“The Andrew Jackson Highway takes you to Cherokee? What sick politician fell for that? What demented cartographer agreed? Are there no…?”
I was more than slightly lost, running the obstacle course of road construction in western North Carolina. The realization of the inappropriateness of the road name further fueled my flame. “That’s like naming the road to Dachau ‘Eichmann Memorial Autobahn’ or the ‘Honorary Göring-Straße’!”
I was by myself and complaining only to dulcet tones of Diane Rhem and her guests, who didn’t care a bit about my ire, but still my shock felt justified. I mean surely the Trail of Tears sprang to mind for someone besides me. Like maybe the people who still lived there?
With Thanksgiving approaching, I’ve been replaying that realization in my head a lot. I hadn’t been to Cherokee since I was 12 years old, or to be specific: since the casino came. My mother and I had taken off on a road trip to the mountains that included a train ride on the narrow gauge train in Bryson City and a stop in Cherokee. At that time, besides the classic neon-light cinder-block motels (which terrified my mother), a collection of bed and breakfasts backed up to the Oconaluftee River. Mommy pulled over at the first one with a vacancy sign, and we checked into a lovely two-story white house with a tire swing.
According to a collection of brochures in our room, tubing on the river was a major pastime there. We only stayed one night and didn’t have the opportunity to try it, but I wadded into the water and Mommy watched while she enjoyed a tasty beverage on the porch. For dinner we tried a traditional Native American restaurant, and I remember noticing the menu proudly proclaimed that it was Cherokee owned, not a chain. There were the usual tacky, tourist-oriented trading posts that had everything from dream catchers to leather biker wear to plastic snow globes. I got a pair of moccasin boots that lasted for a good three years before I finally wore them through. It was a lovely trip, and I carried those memories with me for years.
My mother had grown up in Arizona in the ‘60s when the American Indian Movement (AIM) was starting to gain traction. Somehow the reality of reservation life and what the invaders (us) had reduced people to was still hard for her to swallow.
Though Cherokee is in a beautiful setting, there was no question that it was shabby and down-at-heal. “Where can I get dinner?” I asked the nice lady wrestling a helpful 2-year-old and my reservation behind the desk of the cinder-block motel, once I found the place this go ‘round.
“Nearby?” she asked and made airplane noises as she and the baby “flew” my room key toward me.
“If possible,” I nodded.
“There’s a KFC.”
“Did you want sit-down?” she asked and switched the baby from one side to the other.
“There’s the casino, but if you are headed to the play, there’s not much between here and there.” She sighed. “The casino has done away with a lot of it.”
The casino was pretty hard to miss: a huge tower complex in the center of town. There were three towers of hotel, restaurant, bar, and casino built into one.
“They don’t want people to leave; they want them to spend all their money there.”
She took a pen away from the baby and looked me square in the face: “There’s a lot of people out of business because of the casino.”
I admit: I originally planned to stay at the casino. If only out of curiosity, it seemed to be the complete opposite of what I wanted Cherokee to be. I had come for “Unto These Hills,” the outdoor drama about the Cherokee people up through the Trail of Tears (Andy Jackson, anyone?). I was curious about what the experience of staying in the casino would be. To begin with, they had gotten the liquor laws changed to allow sales of alcohol, which seems to me to be part-and-parcel of gambling.
Has there been any positive impact? Well, a new hospital and high school have been built, and the public services (EMS, fire fighters, etc.) have received significant funding and investment form the proceeds of the casino. I could see road improvements and infrastructure that hadn’t been there during my prior visit. Clearly, someone was spending money on a municipal level. But the opportunity to bed down in one of the cinder-block motels (not much neon on this one) appealed to my ironic sense of kitsch, and when the casino hotels were all booked, I gladly opted for the motel next to the river.
“This is one of my bucket-list things,” the woman in front of me said while we filed into the amphitheater for the show. She was with a party of two other adults and about five small children. She was so overcome with emotion, taking in the amazing amphitheater built into the side of the mountain, that her voice cracked on the verge of tears.
I had come to “Unto These Hills” with great anticipation. One of the highlights of my summer was getting an oral history from local theatre luminaries Dorothy Rankin and Lee Lowrimore about the time they spent doing the show in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. One of the children who was in the show then, Eddie Swimmer, has grown up and come back to work as the director of the production. Since the show opened 60 years ago, more than 6 million patrons have come to the drama. Before the casino, it was the big attraction in the area. Actually, “Unto These Hills” pioneered satellite box offices in the hotels and motels of the surrounding areas in NC, Virginia and Tennessee. When you checked into your room, front-desk receiptionists would ask if you would like to purchase tickets for the drama. The hotel got a cut and the crowds soared, making it one of the most successful tourist attractions in the western part of our state.
The evening I was there the children in the show preformed traditional songs, dances and games during the preshow. At intermission the audience wandered through the illuminated columns of the written Cherokee language of Sequoyah. I found myself wondering how to reconcile these conflicting images of the area: the financial benefits of the casino, the determent to small business, the real destruction that settlers wrecked upon the Cherokee, and the ongoing struggles to preserve the culture in the face of ever-more encroachment.
What makes “Unto These Hills” so special is like that of Frank Capra’s “Two Hours In The Dark”: The Cherokee have two hours to tell their story and to take the audience on the journey of how the contradictions have come to make them who they are. They are still connected to the ancients in this modern world. Six million people have internalized a story to take forth into the world.
Perhaps the moment that captures this best is Psalm 23 (“The Lord is My Shepherd…”) in the syllabi that Sequoyah developed. That amazing blend of a previously entirely oral language with modern methods of communication and ancient sentiments from Western religion, creates a truly powerful living, pulsating symbol that sent tears streaming down my face.
Earlier in the summer, in Lee and Dorothy’s living room—and after almost two hours of talking about the show and bringing out pictures—they locked eyes and recited it from memory; almost 30 years after they left “Unto These Hills” and that beautiful mountain.