The morning sun rises over the highest mountains east of the Mississippi, filters through limbs of evergreen and deciduous forest trees, and shimmers on rushing mountain streams. With deep beliefs rooted in the earth and nature, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians look upon this area as a sacred place.
For visitors, Cherokee, N.C., is a window into another time and culture. It offers an opportunity to see the world through the eyes of this tribe, which can trace its presence back to 10,000 BC. Small groups camping in the Southern Appalachians left behind stone tools and artifacts that have been dated from that period.
Time and history feel different here. When Cleopatra sat on Egypt's throne, the Cherokees had settled in villages. When Vikings discovered Greenland, numerous Cherokee towns existed in western North Carolina and beyond. Their territory extended into parts of what is now Virginia, West Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky.
Today the 12,000-member Eastern Band of Cherokee owns 57,000 acres of tribal land in western North Carolina. Known as the Qualla Boundary, it's near the town of Cherokee, bordering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
While signs in the area refer to the "Cherokee Indian Reservation," it technically is not one, since the Cherokee people own the land, and the federal government holds it in trust for them.
The Qualla Boundary provides opportunities for visitors to experience Cherokee traditions, culture, and language. Travelers will enjoy watching crafts created by techniques handed down for thousands of years, listening to storytelling, hearing the Cherokee language spoken, and learning of the tribe's traditions.
The Museum of the Cherokee Indian sets the stage for a visit. Here artifacts, art, crafts, and hands-on exhibits detail the Cherokee experience from 11,000 years ago to today.
Established in 1946, Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual represents more than 300 Cherokee artists and craftsmen. The gallery features one-of-a-kind beadwork, basketry, carving, weaving, pottery, jewelry, masks, dolls, and more.
Oconaluftee Indian Village and Living History Museum showcases mid-18th-century Cherokee life. Making baskets, pottery, weaving, dugout canoes, and blow guns, as well as carving, flint knapping, and many other handicrafts are demonstrated in this replicated village.
A trip to the Cherokee area will be more enjoyable if the visitor has a grasp of the tribe's history.
The arrival of Europeans, beginning with Hernando De Soto's expedition in 1540, initiated tumultuous times. Along with brutality, theft, and disease came new tools, other manufactured items, and new knowledge. Alliances with the British and with the Americans often led to conflict and betrayal. By the late 1700s, Cherokee territory had shrunk by 75 percent.
The early 19th century brought brighter days. Some Cherokees adopted the ways of the new settlers and became prosperous. A Cherokee named Sequoyah originated a phonetic syllabary of the Cherokee language using 86 symbols, and a bilingual Cherokee newspaper appeared. As they developed a constitution and a national council, an independent Cherokee nation emerged.
But President Andrew Jackson supported the Indian Removal Act, aimed at moving all Indians from the Southeast. It passed in 1830. Despite lobbying aimed at rescinding the legislation, a new treaty was signed in 1835 without authorization from the Cherokee nation.
During 1838 and 1839 a 1,200-mile forced march banished the Cherokees to Indian Territory (Oklahoma). But small groups stayed behind, hiding in the mountains, and others walked back from Oklahoma. Most of the current Eastern Cherokee Band descended from these thousand or so ancestors.
Despite US government recognition of the Cherokees in 1889, their difficulties continued. They were denied the right to vote. Children were separated from families, sent to federally operated boarding schools, and forbidden to speak the Cherokee language. Improvement during the 20th century was gradual. The Cherokees regained control of their schools in 1990, ensuring that their heritage and language would be preserved.
"Unto These Hills," an outdoor drama presented from early June through late August by the Cherokee Historical Association, tells the story of the Cherokees and the Trail of Tears.
"The Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook" is a helpful traveler's resource. A website (www.cherokeeheritagetrails.org) as well as a book, it was developed by the University of North Carolina Press in association with the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. Both provide a concise but thorough history of the Eastern Band of the Cherokees.
At the end of the guidebook itself are four Cherokee stories. Read them like poetry; listen for the rhythm of the voices. You may begin to get a sense of the people and their heritage.
Museum of the Cherokee Highway 441 and Drama Road, Cherokee, N.C.; (828) 497-3481; www.cherokeemuseum.org.
Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual 645 Tsali Blvd., Cherokee, N.C.; (828) 497-9193; www.insidenc.com/mountain/qualla coop.htm.
Oconaluftee Indian Village US Highway 441 North, Cherokee, N.C.; (828) 497-2315 (May 15 to Oct. 25) or (828) 497-2111 (off season); www.oconalufteevillage.com.
"Unto These Hills" Highway 441 North, Cherokee, N.C.; 866-554-4557; www.untothesehills.com.