The History and Culture of  the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians

In the Great Smoky Mountains in Western North Carolina, the Eastern Band of Cherokee throws open its doors and warmly invites you to visit to learn about their culture and history. As you learn the story of their origins, past tragedies, and into their resilient and proud present, you’ll understand quickly that everything is presented with a focused eye to a bright future.

Museum of Cherokee Indian group photo
The Museum of the Cherokee Indian.

Who Are the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians?

Hundreds of years ago, the Smoky Mountains were home to numerous Cherokee villages spanning across a vast geographic area throughout Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee. Here they had substantial houses – not the teepees you might expect – and there were multiple trade routes throughout the mountains. As European settlers began moving into the region the Cherokee were eager to learn skills from their new neighbors and traded goods with them. By the late 17th century, they had learned how to grow new foods like watermelon and peaches.

The Tribe continued to coexist with settlers for many years in the beginning of the 18th century, but things became more difficult over time. A smallpox epidemic ravaged the Tribe, the military raided and destroyed numerous villages, and numerous peace treaties were made and broken, which led to the Tribe losing 75% if the land they once occupied.

During the Revolutionary War, the Cherokee aligned with the British. Once the war was over, the leaders of a new America began laying the groundwork to forcibly relocate the Cherokee Tribe.

Just prior to the U.S. government moving 14,000 members of the Cherokee Nation off their land in the North American southeast to Arkansas and Oklahoma on the “Trail of Tears”, a small band of Cherokees were given permission to remain in Western North Carolina.

Known as the Oconaluftee Cherokee, they were recognized as separate from the rest of the Cherokee Nation. Together with rebels who hid successfully in the mountains to avoid capture and removal, and others who escaped back home after arriving in Oklahoma, this band became known as the Eastern Band of Cherokee.

During the removal, it’s estimated that a quarter to half of the tribe died along the way, hence the name “Trail of Tears.”

To understand how the Cherokee people have survived almost insurmountable odds for thousands of years, just look to the values at the heart of their culture: Spirituality; Group Harmony; Strong Personal Character; Commitment to Stewarding the Land, Values-oriented Education and a Good Sense of Humor.  In hand with these,

Honoring the past by knowing one’s ancestors, identifying with and belonging to the tribe, and living and preserving Cherokee culture”

is woven through every aspect of their language, food, art, storytelling, games, music, and dance. For the best understanding of what you will experience on your trip, read about these tenets and more at Cherokee Preservation Foundation before your visit.

The Cherokee Community

In the early 1800s, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee government adapted their tribal government to include executive, legislative and judicial branches and a constitution. The tribe lives on the sovereign land they own across five Western North Carolina counties and underwrites the full cost for Cherokee schools, emergency services and other community needs without federal financial assistance.

The Cherokee Tribe especially treasures their near-extinct Cherokee language as a means for next generations to understand their past and preserve their future. At New Kituwah Academy, the “cultural and Cherokee language campus” for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, K to Grade 6 students learn to translate traditional skills and language to develop strong individuals and an increasingly resilient community. Always with an eye to the future, the school teaches tribal youth that they can still embrace modernity without giving up their sovereign rights or traditions. In nearby Cullowhee, NC, Western North Carolina University offers both undergraduate and graduate programs in Cherokee Studies.

What To Do When Visiting Cherokee

cherokee unto these hills warrior
Unto These Hills

The first stop on your visit to Cherokee, NC should be the Cultural District of Cherokee and the Museum of Cherokee Indians, where you will be fascinated by interactive stories and displays as you uncover the 11,000-year known history of the Cherokee Indians.

Settle around the holographic Cherokee storyteller at his fire to hear tales in the original oral tradition. Perhaps you’ll hear the story of Tsali, a Cherokee Indian warrior who killed a US soldier and then, to save his tribe from the Trail of Tears, turned himself in. If you are interested, you can also see the actual rifle used to execute Tsali.

Next, explore the Oconaluftee Indian Village, a living-history museum that replicates everyday life in an 18th-century Cherokee village. You will be escorted by a very knowledgeable tour guide (at 15-minute intervals) on the trails that pass by sacred sites and ancient dwellings and work areas. Your cultural expert also will lead you through the “Craft Line,” where you can learn finger-weaving, basket-making, beadwork, and pottery-throwing from actual artisans who demonstrate the methods of their forebearers.

