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WNC Business

Native culture's role in WNC's tourism draw

Apr 13, 2024 07:57AM ● By Randee Brown

One of the oldest tribal museums in the country, the Museum of the Cherokee People opened in 1948 in a location primed and ready for tourism — along the road to the entrance of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

During the 1940’s, the town of Cherokee and the Qualla Boundary were among some of the poorest areas in the US, according to the Museum’s Executive Director Shana Bushyhead Condill. As the logging and textile manufacturing industries began moving out of WNC, the Cherokee tribe made an intentional lean into focusing on the tourism industry.

“Our people had to think about how they were going to feed their families,” Condill said. “We are grateful to the advocates of the National Park entrance here. The road goes right in front of our doors, and about three million people per year use that entrance.”

More than 84,000 people visit the Museum per year, and Condill said the area’s visitors stay an average of three nights. Many rent an AirBnb or stay in an area hotel while enjoying the area’s amenities, and with so much Native American history and culture in the area, Condill said it is a key location for many tourists.

The Museum of the Cherokee People is one of several cultural partners who all work together for the benefit of the community. With the Cherokee Historical Association which hosts Unto These Hills, Oconaluftee Indian Village, and Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, Inc., the organizations speak with tribal council members who then actively participate in the region’s marketing efforts.

The Museum and other Cherokee organizations offer a variety of programs for tourists interested in Native culture. Cultural specialists engage visitors and provide information in addition to providing educational programs and receiving invitations to speak on a variety of topics.

In addition to providing information, these organizations provide educational experiences for visitors and the local community alike. The 300+ artist members of the co-op offer a gallery, authentic shopping experience, and classes for traditional crafts like shell carving.

The tribe also focuses on the area’s outdoor recreation attractions. Situated in a location with natural amenities that visitors enjoy, the tribe supports visitors’ natural experiences by offering things like tips for fishing and the Fire Mountain Trails — a multi use trail system that’s made to mountain bike, hike, or run. Combining the area’s sense of nostalgia with education and outdoor adventure continues to entice visitors to the area, and Condill said it is an exciting opportunity.

A fresh renovation of the Museum of the Cherokee People will include a new exhibit called “Sovereignty.” The exhibit will share some of the history of the tourism industry and the hard work of the Cherokee tribe. Condill said tribe members are excited to be able to think about this exhibit from the ground up and consider what stories they choose to tell. This allows the tribe to think about its future and how they would like to present themselves to visitors in years to come.

“We’re not an art museum, and we are not a natural history museum,” Condill said. “We are a museum of a living people. We all work hard to make sure that the interactions we have are not performative. We’re not just dancing for you; it’s an intentional interactive educational experience, and we want visitors to have that authentic experience.”

The shift toward increasing authenticity has been a journey for the Cherokee people, according to Condill. People may remember the Cherokee of two generations ago when they had to incorporate Hollywood stereotypes to attract tourists, but people are beginning to see a transition away from this.

“We did what we had to do to put food on the table,” Condill said. “We are very privileged now to be able to shift away from that. We don’t have to wear headdresses and throw tomahawks, and our young people are excited to see that.”