JUser: :_load: Unable to load user with ID: 885
JUser: :_load: Unable to load user with ID: 888

Cherokee youth re-enact ancient fishing practice

As 10-year-old Dayini Lossie stood on the shore eyeing the wide shallow waters of the Tuckasegee River last week listening to the marching orders for the exercise about to unfold, one word came to mind: awesome.

Lossie had never heard of a fish weir before, but now she was about to walk in her ancestors’ footsteps, using the same stone wall her people built centuries ago to once again — hopefully — trap some fish.

“The objective is to herd the fish, stomping and screaming and basically scaring them downstream,” explained Mark Cantrell, a biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

Lossie, along with two dozen other Cherokee students, couldn’t wait. They’d been in and out of the river all day, their shoes, shirts and shorts soaked through many times over as they swam, splashed and explored aquatic biology along the way.

But as they waded into the river this time, stringing themselves out in a long line and facing the ancient weir downstream, they realized they were part of something big.

“We’re learning about our history and how our ancestors used the river,” Lossie said.

As the students began moving downstream, flushing the fish toward a trap at the mouth of the weir, it didn’t exactly go off without a hitch. One student would fall, then another, then suddenly the chain would disintegrate leaving big gaps for the fish to sneak through. Some started splashing each other instead of the water in front of them. Others took intermittent breaks to float on their backs.

But eventually, the line closed in on the weir and two modest-sized fish were ushered into the trap.

“We all would have starved if this was dinner tonight,” Cantrell declared.

It became apparent just how much cooperation a fish weir entailed.

“I learned so much myself,” said Roger Clapp, director of the Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River, which coordinated the event. “Though it is obvious, you could really see how Cherokee fishing at a weir is a community experience, not just one, two or three people.”

The re-enactment was orchestrated by WATR, an environmental group whose central focus is water quality. Funding came from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, World Wildlife Fund, the Royal Bank of Canada and WATR. To help pull off the re-enactment, biologists with the Cherokee Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and several volunteers with WATR pitched in.

The field trip brought kids not only in touch with their heritage, but the ecosystem, Clapp said.

Armed with nets and buckets, kids took to the river upturning rocks and sifting through sediment in search of crawdads, bugs and fish lurking below the surface. A science station allowed them to examine their finds under microscopes.

“The creek bottom underneath them is actually teeming with life,” said Clapp. “It is a living ecological unit.”

The students also got to hear a program from Russ Townsend, a historic preservation officer for the Cherokee, who quizzed them on the role rivers played for their ancestors, which included everything from transportation to the gathering of mussel shells that were ground up and mixed with clay for pottery.

“The Cherokee were very smart. They knew how to use the environment. They loved living here because they could get everything they needed and the rivers were a major source of that,” said Townsend

Cherokee could do better regulating bear zoos

“Cherokee has so much to offer, such as its beautiful mountains, museums, cultural and historical exhibits, Native American shops, friendly residents, and casino. The caged bears may have been a big attraction at one time but are now seen as an embarrassment to the community and should be permanently closed down.”

— Bob Barker, in a letter to Cherokee Chief Michell Hicks


The caged bears in Cherokee that a national animal rights group has recently launched a campaign against have long struck a nerve among many residents and visitors to the area. This most recent effort will once again draw attention to this outdated practice and perhaps end it, but PETA’s (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) own tainted reputation is likely to be as much discussed as the inhumane treatment charges it has brought up.

According to PETA and others — this newspaper has received letters and phone calls from a half dozen visitors to Cherokee over the past 10 years — the bears kept at Santa’s Land, Chief Saunooke’s Trading Post and the Cherokee Bear Zoo are “not being treated humanely.” The organization has garnered the support of popular game show host Bob Barker in the campaign. Barker was raised on a reservation in South Dakota and, according to his biography, is one-eighth Sioux. He has also spent many years as an animal rights activist.

The issue of treating animals humanely is an important one. At least two of the zoos in Cherokee — Santa’s Land and Chief Saunooke’s — have been cited for problems by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency responsible for regulating businesses that keep wild animals. PETA’s foray into Cherokee may lead to discussions by the Tribal Council and Hicks to enact tougher local regulations, which in the long run would likely benefit the businesses who keep bears.

