published Thursday, August 15th, 2013

A town of living legends: Cultural traditions and Harrah's casino draw visitors to Cherokee, N.C.

  • photo
    The 80, 000-foot Harrah's Cherokee Casino opened in November 2007. It includes spa, an 18-hole golf course and a variety of restaurants, including a Ruth's Chris Steakhouse.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

As the headquarters for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the town of Cherokee, N.C., has managed to keep 11,000 years of history alive.

Museums, demonstrations, crafts guilds and drama performances allow visitors to tap into the stories and traditions of the ancient Cherokee culture.

And you can experience for yourself the land the tribe felt was so special. At the gateway of the Great Smoky Mountains, the town is a short trip from many trails and outdoor adventures.

But there's also plenty of with an influx of visitors from the Southeast who flock to play at the state-of-the-art Harrah's Cherokee Casino.

Cherokee heritage

• Watch "Unto These Hills," a gripping outdoor production that is now one of the longest-running outdoor dramas in the U.S. Under the stars at the beautiful Mountainside Theater, learn the story of the Cherokees up to the Trail of Tears. (Runs from start of June till Aug. 17, nightly except Sundays. 7:30 p.m. preshow; 8 p.m. main performance. Adults: $23, Children 6-13: $13, children 5 and under: Free. Located at 564 Tsali Blvd.)

• The Museum of the Cherokee Indian features a wealth of ancient artifacts, artwork, dioramas, stories and more. (589 Tsali Blvd., open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with hours extended to 7 p.m. until Labor Day. Admission is $10 for adults, $6 for children 6-12, free for children 5 and under)

• Pay a visit to the Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual, the oldest Native American Cooperative. See authentic Cherokee arts and crafts as they're created: bead working, pottery, stone carving, wood carving, basketry, finger weaving and more. (645 Tsali Blvd., 8 a.m.-5 p.m.)

• Step into the 1760s by visiting the Oconaluftee Indian Village, which is open from May to October. Visitors can tour the working village which dates back to the 1760s allowing them to interact with villagers as canoes are hulled, pottery is crafted and baskets are woven. There are live demonstrations, as well as hands-on classes for children. (Open Mon.-Sat., May through Oct. 19. Hours: 8 a.m. through 4 p.m. $18 for adults, $14 for child, 5 and under free. Located at 778 Drama Road.)

Sources: www.cherokeehistorical.org, www.cherokeemuseum.org, www.quallaartsandcrafts.com

Back to nature

• Surrounded by Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it's easy to take advantage of nearby hiking trails, trout fishing, snow skiing, rock climbing, whitewater rafting and kayaking. For details, visit www.stayandplayinthesmokies.com.

• Tour the Cherokee Botanical Garden and Nature Trail. The garden displays more than 150 species of plants native to the Great Smoky Mountains.

• Located near downtown Cherokee, Mingo Falls are worth the easy trip to see the waters of Mingo Creek fall between 175 to 200 feet.

• Look for grazing elk herds while you're on the trails. Many elk sightings have been reported in the town center at the Oconaluftee River Park.

Sources: www.stayandplayinthesmokies.com,

www.nps.gov/grsm

Feeling lucky?

• The world-class casino is also home to a four-star hotel that just underwent a major expansion. (Located at 777 Casino Drive)

• The 80,000 square foot facility -- the only casino in North Carolina -- features live table games like blackjack and roulette, along with over 3,500 video gaming machines.

• Dine at a variety of restaurants inside, including Ruth's Chris Steakhouse.

• Relax at the hotel's Mandara Spa with a range of Balinese-inspired face and body treatments.

• Switch up your game by playing at the 18-hole Sequoyah National Golf Course designed by Robert Trent Jones II.

Source: Harrah's Cherokee Casino

Festivals

• 101st annual Cherokee Indian Fair will showcase artwork, traditional Cherokee food, live music, rides and games and fireworks. There will be traditional Cherokee contests and competitions, including stickball games. The festival takes place Oct. 1-5 at the Cherokee Fair Grounds. (545 Tsali Blvd.)

• Listen to the tribe's best storytellers recount Cherokee myths, legends, and stories every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night at the Cherokee Bonfire. The bonfire pit is located at the Oconaluftee Islands Park.

Sources: www.visitcherokeenc.com

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

Cherokee, N.C., AT A GLANCE

• Population: 2,138.

• Biggest employers: Harrah's Cherokee Casino and Hotel.

• Number of miles from downtown Chattanooga: 149.

• Landmarks or geographic features: The reservation is located at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It's also near the entrance to Blue Ridge Parkway.

• Date founded: While the tribe has been in existence for centuries, the Cherokee adopted a constitution and organized a government in 1827.

• Most famous residents: Cherokee leader Tsali and his family resisted the U.S. government's roundup and removal of the Cherokee to Oklahoma in the 1830s. In a deal with authorities, Tsali and his family gave themselves up and, after his execution, the Eastern Band of Cherokee remained in their homeland. U.S. Highway 441 North is named in his honor.

• Odd/unique traditions: There is a local festival each year dedicated to the ramp, which is similar to an onion. It's a traditional Cherokee food.

• Unique characteristics/fun fact: Painted, life-size bear statues can be found throughout the reservation.

Sources: Cherokee County Chamber of Commerce, U.S. Census records and carolinaheritagecenter.org, visitcherokeenc.com.

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