At the beginning of the twentieth century, approximately 1,500 Cherokee lived in the five westernmost counties in the North Carolina mountains. Logging and farming were their primary means of subsistence. Income from tourism, however, became increasingly important, especially with the opening of the neighboring Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934. Tourism also introduced pressures to conform with popular stereotypes of Plains Indians and the Wild West—such as teepees and elaborate head-dresses—which were foreign to Cherokee culture.
Preservation of Cherokee Cultural Traditions
In response to the pressures of tourism, the Cherokee formed three organizations to help preserve their culture and present it authentically to others. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian began in 1948 in a log cabin and has since become a state-of the-art museum with high-tech, multi-media exhibits. Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, a Cherokee crafts cooperative founded in 1946, set standards for quality and authenticity in craft traditions and provided a year-round market for members’ work. The Cherokee Historical Association built the Mountainside Theater and created the famous outdoor drama, Unto These Hills, which debuted in 1950. The Association also founded the Oconaluftee Indian Village which recreates an eighteenth century Cherokee community.
Cherokee Indians in the 21st Century
This was a century of struggle and accomplishment for the Cherokee as they fought to reaffirm title to their land, re-establish and expand their voting rights, speak their native language, and improve their standard of living. The Cherokee economy received a welcome boost in 1997 when the tribe opened a casino in downtown Cherokee. The casino has generated new businesses and jobs and has brought the tribe new income, which has helped finance college education and health care for tribal members. The standard of living on the Qualla Boundary now approaches that of neighboring counties.