Cherokee looks like a tourist town straight out of the 1950s or ’60s, with plenty of neon signs and gift shops and long motels that stretch out along the road. It doesn’t have the new flashiness of Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge (no huge Titanic replicas or roller-coasters, though there is a big casino down the road now), and I bet that it’s how most mountainside tourist towns used to look back in the day, kitschy and a little politically incorrect.
To be fair we only spent twenty minutes or so in Cherokee on our way back from Pigeon Forge to Atlanta. We stopped to take some photos of the main drag and didn’t really take the time to dig around and really see what the town had to offer, which turns out to be a lot more than you can find in one of its many dreamcatcher-filled gift shops.
Cherokee began its life as a tourist town sometime in the 1930s, when visitors to the Smoky Mountains were coming to the area in search of Indian souvenirs to take home with them. 1 But tourism there didn’t really take off until after World War. That’s when the newly formed Cherokee Historical Association began to create tourist attractions that would give the visitors a lesson in Native American history as well as entertain. Their outdoor show, Unto These Hills, debuted in 1950 and can still be seen every summer, albeit with a brand new, more historically accurate script. And the old Oconaluftee Indian Village is still there too. Set up like an 18th century Cherokee village, it’s the one thing I remember seeing signs for and wanting to go to.
Unto These Hills’ script may be updated, but the rest of Cherokee seems frozen in time. These days a casino brings in most of its tourists. Cherokee doesn’t depend so much on the motels and the attention-grabbing signs that once were necessary to lure travelers in with, unlike its flashier neighbors, whose buildings and signs grow bigger and shinier by the second. When I went through Gatlinburg for the first time I was expecting a sort of vintage kitsch wonderland only to find a Ripley’s Believe it or Not and a bunch of flashing signs. It’s not for me; I always drive right through. But something about Cherokee makes me stop every time. I can’t help but go inside at least one of the gift shops, even though I know exactly what I’ll find there: dreamcatchers and Minnetonkas and little woven baskets. But I always have to stop and take photos of the signs and the motels. And one of these days I’ll get around to seeing what the Oconaluftee Village is all about.