One of the most unique aspects of this whole adventure is how the Oconaluftee natives welcome your interaction, even as they demonstrate how to hull a canoe, carve a mask, and utilize remarkable weaponry, like blow guns! Don’t be surprised if you momentarily lose yourself in the moment during the “living history” portion of your visit. People often report “getting the chills” or “goosebumps” when they witness the historical battle reenactment. For even more insight, take in a special show of Cherokee tribal dancing or invite a native villager to grab a snack at a picnic table with you. Even if you’re self-conscious at first, you will soon discover their sincere desire to share the past, present, and future of their People with you.

Seen by over 6 million people, “Unto These Hills” is a live, outdoor stage production that tells the story of the Cherokee People from 1780 to the 21st Century. Performed at the newly renovated, 2100-seat Mountainside Theatre, the drama grabs you and keeps you riveted to your seat. The audience gasps and sobs along with the story, their echoes bouncing off the deep surrounding forest, until the crowd finally finds reasons to cheer triumphantly. This is the moment you start to comprehend the Cherokee People. (Insider Tip: The Mountainside Theatre is located near the end of Drama Rd. Keep driving until you see the gold-and-maroon sign. Parking is free.) Learn more here.

Where To Shop

Of course, you will want to take home a piece of authentic Cherokee, NC, and no visit would be complete without a shopping trip to the oldest Native American Co-op in the U.S., Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual Co-op. (“Qualla” is the name of the territory held in trust by the U.S. Government for the Eastern Band of Cherokee.) Hosting over 350 Cherokee artisan members, the co-op offers high-quality Cherokee art and crafts using many of the traditional methods you saw at the Oconaluftee Indian Village.

Native American Craft Shop is another can’t-miss gallery where you can purchase limited-edition giclée prints and rustic home furnishings from the Eastern Band of Cherokee and other Native American artists and crafters.

At the Traditional Hands Native American Jewelry and Art Gallery, immerse yourself in the sights, sounds and smells of Native Cherokee art, spears and drums but also give yourself a few extra minutes to try on the elaborate sterling silver jewelry from Cherokee Master-Silversmith General B. Grant, highlighting his 47 years of tradition and skill. Pay close attention to the creations that feature “Wampum” or Quahog shell, and other meaningful gemstones.

Where To Eat

The Eastern Band of Cherokee has sustained a lifestyle of hunting, gathering and agriculture over thousands of years. They primarily hunt(ed) deer, bear, birds, fish and small mammals, foraged for wild mushrooms and wild ramps, and grew what are known as the “three sisters” – corn, beans, and squash.

Lucky you can try delicious, traditional Cherokee cooking within just a short walk. Schedule your vacation around a famous Cherokee, NC festival, like Rainbows and Ramps (featuring rainbow trout and wild leeks), or the BBQ and Bluegrass Throwdown. Or, visit a local eatery like Native Brews Tap and Grill for unbelievable Fried Deviled Eggs or Paul’s Family Restaurant for Indian tacos in fry bread. The “Indian Specialties” portion of the menu will definitely make your Instagram!

Of course for both casual munching and/or an unparalleled gourmet culinary encounter, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort in both Cherokee and Murphy, NC offer crème de la crème world-class dining experiences.

Outdoor Adventure

“The Little Brother of War” (Indian Stickball)

Going back generations, tribes were known to seek one final solution to a feud before declaring war – a game of Indian Stickball. Find a raucous live game of the aptly named “The Little Brother of War” in Cherokee, NC during the summer and fall months. Watch as rival teams tackle each other, literally whenever they feel like it, without any protective gear or even a shirt. And there are no timeouts! The rules are decided prior to each match and govern how many sticks each player can use (1 or 2), how many players on each team (9 to 22), how to score a goal (throw the ball through or run around the goal posts) and numerous other varieties of play that keep the matches interesting and fresh. Learn more: How the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians Play Stickball.