Times are changing, and the very fact that 30 years ago many more businesses in Cherokee had bear displays is evidence that the “market” for this kind of “product” is disappearing. People don’t want to pay to see animals kept in enclosures that don’t mimic their natural habitat. In the end, that fact — that the business model for habitats deemed unethical is shrinking — is what will likely bring an end to these practices. And, conversely, places that go through the expense to keep captive bears in habitats that mimic the wild — like the WNC Nature Center in Asheville — earn kudos from most animal rights groups and get more visitors.

The ethical treatment of animals is a complicated issue, however, and sometimes campaigns like this by PETA don’t address the nuances. We won’t defend any mistreatment of animals, but shouldn’t we differentiate between bears born in captivity that are more like pets from those captured after their mother was perhaps killed by a car or hunters, or an animal wounded that couldn’t survive in the wild? Would PETA better serve the animals whose rights it is fighting for by providing grants to businesses to upgrade their habitats, rather than spending money mounting some of the campaigns that has tainted its reputation? And we won’t even go into the area of whether animals should be used in scientific research.

The real world is also nuanced. These Cherokee operations are legitimate businesses owned by families who are trying to make a living, providing jobs and surviving in this economic environment. That’s not to say it’s all right to treat animals inhumanely in the name of money, but remember there are regulators who do inspect and keep tabs on these businesses.

Cherokee would be better off by enacting stricter regulations, establishing itself as a leader in the field of captive animal welfare, and then helping businesses find a way to comply. That would go along way toward ending this lingering practice that, on its own, will likely die a slow death and likely continue to bring criticism to the Tribe.

Expedition maps prehistoric Cherokee fishing weirs

Lamar Marshall had been canoeing the Little Tennessee for years before he knew what a fish weir was. In retrospect, the low rock walls spanning the river are too symmetrical and too uniform to be a naturally occurring rock vein. But for years, Marshall paid them no heed other than reveling in the small rapid they created.

That was before Marshall started spending time on the river with Brent Martin, an outdoor friend in Macon County who works for the Wilderness Society. Martin introduced Marshall to the hidden world of fish weirs, ancient stone walls placed in the river to corral fish into traps.

Marshall knew what fishing weirs were, of course, but like most, he didn’t realize the community fishing practice was once used in the mountains by Cherokee. To Marshall, the ancient weirs are a symbol of a time when man lived in harmony with nature.

“The lifestyle of the Native Americans was self-sufficient. Nature provided everything. It was an intense form of freedom,” said Marshall, who works for the environmental organization WildSouth.

A few weirs in the region are so pronounced they show up in aerial photographs and are even obvious when viewed from the shore. But the vast majority are only visible from the river itself, and thus have gone uncatalogued. It was astonishing to Marshall that there had been no systematic effort to map the weirs so far.

“These weirs are national treasures,” Marshall said. “Every stone you see in that weir was picked up and placed there by a Native American. They are historical landmarks. More than that, these are relics, traditional places where people can connect to their heritage.”

So when water levels in the Little Tennessee dropped to record lows during the height of severe drought last August, Marshall called Martin and pitched the idea of a scouting trip to plot all the weirs they could find. Low water would render any weirs that are typically obscured much easier to spot.

“We were seeing weirs everywhere,” Marshall said of their trip. “They are so defined, once you know what you are looking for there is no missing them.”

The team counted 13 weirs in a single seven-mile stretch of the Little Tennessee. Marshall’s GPS unit was broken at the time, so the best he could do was sketch their location in on a map as they paddled downstream. But Marshall knew he would one day have to repeat the exercise and capture their exact coordinates.

That chance came last week, thanks to a break in the rains that had dominated the summer so far. Marshall set out on a downriver expedition, this time with a GPS unit in hand.

Marshall’s expedition came at the perfect time for Dan Perlmutter, a professor at Southwestern Community College and a long-time fish weir enthusiast. This month, Perlmutter is leading a week-long field course on fish weirs for middle and high school students, many of them Cherokee.

