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Tribe's survival no game of chance

It's business as usual at Harrah's Cherokee Casino on this balmy summer evening. Burly guys wheel carts through the crowded aisles, harvesting the take from Digital 21 and Double Bonus Poker machines. Neon flashes. Cigarette smoke swirls. Jackpots clink seductively as a man in a wheelchair leans into a slot machine while the sound system plays "Too Late to Turn Back Now."
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

It's business as usual at Harrah's Cherokee Casino on this balmy summer evening. Burly guys wheel carts through the crowded aisles, harvesting the take from Digital 21 and Double Bonus Poker machines. Neon flashes. Cigarette smoke swirls. Jackpots clink seductively as a man in a wheelchair leans into a slot machine while the sound system plays "Too Late to Turn Back Now."

Business as usual, that is, except for the conversation in the Seven Sisters Restaurant, tucked behind the big room's back wall. There, two Cherokee chiefs are explaining how their casino came to be part of an exhibition at the new National Museum of the American Indian, which opens in Washington next week on the Mall.

The museum says it wants to let Native Americans tell their own stories for a change. To that end, it invited 24 native communities from around the hemisphere to help shape three opening exhibitions. The North Carolina Cherokees -- known as the Eastern Band, to distinguish them from their more numerous brethren whom the U.S. government forced west in 1838 on the infamous Trail of Tears -- were one of eight tribes recruited for a historical exhibition and asked to select 10 events from their thousands of years of existence that helped define who they are today.

Event No. 9 was the opening of the casino on Nov. 13, 1997.

To some, this seemed a strange choice for a national museum display. "I questioned it myself," says Joyce Dugan, who was principal chief of the Eastern Band when the casino opened and now works as a manager there. "It seemed odd that it would be placed in there among everything else about us."

When building the casino was first proposed, many Cherokees worried that it might destroy their community. Dugan herself had feared the potential for corruption; the Eastern Band's financial systems, she says, were inadequate to manage millions in new revenue. To help address this, she recruited Michell Hicks, the man she's having dinner with tonight. A certified public accountant with six years experience at a New York firm, Hicks became his tribe's financial officer and is now principal chief himself.

And yet: Here was a tribe that had fought through impoverishment for a century and a half, a community perpetually in pursuit of ways to keep its culture and people alive in their beautiful homeland hard up against Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If the Eastern Band needed to roll the cultural dice and tart up Cherokee like Las Vegas -- well, why not?

"We're all about survival," Hicks says.

The stories they tell
The National Museum of the American Indian is all about survival, too. The mere existence of its new building on the Mall, standing proud amid the monumental architecture of the hemisphere's Euro-American conquerors, is a dramatic statement to that effect. The gigantic curved overhang above its east-facing entrance suggests a blunt finger pointing toward the Capitol. One way to read the symbolism is: You guys did your worst, but we're still here.

If you're looking for the deeper meaning of the new museum, however, it helps to get out of imperial Washington -- a place Native Americans have never found especially congenial -- and schlep your questions down to the Qualla Boundary, as the Eastern Band's 56,000-acre reservation in western North Carolina is known.

What stories did the Cherokees choose to define themselves, and why? What does being "all about survival" really mean? Talk to the people who helped put the NMAI's Eastern Band display together and you'll learn that the words encompass many things.

They mean speaking and writing the language of Sequoyah, and passing it on, and doing the same with traditional games and dances. They mean honoring an ancestor whose death helped keep his people off the Trail of Tears, and never mind how much the story blends fact and myth. They mean, at times, deliberately undermining traditional culture to save it. In sum, survival means doing whatever it takes to stay rooted here in the rugged Appalachian landscape first shaped -- as Cherokee legend has it -- by a buzzard in flight.

Spend enough time with the Eastern Band and you'll start seeing history as Cherokees see it. At the same time, you'll begin to grasp the broader survival story the Indian museum has undertaken to tell.

There's some culture schlock to get past first, though.

"Feed the baby bears in Santa's Land," the billboards shout as you head west into Cherokee on Highway 19. In front of the Chief Motel, a huge figure in a Sioux-style headdress towers over a rusty sign: "Low Rates/Walk to Casino," it says. By the time you've run the ensuing gantlet of tourist traps and arrived at the Tribal Council offices for your appointment with the designated "community liaison" for the NMAI exhibition, you've almost stopped noticing the mountains that rise above all this, framing the town in blue-green serenity.

