Oconaluftee Indian Village offers time-travel experience


CHEROKEE, N.C. - Making a canoe doesn't seem like such a big deal. All it takes is a few power tools and a little know-how; or, even better, a trip to the local sporting goods store. Boating enthusiasts hit the water all the time and many never stop to wonder how boats were made centuries ago. One trip to the Oconaluftee Indian Village in Cherokee - where the Cherokees recreate the painstaking six-month task of hulling a canoe - will change the way guests look at these floating vessels forever.

The same can be said for baking bread, taking medicine, making a bed and turning up the thermostat. In this Cherokee village, an authentic replica dated to the mid-1700s, many simple tasks take on new significance for the people who visit. Cherokee has created a time travel experience that gives guests a fun and interesting way to think about life at home. And to realize the impact technology has had - for better or worse.

''Wandering through the village, you can't help but relate these activities to our own daily tasks,'' said James Bradley, executive director of Cherokee Historical Association. ''We are all so focused on multi-tasking and technological advances help us do that. Coming here you can slow down to recognize the beauty of doing one thing at a time and doing it well. Our culture celebrates that idea.''

Residents of this replica village are involved in numerous activities - many still practiced today - that visitors see while on tour. Canoe hulling is one example. This lengthy process catches many by surprise - it looks like nothing more than a huge downed tree with a smoldering fire in the center. This process, as the crafter explains, is a traditional burning method that creates an opening in the center of the log. The tree is packed with clay, which causes the fire to burn towards the center, and the burned sections are chipped away using stone tools. After six to eight months, the resulting canoe will be 20 to 30 feet long and hold 12 passengers.

Nearby, a Cherokee wife is home preparing a fire and waiting patiently until it is just right for making bread - corn pones or bean bread were common - from cornmeal that is ground by hand. There is no bread machine here. The family meals are served in pottery dishes that are also carefully made, often by the same hands that grew and cooked the food in them. The potterymaking techniques on display during this tour were handed down through generations and are still used by Cherokee artists today.

In a nearby home, an earthenware pot may be found boiling with a special tea made from one of many medicinal herbs used by Cherokee healers. Blackberry leaves and roots were prepared to treat many ailments, from relieving swollen joints to soothing a sore throat. Bark of the black gum tree was steamed to help with chest pain. The village includes a sweat lodge where Cherokee healers would help the sick, boiling herbs to make a steam that could be inhaled or crushing leaves over hot rocks to make a paste. This insulated lodge allowed the vapors and steam to be enclosed for better concentration.

Many guests arrive at Oconaluftee Indian Village expecting tipis and wigwams like in the movies. These dwellings were common for other tribes that moved around, but the Cherokee Indians settled in this region and therefore built more permanent housing. At the center of village is the seven-sided council house, where the sacred fire burns to symbolize the strength and unity of the Cherokee people. Inside, the house has benches along its sides to seat members of the seven clans of the tribe for trials and discussions of tribal matters.

Guests on tour will find a variety of structures, including some late-1700s cabins made of hewn logs, as well as earlier hut-like homes with brush and clay roofs. Here, making a cozy bed requires more than fluffing a few sheets. Cherokee men and women actually ''made'' the beds using oak frames and boughs of hemlock or broom sage. Warm covers of buffalo and beaver skin were laid on top. During western North Carolina winters, there was no way to efficiently heat these structures on frosty nights. Cherokee families built cave-like rooms underground called hothouses. Like a carefully set thermostat, the earth regulated the heat while families slept around a slowly burning fire.

Throughout the village, Cherokee guides share stories about the great history and tradition of the tribe. Tales such as the meaning of the Booger Dance and the famed Eagle dances are explained with great enthusiasm and intrigue. The storyteller's visual pictures captivate guests who enjoy a forgotten pastime - quietly listening and imagining. The addition of Native dress, seeing activities such as maskmaking and arrowhead knapping, and witnessing authentic scenery all combine to create a most unique storytelling experience.

''Our village is the one place guests immerse themselves in our past and gain an understanding of how it shaped our rich traditions,'' Bradley said. ''We constantly research our heritage, making changes and additions - like the new Native dress added this year - to make the attraction truly authentic. It is a fun experience for everyone.''

In addition to the village, Cherokee features the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, interpreting the tribe's history in the Smoky Mountains; tribal art galleries such as Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual; and the region's renowned outdoor drama ''Unto These Hills.'' For more information, visit www.cherokee-nc.com or call (800) 438-1601.