His goal is to give students hands-on experience using surveying instruments to map the rocks of a single weir, hopefully inspiring the students to pursue math and science fields. The project is funded in part by Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the Cherokee Preservation Foundation.

“When the students have a concrete product and one with community significance, it automatically interests them,” Perlmutter said. “In school, when someone talks in the abstract about research they will have a practical knowledge of it. They’ll say ‘I’ve done some of that.’ They aren’t just passive observers.”

Among those cashing in on the chance to spend a day on the river with Marshall was Mo Moody, who put aside reservations about never being in a kayak before and joined the expedition. Moody, a recent graduate of the surveying program at Southwestern Community College, will lead the technical aspects of surveying with the students in Perlmutter’s program.

Moody will show the students how to use surveying instruments to capture the shape, size and exact location of the rocks in a weir. If the weir was vandalized or disturbed by flooding, it could be reconstructed based on the survey work.

“It’s important to be able to put them back in the exact same spot,” Moody said. “Surveying is going to lock it down on the map.”

Moody, a recent convert to the circle of fish weir enthusiasts, finds it hard to believe this work hasn’t been done already.

“It’s like an ancient find right here for us to see,” Moody said.

The fish weirs are one piece of what Marshall and others have come to call the “cultural landscape” — essentially what the landscape would have looked like during the time of the Cherokee. The broad rivers served as highways for trade and communication, with a network of Cherokee towns along their shores. Large mounds marked the political and spiritual centers for the villages. Cleared fields radiated through the flat river bottoms, while forested mountainsides served as hunting grounds.

“This was the Garden of Eden for the Cherokee Nation, right here in the Cowee Valley,” Marshall said.

Saving the cultural landscape has become the rallying cry of preservation groups in recent years, including the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee.

Another unmapped piece of that landscape is the myriad Cherokee trails that moved trade and foot traffic. Marshall is currently engaged in a year-long project through WildSouth to map those Indian routes, thanks to funding by the Cherokee Preservation Foundation.

For a man who’s spent his entire life outdoors — alternately making a living as a fur trapper, outfitter and environmental advocate — Marshall calls his current job the best he’s ever had. He holds a deep respect for the Cherokee.

“I love everything to do with the Indians and their way of life. They lived independently of this corporate-dependent system that now seems to be failing us,” Marshall said.

Fish stew: better than it sounds

While today’s fishermen are partial to the big fillets like brook trout and small-mouth bass, Cherokee used even the tiniest fish, like silversides and shiners, drying them on long strings or making them into stews.

Myrtle Driver, a Cherokee elder, has a recipe for fish stew that has been passed down through her family. Gut the fish, but you can leave the head and skin on. Bake them slowly for a long time, although she isn’t sure how long.

“We don’t time it. We just look at it. We don’t measure either,” Driver said.

Once the bones have become soft during baking, put them, in a pot of boiling water and season with fatback grease and salt.

“The bones will become so soft you can eat them. They just fall apart,” Driver said.

PETA targets bear zoos in national campaign

Recently, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians found itself the whipping boy of an unlikely opponent.

Much to the tribe’s surprise, the national organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals last month released a statement calling for an end to the practice of keeping caged bears in Cherokee. The statement named three small zoos as the culprits, the last holdouts of a practice that was once common in the area’s early days as a tourist destination.

“Tell Cherokee to end cruel bear pits,” the release said, citing the zoos — Chief Saunooke’s Trading Post, the Cherokee Bear Zoo, and Santa’s Land — for keeping “neurotic” bears in “grossly inhumane conditions.” PETA had even gotten a celebrity to sign on to the cause — none other than Bob Barker, former host of “The Price is Right” and a Native American from the Sioux tribe. In a letter, Barker requested a meeting with Eastern Band Chief Michell Hicks to discuss the practice.

PETA’s campaign took Cherokee officials off guard. Suddenly, Hicks’ personal email was flooded with 650 messages from angry PETA supporters — so many he had to block the address they were being sent from.

“I just think it was pretty disturbing how PETA approached this issue, when one didn’t even exist,” Hicks says.