Marie Junaluska is one of a half-dozen community leaders who ended up doing the bulk of the work on the exhibition. She has immersed herself in her tribe's traditional culture, especially its language -- her mother spoke only Cherokee to her as a child -- and she appears to know every one of the roughly 8,000 people who live on the reservation. (Some 5,000 additional Eastern Band members live outside the Qualla Boundary.) This made her an ideal point person as the Cherokees decided which events from their past the museum should feature.

So why is the first one illustrated with a painting of a water beetle?

"That's how the earth was formed, how the world was made," Junaluska says. The beetle dove to the bottom of the sea and brought up mud. Then the buzzard flapped his wings over it, sculpting mountains and valleys.

After adding a second Cherokee legend -- this one involving a monstrous shape-changer called Spearfinger, who had to be killed so Cherokee children could be safe -- the exhibition planners moved on to more conventional history. By choice or necessity, they skipped over a great deal. There is nothing that shows, for example, how the introduction of corn remade Cherokee society a thousand years before the Europeans showed up, and nothing about the deadly diseases those Europeans introduced. University of North Carolina historian Theda Perdue points out that a third of the Cherokees fell to smallpox in a single 1738 epidemic.

The third event selected is close to Junaluska's heart. It's the story of Sequoyah, who invented a written language for the Cherokees in the early 19th century. Sequoyah's gift turned them into a literate people and allowed them, among other things, to develop a formal legal system and publish a newspaper. Perdue writes that by embracing these and other elements of white culture, they hoped to "survive as a people in their homeland."

Signs on the reservation today give street names in English and Cherokee -- part of a concerted effort to keep the language alive. Junaluska says that she's one of only 400 to 500 people in the Eastern Band for whom Cherokee remains the first language.

The fourth event refers to the removal of the Cherokees to Oklahoma and the tribe's attempts to oppose it. Few now dispute that this was one of the most shameful chapters in American history. Pressured by land-hungry whites in the Southeast, President Andrew Jackson used an 1835 treaty signed by one small faction of the tribe to force the removal. Thousands died on the brutal journey west. The Mall museum will display a petition of protest, sent to Congress by the Cherokees before removal began, that carries 15,000 names.

But while the removal story is the main thing most non-Cherokees know about the tribe's history, the whole point about the eastern Cherokees is that they didn't go on the Trail of Tears. This brings us to the fifth event selected. It's the story of a man named Tsali, executed for murder in 1838, who's now seen by many Cherokees -- in the words of historian Duane King -- "as a combination of the Messiah and George Washington."

"He's very important to us," Junaluska says, "because he's the one that gave up his life so that we could remain here."

Important he is. Drive around Cherokee and you'll run into the Tsali Care Nursing Home, the Tsali Motel and the Tsali Manor Senior Citizen Center, off Tsali Boulevard.

You'll also be urged to check out "Unto These Hills," the town's famed outdoor extravaganza, which has retailed a theatrical version of Tsali's martyrdom to more than 5 million tourists since it opened 54 summers ago.

The power of myth
"In the beginning was the land," the narrator intones. A rock in the middle of the Mountainside Theatre's main stage bursts into flame. Bare-chested dancers in animal and bird headdresses emerge from the forest twilight. A torch spins into the air. Tonight's performance of "the Drama" -- as "Unto These Hills" is known locally -- has begun.

It tells the story of Cherokee survival. It's also an important part of that story itself.

Although the Eastern Band managed to evade removal in the 1830s, North Carolina's Cherokees long remained politically and economically at risk. A century later, Perdue writes, they "found themselves without any prospect of future employment" besides subsistence farming. Small wonder that the 1934 opening of Great Smoky Mountains National Park looked like a godsend. Many park visitors would have to pass straight through Cherokee.

After World War II, when Americans really began to hit the road, the town began to fill with shops peddling generic "Indian" goods. Stroll down Tsali Boulevard today and you can see the results. Excited boys brandish toy spears outside souvenir shops fronted by non-Cherokee totem poles and teepees. Inside are shelves crammed with faux buffalo skulls, Indian princess dolls, made-in-China basketry and T-shirts that say "Trail of Tears: The Ethnic Cleansing of the Cherokee Nation" -- not to mention postcards of Elvis featuring the King's recipe for pecan pie.

Those postwar tourists couldn't tell an Inca from an Iroquois, so the town's merchants, many of whom were white, gave them the stereotyped Plains Indians they were used to from Hollywood westerns. The Cherokees themselves, meanwhile, invented the now-venerable profession of "chiefing." Donning the regalia of the Sioux or Cheyenne, practitioners stake out positions on town sidewalks, posing for tourists who crave pictures of themselves with "real Indians."

