within the Cherokee nation was also used to raise money for people in need. It conveys the strength of the Cherokee nation.
The area’s scenic beauty is part of the draw of the land the Cherokee also know as the “Qualla Boundary.”
For the fair, daily general admission is $10 and includes the nightly concerts. Children 6 and younger are admitted free. The fair opens at 10 a.m.
For more on attractions at the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians land and around the area, call the Cherokee Welcome Center at (800) 438-1601.