That’s precisely where Hicks and the PETA organization disagree.

PETA has waged something of an undercover operation in Cherokee in recent months since it was alerted to the bears’ existence by Barker (see related article). The group has traveled to the region with experts to study and film the caged bears at the three zoos.

PETA says it found the bears housed in cramped, concrete pits with few toys for stimulation. They denounced the feeding of the bears by visitors who are given small snack trays containing lettuce, apples and bread at two of the zoos to toss down to the animals. The group is convinced that there is indeed a problem.

“Neurotic behavior is evident in these bears,” said Debbie Leahy, head of PETA’s captive animal division. “You see a lot of crying, whimpering, pacing, walking in circles, and fighting.”

Barker is fully on board with calling attention to the bear’s plight, he said in an interview with The Smoky Mountain News.

“I do not purport to be an expert on bears, but I’m impressed with the experts who’ve seen the bears themselves and seen the films,” said Barker. “All of them agree that the bears are not being adequately cared for, and that they are showing signs of stress. They are not healthy.”

Barker wants to arrange a meeting with Hicks to discuss the bear exhibits. Hicks said he was amenable to discussing the situation with Barker, but as of press time no meeting had been arranged.


Out with the old

Though PETA only recently got wind of the practice, the exhibition of bears as a way to lure tourists is hardly new to Cherokee. In fact, it was once much more common. Sitting outside of the Tribal Grounds coffee shop, Eastern Band member Dennis Watty points across the street.

“I remember there was a cage right over there,” Watty says. “There were bears in cages all along the side of the road.”

Jeff Goss is the owner of the Goss Agency marketing firm, which works with the tribe. As he explains, the practice started to take off when more and more tourists flocked to the newly established Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The poverty-stricken Cherokee were desperate for income, and many capitalized on the stream of visitors passing through the area. The Wild West, cowboys and Indians themes dominated pop culture at the time, so the Cherokee adopted a fittingly rugged persona, building teepees (though that wasn’t a part of their culture) and displaying native black bears to gawking tourists.

“The teepees and bears were there simply to make a little bit of money to survive as tourists were coming through to the Park. They had no real source of income,” Goss says. “(Tourists) didn’t want to see the real Cherokee — they wanted to see what they saw in the movies.”

But the bears often suffered as a result of the practice. The animals were sometimes lured from the wild into the trunks of cars by the smell of bacon, remembers writer Gary Carden of Sylva. They were then taken to live in small cages where tourists were free to feed them.

“It was definitely inhumane,” Carden remembers. “The bears were frequently sick and malformed from living on a diet of candy and junk food.”

The popularity of the caged bears has dwindled in recent years, however, as Cherokee has worked to redefine itself and its image. The Goss Agency was put in charge of the tribe’s marketing plan five years ago.

“There’s been a move and concentrated effort to establish the rich, authentic Cherokee culture,” Goss says. “As a result, that’s shedding that image.”

The tribe’s marketing campaign, emphasizing its natural and cultural features, has been wildly successful. PETA advocates say the continued existence of caged bears is a huge step back.

“This is truly a relic,” says Leahy. “I don’t think there are too many other places in the country that still maintain any sort of wildlife in these archaic pits. They really seem to be locked in some 1950s time warp.”

Barker says the tribe has so much else to offer — the mountains, museums, cultural exhibits, friendly residents, and the casino — that the bear exhibits are obsolete.

“Bear pits may have been a big attraction at one time, but are now seen as an embarrassment,” Barker said.

Goss is skeptical. He said he’s never heard concerns about the caged bears come up in any of his research, part of which involves asking visitors about negative perceptions or barriers to the experience.

“There’s so little of it, and it’s so insignificant. What does exist, there’s little awareness of it,” Goss says. “For the few people that might stumble onto that while in Cherokee, that’s not the overall impression they take away.”


“They’re family”

The Cherokee Bear Zoo, a nondescript building which houses a fudge and ice cream shop along with a variety of exotic animals, is one of the only remaining places exhibiting bears. Caretaker Norbert Santiago is incensed at PETA’s accusations. He’s looked after the zoo’s 10 black and grizzly bears for a decade, and considers them to be family.

