The Culture of the Eastern Band Cherokee Research Paper

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The Cherokee Tribe in North Carolina is part of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, a federally-recognized independent Native American Cherokee tribe whose home base is in Cherokee, North Carolina, south of the Smoky Mountains. The Eastern Band is comprised of the descendants of the approximately 800 Cherokee who did not join the Trail of Tears—the forced migration of the Native American nations from the Southern U.S. region to the western U.S. region designated by the U.S. government as Indian Territory following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. This relatively small number of Cherokee (compared to the 16,000 Cherokee who were relocated) avoided relocation by living on privately owned land, as opposed to communal land. For example, some 400 Cherokee lived on acreage owned by William Holland Thomas in the Smoky Mountains. Thomas had been taken in by the Cherokee in his youth and now returned the favor in his adulthood by allowing hundreds to live on his property and escape the trials and tribulations of forced migration. Another couple hundred Cherokee were permitted to stay in the Qualla Boundary of North Carolina in return for their help in capturing a Cherokee leader named Tsali, who was wanted by the U.S. government (Kutsche, 1963). This paper will describe the community and culture of the North Carolina Cherokee, their history and issues that they currently face.

The People, Community and Culture

The majority of the Eastern Band was able to stay in North Carolina thanks to William Holland Thomas, who was a European-American who had been adopted in his youth by Chief Yonaguska of the Cherokee. Thomas had also been a state legislator and wanted to assist the Cherokee. Because of the conditions of the forced migration (Native Americans who did not live on private land were obliged to relocate), not all Cherokee accepted the terms—and Tsali was one such Cherokee leader. Unlike Yonaguska, who had access to private land and thus was able to avoid migration, Tsali opposed the terms in principle and led a resistance force against the U.S. Army. This was the main reason those other Cherokee who assisted in the capture of Tsali were rewarded with their recognized independence and permission to stay in North Carolina, too.

From these two main groups of Cherokee, today’s North Carolina community of the Cherokee Tribe is descended. They maintain many of their ancestral tribal customs and in the 19th century purchased land in the Qualla Boundary. Many of the Eastern Band converted to Christianity as a result of exposure to the European communities of the 18th century. However, a revival of Cherokee traditionalism and the traditional religion of the Cherokee has effected a blend of religious views and practices that can be described as new age, Christian, and traditional Cherokee. The Eastern Band still performs traditional Cherokee dances, for instance, and students in the Tribe are required to learn the Cherokee language (Montgomery-Anderson, 2015).

The community of the Eastern Band has commemorated the trials of their fellow Native Americans in the outdoor drama Unto These Hills, a play written by the American Kermit Houston Hunter in 1950, which describes the history of the Cherokee from the 18th to the 20th century. The Eastern Band Cherokee have performed this play in North Carolina since the mid-century and it is still being performed today at the Mountainside Theatre (Cherokee North Carolina, 2018).

Location, Environment and Ecosystem

The base of the Cherokee Tribe in North Carolina is located in the Smoky Mountain region. Originally, the Cherokee were spread throughout the region today known as North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. They mostly populated the Alleghany River area and the Appalachian Mountain chain, enjoying an ecosystem with a surprisingly moderate temperature—never becoming too hot nor too cold year round. The pine forests offered protection, security, and abundant food and game—from deer to rabbit to fish in the rivers and streams. The coastal regions also offered abundant shellfish. The climate has not changed much for the Cherokee (Carr, 2017) though their environment today is somewhat more modern in many ways.

In the Qualla Boundary region, the Cherokee reservation consists of 82,600 square miles with a resident population of more than 9000 Cherokee (United States Census, 2010). The Qualla Bounary is a land trust rather than a reservation as it was never reserved for them by the federal government. The land is, however, protected by the federal government because of its ancestral importance to the Cherokee.

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The Cherokee are an Iroquois people and were always indigenous to the southeastern woodland parts of the U.S. They were mainly found in the North Carolina region, though it is probable that they migrated from the Great Lakes regions in ancient times (Mooney, 2006; Whyte, 2007). Because of their peaceful ways and the fact that they were not nomadic but had established villages and an agrarian lifestyle, the Cherokee were identified as a civilized tribe by the American settlers. Their villages acted autonomously from the Cherokee Nation as a whole and thus authority was very decentralized. As the U.S. expanded, however, there was more and more pressure on the Cherokee to move aside.