"Unto These Hills" was part of the tourist-attracting mix. Underwritten by a group of mostly white businessmen, presented in an enchanting 2,800-seat theater on a forested hillside just up from town, it proved an immediate hit. It's not quite the moral equivalent of chiefing -- at least it's about Cherokee history, not the Little Bighorn -- and its charms, while hokey, remain considerable. Yet the Drama plays fast and loose with facts in ways too numerous to mention, and it turns the Tsali story into a tear-jerking passion play.

Tsali is portrayed as a kind of Cherokee Everyman living peacefully with his loving wife and sitcom-perfect boys when removal turns their lives upside down. Soldiers force them from their home. One beats Tsali's wife, who dies. Tsali and his sons kill the man and flee into the Smokies, where hundreds of fellow tribesmen are hiding out. The inevitable pursuit will place them all at risk -- along with the Eastern Band's legal forebears, a small group of Cherokees who'd signed an earlier land deal entitling them to stay in North Carolina.

What to do? In the Drama, the threatened Cherokees send emissaries to Tsali. He and his sons decide to surrender to save their people, knowing they will be killed. "Will the Cherokees in the mountains go free now?" Tsali asks the officer to whom he hands his rifle before he's taken away to be shot.

The real story of Tsali, like so much history, is complex and chock-full of unreliable narrators. To summarize briefly: No one really knows what provoked the fight between Tsali's family and the soldiers. Two soldiers died, but Tsali's wife did not. He and his sons were tracked down and executed by the Cherokees themselves, who feared -- with good reason -- what might happen to them if the soldiers' killers weren't promptly eliminated.

"There is nothing to suggest that he had surrendered voluntarily," writes University of Tennessee historian John Finger, one of the first to question the tale of Tsali's self-sacrifice. Indeed, contemporary documents show that he did not.

This was not welcome news in some quarters. After his version was published, Finger says, he was confronted by Jonathan "Ed" Taylor, then principal chief of the Eastern Band, who told him that "we don't need outsiders coming in and attacking our heroes." Cherokees wouldn't attack George Washington, the chief explained, "and you're doing that to us."

A man dies. His people get to stay. They're all about survival. Tsali's transformation from a man viewed as a threat to his community's very existence into one revered as the Father of His Country amounts to a classic case study on the power of myth.

It would make a great museum exhibit -- if the museum had the time and the space to get it right.

'We trust you'
As Junaluska and her Cherokee colleagues continued working on their portion of the historical exhibition -- traveling to Washington, for example, to select relevant objects from the museum's collection -- time and space were becoming hot-button issues at NMAI.

From the start, in keeping with the museum's let-the-Indians-tell-it philosophy, the tribally curated sections had been viewed as the heart of the exhibition. Museum staffers set up an elaborate process under which the tribes involved were to be consulted every step of the way. Yes, there would be an NMAI-curated central core that would pull together some overall themes. But it wasn't supposed to dominate. It was also intended to reflect the idea that native people tend not to emphasize chronology as much as white historians do.

Then came what you might call an "Oh my God, we're a national museum on the Mall" moment.

A couple of years ago, the museum's senior staff decided that "Our Peoples," the historical exhibition, wasn't working at all. What it mostly lacked, to use the language of one internal memo, was the "Big Story" that would put the tribal histories in a context ordinary visitors could understand. The solution was, in large part, to go back to chronology -- to examine, from a native perspective, the cataclysmic changes that resulted from European contact in 1492.

One more thing: To make the Big Story happen, the tribes were going to have to give up substantial chunks of exhibition real estate.

To some on the "Our Peoples" staff, this was disturbingly reminiscent of the way Indian dealings with the federal government always seemed to work out. Harvey Markowitz, a field worker hired by NMAI who'd been closely engaged with the Cherokees and the other tribes involved, came to believe that the museum's promises about community control had been violated. He resigned.

Those who made the decision say the changes were essential if the exhibitions were to succeed. "The community sections just hung alone as if they stood for all native history," says Bruce Bernstein, NMAI's assistant director for cultural resources. Museum visitors, including native people, will expect NMAI to "tell the big truths, the big stories" about what happened when the Europeans came, says Paul Chaat Smith, a curator who helped revise the central core.

And the Cherokees?

"I guess we're good people," says Junaluska with a laugh. When told they'd have less room to work with, they didn't protest but took the attitude: "You guys know what you're doing, we trust you."

