Over the Blue Ridge to Cherokee Territory
By K.C. Cronin
Asheville’s Ancient Connections
The Asheville of today features stunning Art Deco architecture, the sounds of drums in Asheville's Pritchard Park on a Friday night and the smells of international flavors as you pass by myriad of local restaurants. But stop and ponder this: the area traces its roots back to The Cherokee, a sacred and ancient civilization dating back 11,000 years. Their home is one of the oldest places on Earth, the Appalachian Mountains, formed between 400 and 600 million years ago.
Known as the Ani-Yvwiya, or the "Real People," their descendants continue to thrive on the Qualla Boundary (Cherokee reservation) as the Eastern Band of Cherokee just 51 miles from downtown Asheville in Cherokee, NC.
The Cherokee story is a rich tale of a proud tribe once occupying an area encompassing approximately 140,000 square miles. Their ancestors prospered as farmers and hunters, and had a deep reverence for nature. Today, about 9,000 members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians remain caretakers of their land that now makes up 57,000 acres at the gateway of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s most visited park.
Entering Cherokee – The Family Friendly Territory
Without setting a time machine back a millennium ago, a trip to Cherokee, NC is the closest way to experience this sovereign nation as it was then and as it is today.
Oconaluftee Indian Village is an authentic 1760’s replica of Cherokee life. Interact with villagers as they hull canoes, craft pottery and masks, weave baskets and practice traditional medicine ceremonies. Visit on your own or take a guided tour (May – Beginning of November).
To comprehend the complex history of the Cherokee Nation, make it a priority to visit the Museum of the Cherokee. High tech exhibits explore the 11,000 years of the evolution of the Cherokee.
Across the street is Qualla Arts and Crafts, the finest examples of traditional Cherokee crafts including baskets, wood carvings, dolls, beaded items, masks and pottery. Meet the master artisans, from the elders to the third generation, and take a piece of handmade history home with you.
As dusk approaches, make your way to the Mountainside Theatre for the second oldest outdoor drama in the United States, Unto These Hills. Talented native actors are adorned in spectacular traditional dress and perform ceremonial dance and song, while reenacting the most profound periods of their history. The drama is set amidst ornate sets complete with fog, fire and thundering surround-sound effects. And it all takes place under the dazzling summer stars of the Smoky Mountains (May 1 – Mid-October).
Things to Know Before You Go
- The Journey is Half the Adventure
Plan on a full day, pack a lunch/drinks and fill the gas tank. On a clear day take the time and travel the Blue Ridge Parkway from Asheville to Cherokee – approximately a three hour-drive of breathtaking beauty. Some great stops are: Looking Glass Rock Overlook Milepost (MP) 417, Devils Courthouse (MP 422.4 – strenuous ½ mile hike to 360 views) and Waterrock Knob (MP 451.2 four-state views, easy trails). On the return drive, cut that drive time to one hour by taking U.S. 441 in Cherokee to US 19 and East on I-40 to Asheville.
- Opting for the Outdoors
If you crave outdoor activity, the Cherokee area is a playground for fishing, hiking, tubing all at the front door of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
- Where to Chow Down
Local’s favorites: Granny’s Kitchen, and Sassy Sunflowers Bakery & Café.
Photos by Jeremy Wilson.