Time for change at Cherokee’s ‘Unto These Hills’
“It’s going to be a bit of a change, but change is not always bad. This is just one little story in our evolution as a people.”
— Mary Jane Ferguson, a board member for the Cherokee Historical Association, speaking about changes to Unto These Hills.
From a high of 130,000 per season in the 1970s to last year’s 60,000, attendance at the long-running Cherokee outdoor drama “Unto These Hills” has plummeted. The drama had lost its luster. A new effort now under way to revitalize the drama, however, bodes well for its future. The success of this project is another important part of efforts to revitalize Cherokee tourism by focusing on authentic culture and history.
The play opened on July 1, 1950, and in its 56-year run more than 6 million people have witnessed the story of the Cherokee Indians first contact with Europeans, the story of legendary Tsali, and the bitterness of the Trail of Tears. In recent years, though, fewer people were attending. The original play is more than two hours long, and while the story was mostly accurate, it lacked dramatic tension. The facility and sound system were old.
And, like many attractions in the mountains, “Unto These Hills” did not change as tourism in the mountains underwent the dramatic transformation from a reliance on mill workers from the Charlotte area and upstate South Carolina to affluent second-home owners and seasonal residents.
But that’s changing. With a two-year infusion of capital from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation (which is funded by profits from Harrah’s Cherokee Casino), the Cherokee Historical Association (CHA) decided to completely re-do the play, including a script re-write that will now have the venerable Cherokee syllabary creator Sequoyah as the narrator.
A well-respected Native American artistic director has been hired to lead the re-write. Hanay Geiogamah is a playwright, producer and a theater professor from UCLA. He has been meeting with tribal members and the CHA to gather information to ensure that his new version will be culturally accurate.
The CHA and those involved with “Unto These Hills” also want to make sure that Cherokee youth get exposure to and are involved in theater. By forming partnerships with the school system and getting students interested in theater arts, the Cherokee Historical Association hopes to nurture a new generation of actors and technicians who will take part in the outdoor drama. The state goal is to one day perform the drama with an entirely Cherokee cast and crew.
The re-invigorated version of “Unto These Hills” should help Cherokee and the region gain an added toehold in the growing heritage tourism market.