Barbara Duncan, the education director at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, has worked at the nonprofit for 22 years. During that time she has witnessed an increased awareness among visitors to the Qualla Boundary, the territory held in trust for members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Today’s tourist, she says, “has a much greater level of knowledge and desire for authentic experiences.”
Yet not all guests arrive with the same breadth of understanding. “We do see visitors who, just shortly before they came to Cherokee, didn’t think any American Indians were still alive,” she explains. “Or there are people who really just know the one thing about the Cherokees, which is the Trail of Tears” (the 1838 expulsion of an estimated 16,000 Cherokees from their homeland to territory farther west).
Historian and author Christopher Arris Oakley hopes to change these common misconceptions with the publication of his latest book, New South Indians: Tribal Economics and the Eastern Band of Cherokee in the Twentieth Century. As its title suggests, the book guides readers through the tribe’s more recent history, concluding with the 1997 opening of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.
On Tuesday, Sept. 25, Oakley, an associate professor of history and department chair at East Carolina University, will discuss his new work at UNC Asheville. His talk will address the social and political challenges confronted by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians throughout the 20th century, as well as some of the consequences that resulted from the tribe’s venture into the tourism industry.
For Sarah Judson, the event organizer and UNCA associate professor of history and Africana studies, Oakley’s presentation fits into the university’s ongoing effort to engage and provide a platform for scholars of indigenous and Cherokee studies. “In the world of academia, it’s a flourishing, vibrant field,” she says, noting that last fall the university introduced a new minor in American Indian and Indigenous studies. Meanwhile, UNCA and the EBCI have an ongoing agreement that aims to increase the overall admission of tribal members; currently, the university has 19 enrolled Cherokee students.
Despite these advances, Judson believes many in the community remain unaware of the region’s rich past. She considers Oakley’s presentation another opportunity for the university to shed light on the subject matter.
The tourist dollar
“If you look at the classics in Southern history throughout the 20th century … they focus on white-male-dominated political history,” Oakley says. While that narrow perspective has broadened more recently to include African-Americans, poor whites and other immigrant groups in the Southern narrative, he says, “for modern Indian history that never really happened.”
The story of the modern Cherokee, Oakley argues, is part of the larger history of the South, and in his book he chronicles themes such as the limitations Native Americans faced during the Jim Crow South and the ways the Cherokees used President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs to expand the tribe’s economic opportunities.
As tourism flourished in the mountains in the 20th century, the Cherokees increasingly participated in the growing industry. In 1933, more than 40,000 natives and non-natives attended the Cherokee Fair’s 20-year anniversary. Its success encouraged tribal leaders to further explore the potential of the tourism industry. The following year, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park opened, bringing even greater exposure to the region.
New tourist attractions would continue to develop. For example, in 1946, the Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual opened, with a mission to showcase and sell quality handmade goods. And in the summer of 1950, the dramatic production Unto These Hills debuted at the tribe’s new Mountainside Theater (see “Asheville Archives: ‘The truth often is brutal,'” Nov. 19, Xpress).
With tourists came income — and problems. Tribal members made cultural compromises to meet the expectation of the region’s growing clientele. “In the ‘50s and ‘60s, most of the information that visitors had regarding Native Americans, frankly, was based on Hollywood Westerns,” says Oakley. “They went to the movies, they saw Indians dress a certain way on screen and that’s what they expected to see when they visited.”
As Oakley notes in his book, this expectation limited the development of other industries within the Qualla Boundary. “Visitors wanted to see stereotypical chiefs, squaws and warriors living in harmony against a backdrop of scenic mountains, not Cherokee blue-collar laborers heading off to the manufacturing jobs,” he writes. “Small-scale industry would be acceptable, therefore, as long as it did not deter the tourist dollar.”
Along with imposing limitations on certain industries, the romanticization of a historically inaccurate past also created a time warp for many Native Americans. “For most people, cultural evolution is accepted,” Oakley says. “But for some reason Indians are expected to stay trapped. If they’re not living and acting the way that their ancestors did in the 1880s, that somehow makes them less Indian.”
This dilemma, says Duncan of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, persists today. “For many of the Cherokee people I know, they feel that they are kind of walking a fine line — this balancing act between being able to participate in their culture in a meaningful way, while also still being part of the modern world and the larger culture.”
For UNCA senior and history major Dakota Brown, a lack of historical understanding is an obstacle she and other Cherokee members regularly face. “The native experience is extremely unique to what most Americans experience,” she writes in an email. “I often have to deal with ignorant comments by other students, and most are not meant out of malice; they truly do not know how to even approach a conversation on my culture and history.”
Oakley hopes individuals who attend the talk will come away with a better appreciation for the complexity of the Cherokee past, as well as a greater sense of the tribe’s present-day initiatives and future possibilities. “Indian culture is very open to change,” he says. “It has never been something that is static. And I hope people realize that the perseverance of Indian people in the South, in this case the Cherokees, is truly remarkable.”
WHAT: Christopher Arris Oakley discusses his latest book, New South Indians: Tribal Economics and the Eastern Band of Cherokee in the Twentieth Century
WHERE: UNCA’s Karpen Hall, 1 Campus View Road
WHEN: Tuesday, Sept. 25, 6 p.m. Free