With river tubing, championship golfing, and fly-fishing readily available in Cherokee, NC, outdoor enthusiasts now have a new reason to celebrate – with adrenaline! The 11-mile-long Fire Mountain Trail invites runners, hikers and mountain bikers to test their grit by tackling numerous, naturally engineered challenges along the way.

Harrah's Cherokee Hotels & Casinos - playing craps
Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort

Indoor Adventures

Learned how to hull a canoe? Check. Bought your mom an exquisite silver-and-Wampum bracelet? Check. Ran the trails like a traditional Cherokee warrior? Check. Tasted real Indian frybread? Check. Even tried a Buffalo Ribeye? Check. Okay, you’ve officially dipped the very tip of your little toe into Cherokee traditions and lifestyles. Now let’s go to Harrah’s!

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort boasts unrivaled relaxation and non-stop fun in their 21-story hotel with spacious rooms, unsurpassed views, and plasma televisions. The most popular games of chance, world-class live shows and entertainment, luxurious spa treatments and gourmet dining await you.

Is this a family vacation? Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino & Hotel, just outside of nearby Murphy, NC is welcoming all ages to its Ultra Star Multi-Tainment Center with its state-of-the-art bowling alley, cosmic arcade games, pool tables, and a plethora of iconic and gourmet restaurants to try!

(Insider Tip: Now may be the right time to schedule a few extra days with your Cherokee vacation!”)


