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As a beginning introduction into Cherokee history, the town of Cherokee, North Carolina, provides the tools for a life-enriching experience. The three most inspiring, I feel, are The Museum of the Cherokee Indian, The Oconaluftee Indian Village (a living history museum) and the drama "Unto The Hills" which is a play telling the story of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, done in the evening in an open air theatre on the mountainside. The Eastern Band of the Cherokee are descendants of those who hid in the Smoky Mountains to avoid removal to Oklahoma in the tragic Trail of Tears. Those who survived the journey to Oklahoma are known as the Cherokee Nation.

Our first stop was the Oconaluftee Indian Village, which is a replica of a Cherokee village in the 18th century.

Everything is authentic and guides take you through, stopping at craftsmen and women, explaining the various crafts that were the mainstay of the Cherokee. For instance, beadmaking. Once the designs meant something, but the meanings have been lost in time and now the women make colourful belts and other trinkets, in the age old way, one bead at a time. Each bead is sewn separately so that if the item is snagged, it can be easily repaired.

Another craftsman chipped away at flint making arrowheads, explaining the different styles and uses. The Cherokee used a blow pipe and darts to hunt game and wildlife - a demonstration showed the skill still lives on. From a distance of about 20 feet, five attempts produced 5 bulls eyes on a target.

We saw reproductions of Cherokee lodges - cabins of clay and grasses. Some visitors expected to see tipis, but those were a part of the Plains Indian culture, the Cherokee lived in "houses" and were farmers and hunters.

The Cherokee also appear to have believed in the equality of women, long before England and the US thought about it, much less accepted it. Although there were roles which were traditionally male and female, women took part in council meetings, and in fact clan connections ran through the female. It was a matriarchal society.

From 1827 they also published their own newspaper, which was written both in Cherokee ( the phonetic alphabet created by Sequoyah in 1820) and English.

The Cherokee tribe was made up of 7 clans, and seven is a number that figures highly in Cherokee traditions - for instance the Council House was 7 -sided. Marriage within one's own clan was not allowed, and on marriage, the husband moved into the clan of his wife and any children were classed as being from the wife's clan.

As with all Indians, the Cherokee used plants and trees for medicinal purposes, and there is a Cherokee garden with trees and plants, annotated with plaques explaining the part of the plant/tree and its uses. As the guide explained sadly, the Cherokee had a cure for all the diseases that it was used to, but had no cure for smallpox - a disease that arrived with the white man and wiped out half the population.

The village itself is open from May 15th to October 25th and admission is extremely reasonable but you can buy a "historical valu-ticket" which also covers admission to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and saves on both adult and child admission.

At the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, there are artifacts and exhibits of the history of the Cherokee from the Paleo-Archaic periods to present day, woven together in a tapestry of special effects and told by a traditional storyteller.

As you travel through time, you "meet" some of the Cherokee heroes and learn their stories; learn what happened when the white man first came into contact with the Cherokee nation. You hear about the Trail of Tears, and see vivid portrayals of that time.

There are various displays of tools, ancient jewellery and gorgets, pottery and a miniature village encampment to wander around and peruse.

The gift shop has a marvellous selection of books, and other souvenirs. There is even a booklet about the medicinal herbs and plants used by the Cheroke, which ties in with the garden that we had visited at the Oconaluftee Village.

It is far more than "just "a museum though. It also offers an outreach programme providing demonstrations and lectures to schools within a 100 miles radius, offers courses and workshops for teachers k-college, supports Archives of Cherokee History (more than 1400 published volumes plus collections of manuscripts, microfilm and photographs) as well as sponsoring the Artisan Series promoting Cherokee artists and art forms, ancient and modern.

Our day came to its finale at the outdoor presentation "Unto These Hills". This play telling the story of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, is done in the evening, nightly from June to late August, in an open air theatre on the mountainside. Since it's first showing in July of 1950, over 5 million people have come to watch this and 2002 is its 52nd season.

It is a very powerful drama, telling the history of the Cherokee from the arrival of Hernando De Soto, the Spanish explorer, in 1540 until the Trail of Tears, when most of the Cherokee were forcibly removed from their homes and re-settled onto reservations in Oklahoma. Some of the actors are actually descendants of those who were driven out of the mountains and forced to walk the 1200 miles to their new home.

I was amazed by the professionalism of the production. Everything is very polished, the actors are superb, the scenery changed while your attention is focused on other occurrences in the story. The musical score is powerful and complements every aspect of the story, whether the joy of a Cherokee wedding or the heartbreaking sacrifice of Tsali, who returned from a safe hiding place to give his life and that of two of his sons, so that a handful of his people, those still hiding out in the mountains, might return and stay on the land of their ancestors.

You can get reserved seating, which costs $16 per person, all ages. Or there is general admission seating which is $14 for adults and $6 for children 6-13 years).

We found the whole experience totally awe inspiring and very fulfilling, as well as opening our eyes to the facts and the fiction of the Cherokee. Something that I found particular satisfaction in is that, whereas years ago Cherokee children were forcibly removed from their families and placed in boarding schools where the Cherokee language was banned, and they were forced to use only English, now there is a resurgence of the language in Cherokee society. The schools teach the language and also Cherokee history, and all Cherokee children are required to master both to graduate high school.

The Cherokee Museum, Oconaluftee Indian Village, and the "Unto These Hills" production are all on US 441N in Cherokee, NC, 28719.

This is definitely an experience that nobody should miss. The whole town is also a tourist haven and there are all the usual American places to eat, as well as craft shops, photography studios taking pictures that look like they were done 100 years ago, fishing in the river, and fun places for kids of all ages.

It provides a wonderful introduction to the history of the Cherokee people who were peace loving and trusting, and who were deceived and mistreated by the U.S. government of the time.

The Cherokee People: The Story of the Cherokees from Earliest Origins to Contemporary Times by Thomas E. Mails is a wonderful book, which provides a very complete introduction to the Cherokee and in fact complements what we learned on our day trip. He has illustrated this himself, and deals with all manner of the history of the Cherokee. Their homes, their clans and families, celebrations and customs. It really is a marvellous book, one that you will find yourself delving into time and again.

Teachers and homeschooling parents could use it as a basis for a project on the Cherokee.