“Chiefin’”: 1960’s Tourism in Cherokee Country

From Randy Ford, Cherokee, North Carolina:

“During our vacation visits to the Smoky Mountains in the summer, my grandfather loved to talk about his Cherokee ancestor. He always made sure we had a picture made with one of the Cherokees at a souvenir stand. I later learned that they refer to this as ‘Chiefin.’ It seems horrifyingly inappropriate now, but at the time, I can assure you there was no disrespect intended.”

Mr. Ford was visiting a region where there were not supposed to be Cherokees at all. The historic Cherokee homeland was to be cleared in 1838. But while most Cherokees departed on the Trail of Tears, some withdrew into the Smoky Mountains, or claimed U.S. citizenship granted under earlier treaties. Eventually the Eastern Band of the Cherokees was formally recognized. By the 21st century, Cherokee, North Carolina was a tourist town, with moccasins for sale, shops labeled “Indian Owned,” displays of historic Indian life, regular performances of a play about the Trail of Tears, and a Harrah’s casino among other attractions.

Mr  Ford’s family was not alone in claiming some Cherokee ancestry. Many people do today, though not all meet the elaborate legal definition of who may be called a Cherokee. In talking about Jacksonland I have been privileged to encounter many such people. A racial distinction that once would have put citizens at a disadvantage is now often proclaimed out loud.