American Museum of the House Cat
Our American Museum of the House Cat is a Mecca of antiquities and oddities that will fascinate, amuse, and even educate you about he House Cat. As you travel back through the centuries you will be introduced to cats from all over the world through an immense collection of fine art, to folk art; carousel cats to comical cats and more. From tea pots to art glass, antique wind up cat toys to musical cats; and cat games to cats used in advertising our museum is full of stories just waiting to be told. Our Curator, known to the locals as Catman2, owns and operates WNC largest private feline only, cage free, no kill, Cat Shelter serving the residents of Jackson County. Proceeds from the Museum benefit the Catman2 Shelter and their services.
5063 US 441 Highway South Sylva, NC 28779 (828) 476-9376 Get Directions
Cherokee County Historical Museum
The museum is housed in a historic Carnegie Library building in downtown Murphy.The Museum's exhibits include: over 2,000 Cherokee artifacts, 40 exhibit panels with drawings and photographs that interpret local Cherokee history and culture, antique farm implements and vintage household items (many hand-made) used by early pioneer settlers, over 700 collectible dolls. The museum serves as an interpretive center for the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. Murphy was once the site of Fort Butler, one of the main holding areas for Cherokees who were being removed from North Carolina in the 1830's. Other sites in and around Murphy play a prominent role in Cherokee history, mythology, and culture. The museum houses a replica of the log cabin dwellings used by the Cherokee residents of the area at the time of their removal. This type of dwelling was also typical of that used by pioneer settlers, many of whom moved into the vacated Cherokee cabins. In front of the building rests an ancient stone turtle carved from soapstone that is associated with a Cherokee creation legend. Hours of Operation Monday - Friday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Saturday - from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm. Elevator accessible. Tours are offered to school children, elderhostels, seniors and other groups by appointment. Admission Fees Admission is $3.00 for adults and $1.00 for children.
Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center-CCDO
Built in 1943 on the site of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp, the Cowee School served thousands of students until it was closed as a school in 2012. Efforts are now underway to preserve and reuse the historic school as a community and heritage center. The Cowee School 2014 Concert Series begins Saturday, May 10 and runs through October 18. This year's artists include: Red June, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeepers, Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen, Town Mountain and more.
51 Cowee School Drive Franklin, NC 28734 (828) 369-4080 Get Directions
Fly Fishing Museum of the Southern Appalachians
Visit Bryson City's newest museum conveniently located across from the Visitor Center & Heritage Museum. Through exhibits & videos visitors learn about early fly fishing legends, basic knots, fly-tying, types of gear, types of fish, regional fishing waters, & the history of fly fishing in the South. There's a Kid’s Corner with fun games & activities.
210 Main Street Bryson City, NC 28719 (828) 488-3681 Get Directions
Foxfire Museum
Discover Foxfire! Come hike through history at our Appalachian village, made up of over 20 historic log structures and artifacts dating as far back as the 1820s. Get hands on with history by visiting one of our on-site demonstrators, from weaving to blacksmithing. Open Monday through Saturday, 9 am - 4:30 pm and Sundays 12 - 4:30 pm.
98 Foxfire Lane Mountain City, GA 30562 (706) 746-5828 Get Directions
John C. Campbell Folk School
Nation's oldest folk school founded in 1925. Crafts, music, dance, other Appalachian traditions are taught one-week or weekend classes year-round. National Historic District. Craft Shop. History Center. On-campus housing and meals. Tuition for classes. Fall Festival the first weekend in October. Visitors welcome.
1 Folk School Rd Brasstown, NC 28902 (828) 837-2775 Get Directions
Museum of the Cherokee Indian
The Museum of the Cherokee Indian takes visitors all the way back to the beginnings of human existence here in these glorious, storied mountains of western North Carolina. The museum provides an educational and interactive experience where concise, chronological stories retrace the 11,000 year documented history of the Cherokees.
589 Tsali Blvd Cherokee, NC 28719 (828) 497-3481 Get Directions
Oconaluftee Indian Village
The Oconaluftee Indian Village is a re-created village of the 1700's. Visitors experience the everyday life of the Cherokee through artisans who perform tasks done by their forefathers. Witness war council meetings, war re-enactments, traditional dances and more.
564 Tsali Blvd Cherokee, NC 28719 (828) 497-2111 Get Directions
Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center
The Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center is a non-profit corporation formed by a group of local citizens after the closing of Stecoah School in 1994. The Center is housed in the restored 1926 Stecoah Schoolhouse. The Center is highly acclaimed for its summer concert and dinner series, An Appalachian Evening, which features mountain roots music in the historic 300-seat air conditioned auditorium. Visitors are amazed to discover prominent and highly regarded musicians playing for small audiences in the quiet valley. The Center also houses a beautiful Artisan’s Gallery stocked with the works of more than 125 local artisans and craftsmen, including artisan foods produced on site in the commercial Stecoah Kitchen from locally grown sources. Other offerings include a Cherokee history display, beautiful grounds and walking trail, culinary workshops, and arts and crafts classes.
121 School House Rd Robbinsville, NC 28771 (828) 479-3364 Get Directions
T.M. Rickman General Store
The T.M.Rickman General Store, built in 1895, a part of the 370 acre Cowee/West's Mill National Register Historic District, was acquired by the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee in August of 2007. Many of the original fixtures are still in place, including wormy chestnut paneling upstairs. Displays, pictures, live music, store open each Saturday from May until December from 10:00am - 4:00 pm.
23rd Taste of Scotland & Celtic Festival - FATHER's DAY WEEKEND - Historic Franklin - 3 Days of Scottish Fun!! June 18-20, 2021. Scottish Foods, Music, Dancers, Games, Clan Parade
Call or Check Website Franklin, NC 28734 (830) 460-0628 Get Directions
The Scottish Tartans Museum & Heritage Center, Inc.
The Scottish Tartans Museum contains the official registry of all publicly known Tartans. A non profit Tartan Museum and gift shop, the only one of its kind outside of Scotland. Available to purchase at the Museum gift shop, Scottish foods, clothing and specialty items. Entry to the Museum cost $4.00 for adults and $2.00 for children 6 - 12. Fully guided tours are available with a two week notice.
Western Carolina University

Whether you're visiting in the mountains or live here year 'round, put Western Carolina University on your list of places to explore. At WCU, a campus of the UNC system, you'll find a wide range of award-winning academic programs, distinguished faculty, and small class sizes where students interact closely with the professors and each other. With rising standards, growing enrollment and a strong emphasis on engagement with the community, we're moving knowledge out of the classroom and into the world. Our beautiful mountain campus is one of the region's most exciting destinations for the arts and entertainment. You'll enjoy the annual Mountain Heritage Day in September, a great season of performances and exhibits at the Fine and Performing Arts Center, a full schedule of men's and women's athletic events, and outdoor activities such as rafting, kayaking, climbing, hiking in the mountains and waterways nearby.

Admission Office 102 Camp Building, WCU Cullowhee, NC 28723 (828) 227-7317 Get Directions