“We take good care of them,” he repeats several times. “They are happy here. This is home.”

The bears are housed in pairs in pens with four cinderblock walls and a concrete floor. The facilities are sparsely furnished, with a tree limb, a couple rocks, a small piece of cloth that provides a square of shade, and a pool with cold water piped in directly from the river. The bears don’t have much to play with, except one another, and are kept amused by visitors chucking down pieces of lettuce, apple and bread. Like dogs, the bears beg and even do tricks for their food.

It’s a far cry from the grassy, treed, expansive environment the animals would experience in the wild, but then again, these hardly seem like wild bears. In fact, none of them has ever lived anywhere else, Santiago says.

“They’re bred and raised in captivity from the time they’re babies. None of them have lived in the wild,” he says. “They wouldn’t survive.”

Santiago calls the bears “our pets,” and indeed, that’s how the bears seem. They even respond to their names — a large grizzly named Elvis lumbers over when Santiago calls for him.

Santiago maintains that the bears are content.

“I know they’re happy. If they weren’t happy, they would show it,” he says.

In fact, PETA alleges that the bears do show signs of unhappiness, including whining and crying out. But Santiago says the bears don’t do that, and accuses PETA of “making things up. I don’t see them crying,” he says.

Indeed, it’s difficult to picture Santiago willingly committing the abuse PETA alleges on animals he refers to as his family.


Room to roam

Still, PETA says that the bear’s surroundings at the three facilities aren’t adequate.

“Bears are extraordinarily difficult to keep in captivity,” says Leahy. “They’re so intelligent, so curious, such active animals that you need to provide with a lot of diversity and space. They need opportunities to forage, dig, and nest, and things to climb on.”

The WNC Nature Center in Asheville, one of the only other regional facilities that exhibit bears, takes a different approach to housing its animals, striving to provide them with an environment similar to their wild habitat.

“To be honest, bears are a challenge even for multi-million dollar zoos to keep in captivity,” says Henry Bulluck, animal curator for the Nature Center.

Bulluck says that bears can develop physical ticks when housed in small concrete cages with little stimulation. To prevent this, the Nature Center keeps its bears in a one-acre facility with natural ground, grass, trees, a large pool, and plenty of logs to crawl on. Throughout the day, the bears are given different enrichment devices.

But there’s a major difference between the bear zoos in Cherokee and the WNC Nature Center — namely, the guidelines each facility must follow.


Playing by ear

Every facility in the country that houses captive animals for exhibition must comply with the Animal Welfare Act, which is enforced by the Animal Welfare Division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The act requires captive animals to have shelter, food, water, a sanitary environment, protection from extreme temperatures, and adequate veterinary care. Just what defines those things is largely up to the USDA inspector of a facility. Animal advocates have criticized the act for being too lax and vague.

“One of our frustrations is that the Federal Animal Welfare Act only establishes bare minimum guidelines,” says Leahy. “Unfortunately, we would consider the minimum requirements to be inhumane.”

One of the major downfalls of the Animal Welfare Act is that “there are no explicit regulations and standards that address the complex needs of bears,” Leahy says.

To encourage higher standards, the WNC Nature Center completed a strenuous accreditation process through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Participation in the association is voluntary, and demonstrates a more stringent level of commitment to animal welfare.

“It took a lot of work to become a part of it, but we want to show we’re following the best principle of animal care,” Bulluck says.

The tribe’s Cherokee Code, which the Cherokee zoos must comply with in addition to USDA guidelines, puts forth specific regulations on the handling of bears in captivity. Still, the requirements are basic. Cages for bears must be 8 feet by 12 feet with a concrete floor and include a pool and a den. Cages must be kept clean and shaded during the hottest parts of summer days.

So as sparse as the bears’ accommodations may appear at the Cherokee zoos, they’re within the law — which means there’s little PETA or anyone else can do to keep the facilities from operating.

“Tribal law allows for them to have captive animals, as long as they’re in compliance with tribal law and USDA standards,” said Hicks. “As far as I’m concerned, our businesses are within compliance.”

