The largest structure in Cherokee, North Carolina – an Indian reservation in the Great Smoky Mountains – is the newly-renovated Harrah’s Casino. In comparison with Cherokee’s other buildings, the casino is disproportionately massive and looks out of place, towering over the small thoroughfare that runs through the town. By day, the casino looks like a tan office building towering over the narrow central thoroughfare, but by night, the casino is all Vegas.
Inside the casino, there is little reminder of its “Cherokee” identity save for the signs in dual English and Cherokee, the nature-themed names of the hotel wings, and perhaps some of the stylistic elements of the casino, such as the woodsy lodge feel of the hotel’s entrances. The Paula Deen restaurant inside is a departure from the loosely adhered to Cherokee “theme,” but in this town, the Cherokee identity that is laid out for consumption by tourists sticks to the well-known clichés of Indian life.
The town surrounding the casino is “stuck in a 1950s time warp” due to a lack of outside investment, as described by a local travel book. One-story shops featuring text-heavy signs and post-war motels geared toward automobiles are ubiquitous in Cherokee, as are iconographic Indian representations – what Venturi and Brown would call “ducks.”
The main street also gives examples of “chiefing” by locals, meaning performing and posing for tourists in full “Cherokee” regalia. The most famous chiefer is Carl Standing Deer, but on this visit, I only saw a large man sitting topless and painted in front of a store that sold moccasins. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian is a refuge from the superficial main street – and it’s also where I learned the term chiefing.
Cherokee feels isolated geographically, socially, and economically. When you arrive after driving for miles and miles on curvy mountain roads, Cherokee is like an alternate universe fueled by the demands of tourists, like me, who come to see a Reservation. Amidst those actually living their lives in Cherokee, there is a miniature circus world that fuels tourism by putting on display the most easily-commodified articles of a Cherokee past.