Work proceeded. After Tsali came a couple of events related to cultural phenomena the Cherokees felt strongly about preserving. One was stickball, an intense, lacrosse-like game known as "the little war," which Junaluska says was often used to settle intratribal disputes. The other was the tribe's traditional dances, with their accompanying music and ceremonies.

The eighth event chosen was the 1984 Joint Council held by the Eastern Band and the Oklahoma Cherokees -- the first since the Trail of Tears divided them into separate tribes.

Next to last came the opening of the casino.

Back in the Seven Sisters, sheltered from the jangling casinoscape just beyond the restaurant's wall, the once and current chiefs, Joyce Dugan and Michell Hicks, are asked: What's the casino doing in that museum list?

Hicks is a free-enterprise Republican, while Dugan accepts the tribal government as being essentially socialist, because "it's been our tradition to take care of our people." But they're in full agreement here.

Before most Cherokees were forced west on the Trail of Tears, Dugan says, "we were truly sovereign. We depended on no one except our own people and our own government. And we've never been sovereign or independent since." The casino means that the tribe can stop relying on government "handouts" and be independent again.

In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that states could not ban gaming on Indian reservations. In the mid-1990s, after a successful experiment with a smaller tribal gaming enterprise, the Eastern Band decided to build a casino and contracted with Harrah's Entertainment to manage it.

Completed in 1997, it became an immediate success, despite the Cherokees' insistence that it serve no alcohol. In 2003, after the management fee was deducted, the tribe netted close to $173 million. Half of this is earmarked for individual tribal members -- each received more than $6,600 that year, with children's shares put in trust until they graduate from high school or turn 21 -- and half goes to support tribal government programs.

Dugan and Hicks take turns listing improvements the gaming money has supported. There's education: Dugan was a school superintendent before she became chief, at a time when federal funds were drying up, and she recalls thinking, "What would we have done if we hadn't had the casino?" There's health care: The Eastern Band has a serious problem with diabetes, and the tribe recently built a dialysis facility and a "wellness center" to promote healthy living.

The list goes on and on. Gaming money has helped finance a greatly improved water and sewer system. The tribe has started a language immersion class in its new child care center -- itself made possible by casino revenue -- and funded other cultural preservation efforts too numerous to mention. The casino has dramatically boosted Cherokee employment and helped counteract the previously seasonal nature of the tourist economy.

So is there a downside, at least for people not opposed to the whole idea of gambling?

Well, yes. The casino exerts a significant gravitational pull against Cherokee culture, the chiefs say. Full employment means fewer people involved with traditional crafts. Cherokees tend to prioritize family above all things; casino employees have had to adjust to a work-comes-before-your-great-aunt's-funeral ethos. The chance that big money will corrupt tribal leaders never goes away.

These are serious concerns. Yet as Theda Perdue, the UNC historian, points out, if you had experienced the poverty of the Eastern Band as recently as the 1980s, you would think twice before criticizing anything that raised the Cherokees' standard of living.

"Do you know about the Duke study?" Perdue asks. It seems that researchers tracking the mental health of children in western North Carolina recently noted a sharp, unexpected decrease in behavioral problems in school.

"The only thing they could come up with to explain it was the impact of the casino," Perdue says. Kids have money for clothes and are eating breakfast. Parents have jobs "and they're not fighting anymore."

Full circle
One more survival story, then, to end with.

To look at history through Cherokee eyes means seeing the links between preserving language, shaping the legend of Tsali and teaching children to dance. It means understanding why the Eastern Band invented "chiefing" and embraced gaming, no matter how problematic they may be.

But it also means walking in the Carolina sunshine on a 309-acre plot of bottomland near the western border of the reservation, where a neatly mowed six-foot mound rises above the summer corn. This is Kituwah, legendary mother town of the Cherokees. Archaeologists have documented 9,000 years of human habitation here. One name for the tribe is "people of Kituwah," Dugan says.

In the 1820s, the site passed out of the control of the Cherokees. In 1996, at Dugan's initiative, the Eastern Band bought it back. Gaming made the purchase possible, though people didn't yet comprehend the kind of money the new casino would bring in. "Why are you buying that graveyard down there?" she recalls being asked. The tribe had so many other needs.

Dugan had no doubts, though. "All the money in the world would not replace the significance of that piece of property for us," she says. "We've come full circle."

The purchase is the 10th and final event in the tribe's exhibition.

Kituwah equals Cherokee equals survival: It would be hard to sum it up more plainly than that.