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A hunger for history

CHEROKEE, N.C. – While many tribally-focused tourism enterprises have suffered from the current downturn in the nationwide economic climate, combined with last summer’s exceptionally high gas prices, officials with the Cherokee Historical Association can’t say the same.

“We’ve been holding steady,” said John Tissue, executive director of the association, which was founded in 1948. “We’re hoping that our strategic planning will help that trend continue.”

In 2008, when many tourism ventures were posting steep declines, the association’s offerings actually increased attendance over the previous year. It was the fourth straight year for increased sales and attendance.

“I think we’re in a time now where people have a hunger for more history.” – Linda W. Squirrel, “Unto These Hills” playwright

Tissue noted a three percent increase in visitation in 2008 over 2007, and an increase of 10 percent in revenue, despite the poor economy. He estimated that a combined 125,000 visitors took advantage of at least one of the association’s offerings.

“We are one of the only attractions in our area to show attendance gains over the previous year,” Tissue said. “If gas hadn’t been at $4, we would have done even better.”

Despite the positive reports, the proud executive director said that he and his small staff are not resting on their laurels. They have brainstormed ways to offer customers an entertaining experience, while still generating revenue.

Part of their process was to visit historic Williamsburg, Va., to get a sense of how that popular tourist attraction maintains its appeal. In recent years, they have also worked more closely with other cultural attractions in the area, including the Museum of the Cherokee Indians and artistic venues, to offer package deals and other synchronized collaborations.

The association’s mission – to perpetuate the history and culture of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians – is accomplished through two main avenues: The production of the outdoor drama, “Unto These Hills,” a historical retelling at the association’s impressive Mountainside Theatre; and the exhibition of the Oconaluftee Indian Village, a replica of a 1750s Cherokee Indian village.


Oconaluftee Indian Village.

The drama, which is in its 60th season, is billed as “the family show too large for any screen.” Through acting and dance, the show portrays the unique story of the Cherokee from a historical perspective through contemporary times.

The play has been reworked from its early roots to better trace the history and culture of the Cherokee people, according to Linda W. Squirrel, the playwright and association affiliate who helps guide the production.

“The story takes visitors from first contact with the Europeans through the Trail of Tears and up to the present. It was important for us to make this historically accurate. The Cherokee history is just so rich.”

Squirrel, whose husband and children are tribal members, said she is a history buff.

“I think we’re in a time now where people have a hunger for more history,” Squirrel said, speculating on why the association’s offerings have maintained their appeal. “They don’t want Hollywood – they want facts.”

The two-hour production runs nightly during the summer months, except Sundays.

Tissue noted that the home of the production, the Mountainside Theatre, has been around for 40 years, so he was happy to report that the tribe and the Cherokee Preservation Foundation have donated funding to help restore the facility.

As of late April, the theatre was undergoing a $1.8 million renovation focused on replacing and adding seats, as well as new steps, a state-of-the-art concession stand and upgraded restroom facilities. Better drainage is being added to the stage area, since it is outdoors.


“Unto These Hills” is a production by the Cherokee Historical Association.

The Oconaluftee replica, meanwhile, allows visitors to go back in time to see what it may have been like to live in a Cherokee village in the mid-18th century. From May through late October, attendees can take a self-guided tour of the village and see botanical gardens, traditional dancing and re-enactments.

Tissue said 2009 is the first year that visitors will be able to take self-guided tours to explore the village’s dwellings, residents and artisans.

“We wanted to make it a more Williamsburg-esque experience,” he said, noting that historic Virginia community offers many self-exploratory options. “We think it’s a more personal and rich experience.”

Acting coaches and training sessions have been offered to the many Cherokee members who work at the village, so they are comfortable interacting in 18th-century character with visitors.

For visitors who still want guided tours, they are available via premium packages. Families are going to be able to rent traditional heritage dress from the period for children to wear during their exploration, which is a newer addition.

Like the association’s theatrical production, the replica village is undergoing significant upgrades, including the addition of a council house and modifications that more accurately reflect knowledge of Cherokee heritage.

The village also hosts live re-enactments, interactive demonstrations and “Hands-On Cherokee” arts and crafts classes, and evening storytelling performances.

Beyond “Unto These Hills” and the replica village, the association is in the process of adding participatory children’s programming, which will focus on Cherokee language, storytelling, song and dance. The association is planning to produce and host another Cherokee-focused drama in coming years.

Beyond tribal contributions and ticket revenue, the association has been fortunate to receive grants from the Cherokee


Photo courtesy Dawn Arneach/Cherokee One Feather The cast of “Unto These Hills,” a production by the Cherokee Historical Association.

Preservation Foundation, Tissue said. The foundation aims to help preserve Cherokee culture, create economic development opportunities, and renew the environment in the Qualla Boundary and the seven counties of North Carolina in which tribal lands are located.

Susan Jenkins, executive director of the foundation, said the association’s projects and programs are quite worthy of support.

“We are really proud of what CHA has done,” Jenkins said. “They have helped build a sense of community, and have done so at a time of economic difficulty; how marvelous that local people have made such an accomplishment.”

Jenkins is especially pleased that the association uses resources in a positive stewardship way. It has been able to brand itself with other Cherokee cultural entities in recent years to strengthen itself; she predicted that attendance will continue to be steady this year.

“It really provides a bang for the buck. The opportunities for heritage tourists are just amazing.”


While the association does much to highlight the vibrant history and culture of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, it operates as an independent nonprofit entity. Tissue estimates that more than 90 percent of those who work with the association are Cherokee.

“We have a very close relationship with the tribe. They have made us what we are today.”

Tickets are available for purchase online.