The forced migration of the majority of the Cherokee was supported by President Andrew Jackson, who viewed it as a way to protect the Native Americans from facing extinction (Wishart, 1995). Thousands of Cherokee perished from the cruel conditions of the long trek to the West. The Eastern Band of Cherokee, however, managed to avoid this fate: assisted by Thomas, hundreds of Cherokee were allowed to stay in Carolina thanks to the generosity of this legislator who donated his land to them. Likewise, those Cherokee who helped the federal government capture Tsali were also granted permission to stay.

In the second half of the 19th century, the Eastern Band Cherokee in North Carolina fought for the Confederates during the Civil War. As a result, the Cherokee were obliged to sign a new treaty with the federal government after the war. Reconstruction adversely impacted the Cherokee in North Carolina, as it did many minorities in the South.

Nonetheless, the Cherokee survived and asserted themselves and their culture through traditional customs like the artistic expressions found in the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual that the Cherokee formed in the 20th century. Today, the Cherokee rely on tourism and their casinos to support their local economy.

Politics and Economics

The Eastern Band of the Cherokee is considered a sovereign nation but one must be over 18 in order to become a member. Moreover, members must prove that they have an ancestor who is on the Baker Roll of 1924 and that they have at least 1/16th Cherokee blood (Eastern Band of the Cherokee, 2018). Its government is similar to that of the U.S. and consists of an executive branch with a chief and vice-chief, a legislative branch, consisting of 12 tribe members, and a judicial branch. Government officials are elected democratically and voter turnout is quite high, at 70%.

The main drivers of the Cherokee economy in North Carolina are tourism and gambling. Tourists come to the Cherokee territory in order to experience the natural beauty of the surroundings and step into the past to see what life was like for the Cherokee through artistic and dramatic performances. The casinos that the Cherokee operate bring in hundreds of millions of dollars annually for

The Pros and Cons of Tourism in Native American Communities

Native American communities occupy a unique place in American society. In many ways isolated from the norms of Americana, they nonetheless possess a special advantage that arises from their cultural uniqueness: the ability to attract tourists to their communities. Just as the Amish have developed a niche market for the products they create, Native American communities offer an experience for tourists that cannot be obtained elsewhere.

Indeed, the tools that Native Americans have used for their cultural survival are found in their cultural and communal expressions: their traditions, their costumes, dances, stories, and performances. Just like the Eastern Band Cherokee with their dramatic performances that tell the story of their people, Native American communities use their cultural distinctiveness to facilitate their cultural survival. In today’s age in which diversity and culture are celebrated, Native American communities are in a unique position to benefit from positive interest and attention.

Yet, as Smith (1982) notes, Native American tribes are still pressed into providing an experience for tourists that is not entirely authentic. Tourists are more attracted to what they perceive to be “authentic” Native American items, such as arrow heads, blankets, belts, and pottery—yet these items are typically mass-produced specifically for tourists and have no real connection to the actual ancestry….....

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Alexie, S. (2007). The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

Carr, K. (2017). Cherokee environment and climate. Retrieved from

Cherokee North Carolina. (2018). The original ‘Unto These Hills’ is back. Retrieved from

Cherokee Preservation Foundation. (2018). About the Eastern Band. Retrieved from

Duncan, B. (2015). Cherokee man receives patent for language software, makes Cherokee easier to learn. Retrieved from

Eastern Band of the Cherokee. (2018). Cherokee. Retrieved from
Kutsche, P. (1963). The Tsali legend: Culture heroes and historiography. Ethnohistory, 10(4), 341-356.

Montgomery-Anderson, B. (2015). Cherokee reference grammar. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Mooney, J. (2006). Myths of the Cherokee and sacred formulas of the Cherokees. Fairview, NC: Bright Mountain.

Smith, E. (1982). Tourism and Native Americans. Retrieved from

United States Census. (2010). Eastern Cherokee Reservation. Retrieved from

Whyte, T. (2007). Proto-Iroquoian divergence in the Late Archaic-Early Woodland period transition of the Appalachian highlands. Southeastern Archaeology, 26, 134–144.

Wishart, D. (1995). Evidence of surplus production in the Cherokee Nation prior to removal.  Journal of Economic History, 55, 1-13.

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