A main thoroughfare of Cherokee, North Carolina, July 2023. (Photo by Keith Roysdon)

Decades of change have transformed Cherokee, North Carolina, from a tourist spot marked by shops with live bears in parking lot cages to a town that is dominated by a large casino and resort. 

The town of about 2,200 people is the center of the Qualla Boundary, created in the 1870s when the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians purchased more than 75,000 acres of land, mostly in Swain and Jackson counties in Western North Carolina.

The Qualla Boundary is not a reservation but a nation within a nation. The Eastern Band of Cherokee website explains that “Cherokee people do not live on a reservation, which is land given to a native American tribe by the federal government. Instead, in the 1800’s, the tribal members purchased 57,000 acres of property. This land, called the Qualla Boundary, is owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and kept in trust by the federal government.” 

Now faced with the prospect of competition for tourism dollars from other proposed North Carolina casinos, the Native American people of Cherokee are making changes: In early September, voters came to the polling places and voted out current tribal leadership.

Voters also endorsed recreational marijuana use on the Qualla Boundary and gave the go-ahead for hotels and restaurants to serve mixed drinks. Both measures were approved “overwhelmingly,” Smoky Mountain News reported, as was the replacement of the principal chief and four members of the tribal council.

Move Away from Stereotypes

Visitors to Cherokee in the 20th century will likely remember the town as a smaller version of Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, tourist towns on the opposite side of the Smoky Mountains from North Carolina and Cherokee. 

Cherokee in the 1970s and 1980s was a town full of shops selling inexpensive T-shirts and jewelry like those at any tourist spot. Wooden Indians stood sentinel on the sidewalks outside the shops. 

“The mid-20th-century tourism model had to appeal to the mass market with an often-stereotyped image of indigenous people,” Andrew Denson, director of Cherokee studies for Western Carolina University, said in an interview for this article. “There’s been a real concentrated effort since the 1990s of business and political leaders to step away from the more stereotypical images and address some of the images that were so present.” 

A couple of wooden Indians can still be found, and at least one business still has live bears in a small enclosure. But Cherokee now feels like every small town, with small shopping centers and restaurants – locally owned and fast-food franchises – along its main streets. 

A wooden Indian along a series of storefronts in Cherokee, North Carolina, in July 2023. Town leaders have tried to phase out the number of stereotypical Native American images in the town. (Photo by Keith Roysdon)

In July, in the run-up to the September election, the main thoroughfare was also lined with small yard signs for the tribal election. Principal Chief Richard Sneed, the incumbent, was running for re-election. Former Chief Michell Hicks, who had previously served three terms, was his challenger. Hicks had been the Eastern Band’s principal chief from 2003 to 2015. 

In the September election, Hicks won 65% of the vote to easily defeat Sneed, who had held office since 2017.

Smoky Mountain News reporter Holly Kays noted that the election was a “pivotal” one for the Eastern Band. That’s because several new casinos that would compete with the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino hotel and resort have been proposed for North Carolina, according to the News and Observer. They could come to Anson, Nash and Rockingham counties, more centrally located in the state than where the Qualla Boundary is centered in Swain and Jackson counties in far Western North Carolina.

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort, July 2023. (Photo by Keith Roysdon)

New casinos could pull from the same customer base as Harrah’s. That’s without even considering more casinos in Eastern North Carolina and Virginia.

Tribal finances were “at the center” of the Eastern Band election, the Smoky Mountain News reported, as some grew critical of the administration’s spending in pursuit of more economic development.

Cherokee’s casino has been a huge game-changer for the town since it opened in 1997, residents said in interviews for this article.

Casino Revenue and Its Impact

“Since that casino came in, it’s helped us considerably,” David Smith, owner of Bearmeat’s Indian Den, a Cherokee shop, told The Daily Yonder. “Everybody was poor. There were (fewer) paved roads. Now there are paved roads.

About revenue from the casino, Smith added in a joking tone, “People donate their money when they lose.”

Smith is Native American. His store is named for his great-great grandmother, whose last name was Bearmeat, and has been open 31 years.

“I sell nothing but handmade Native American arts and crafts,” Smith said. “We’re busy continuously, all the time.” He believes a big part of the traffic his store sees is because of the casino. 

While there’s the possibility of future competition for casino tourism dollars, the area including Cherokee saw a 3.5% increase in visitor spending in 2022, according to a report released on August 26, 2023. 

Visitor spending increased to $452.57 million in 2022, up from $437.4 million in 2021. Visitors to Jackson County and its portion of Cherokee and other communities spend an average of about $1,200 a day. 

Travel and tourism jobs account for more than 2,400 positions in Jackson County and the total payroll topped $119 million. 

“The tourism economy has been vital going a long way back, to the 1930s and the development of the Smoky Mountain National Park,” Denson said. “Quall Boundary tourism really took off with the park. In terms of how the town has changed in the last 20 years or so, gaming has provided resources for the tribe to change the physical layout of the town.”

“The revenues from the casino have given us the capacity for many improvements for our tribe,” Sean Ross, regional vice president for Casino Marketing at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, said in an email interview for this article. 

“We have been able to initiate a plethora of capital improvements that have allowed us to improve our tourism amenities. We have started projects to capitalize and further enhance our outdoor adventure assets, we have added a mountain bike trail that is second to none, and we have also added a disc golf course that is as challenging, if not more challenging than anything in the region.”

Ross said the Eastern Band is working to let people know about other reasons to visit the Cherokee area. “Our culture is obviously quite an important component. We also have some of the best trout fishing waters in the southeast. The natural assets this region possesses create strong incentive to camp, hike and just experience the attractive climate and locale.”  

Even as highly valued as tourism jobs are, the Eastern Board of Cherokee Indians reports that Cherokee has a tougher financial picture than the rest of the state. Of the 9,600 people who live within the Qualla Boundary, the median household income is $27,813 compared to $50,584 for North Carolina. The area has a 27% poverty level compared to 16.4% for the state. 

About changes to Cherokee over the decades, and changes that are ongoing, Bearmeat’s store owner Smith said it was simple.

“You have to go with the times.”

Keith Roysdon has written about moonshine, Buc-ee’s, “Cocaine Bear,” and infamous tourist spots for the Daily Yonder. He is a Knoxville, Tennessee, native who was a newspaper reporter and editor for 40 years in Indiana. His fourth co-authored true crime book was published in August 2023 and his freelance news and pop culture articles and fiction appear on several websites. 

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