The fact that the bear zoos comply with existing USDA and tribal regulations matters little to PETA, an organization recognized for its often-zealous campaigns. One of PETA’s best-known tactics involves throwing fake blood on people wearing animal fur.

Over the top? Maybe a little, says Barker, but PETA knows how to get things done.

“I understand they (PETA) have been criticized as being radical on occasion, but I also know them to be one of the most effective, productive organizations in the country,” Barker says. “In a case such as these bears, no organization could help more than PETA.”


Slap on the wrist

Yet even PETA is limited in what it can do for the bears — a real change in the practice may require broader, institutional change. Currently, even when the zoos don’t meet regulations, it appears little is done about it by the officials inspecting the facilities.

USDA inspectors check up on the Cherokee bear zoos once a year, as they do with all other captive animal facilities. Inspectors have cited both Chief Saunooke’s Trading Post and Santa’s Land for numerous citations involving bears in recent years (the Cherokee Bear Zoo has received citations for its care of other animals, but none involving its bears).

For instance, in 2008, the inspector found that the Trading Post did not have adequate barriers to prevent public contact with the bears. The facility received several citations the previous year, in 2007, for what the inspector described as “the overwhelming nauseating foul odor of ammonia and feces,” dim lighting, failure to clean the cages, and an inadequate feeding tube that posed an injury risk to the bear cubs.

Santa’s Land also got written up in 2008 for unleashing bear cubs during public feedings and posing a threat to public safety, as well as for a jagged feeding tube. In 2006, the park was docked for failing to have a regular veterinarian, inadequate shelter, and improper handling of the bear cubs to prevent contact with public.

Despite numerous violations, the facilities continue to operate. Santa’s Land did not respond to numerous phone calls. The Smoky Mountain News visited Saunooke Trading Post and tried to contact managers in charge of the animals but was unsuccessful.

“Not only should USDA regulations be stronger, they should be stringently enforced,” says Barker.

Barker says the USDA lacks the staff to adequately follow through with the citations inspectors issued.

“There are so many animals being mistreated across the country, and they don’t have enough USDA inspectors to keep up with them,” Barker said. “Now that we’ve brought attention to this, hopefully the USDA will do something.”

Cherokee needs new superintendent after personnel upheaval

The Cherokee School Board is on the verge of appointing a new superintendent following the termination of Rosemary Townsend after three years on the job.

Board Chairman Anthony Sequoyah said Townsend was an at-will employee and that the board chose not to renew her contract “for several reasons,” which he declined to specify. The vote came three weeks ago.

Sequoyah named former Cherokee Chief Joyce Dugan as a leading contender for superintendent, but no action was taken at the board’s Monday (June 29) meeting to confirm a contract offer.

William Geddes, principal of Cherokee Elementary School, also retired last week for health reasons, according to Sequoyah. Geddes had chosen not to renew his Assistant Principal Keith Mallonee’s contract shortly before the time Townsend was terminated, Sequoyah said.

Sequoyah categorically denied that Townsend’s departure had anything to do with a large school budget shortfall, which she sought stopgap funds from the tribal council to cover — albeit unsuccessfully.

Sequoyah disputed a rumor that an exodus of teachers was imminent if Townsend was kept on. Sequoyah called that “ridiculous, especially with all the younger teachers coming up from other school systems. I have no knowledge of anything like that.”

How Bob Barker took on the Eastern Band

Bob Barker?!

The involvement of famed television host Bob Barker in the fight to end the Cherokee bear exhibits took many by surprise.

During a phone interview with The Smoky Mountain News, Barker explained that he first became aware of the bears through his long-time friend, Florida Congressman Bill Young. Young stopped through Cherokee with his family on a trip from Florida to Washington, D.C., and visited the bear exhibits. The Youngs weren’t impressed, to say the least — Young’s wife was practically in tears when the family left.

“He and his family were aghast at the condition of the bears. When he got home, he promptly called me,” Barker says.

Barker has long been an advocate of animal rights, ending each episode of The Price is Right with a reminder to “spay and neuter your pets.” Barker is well acquainted with PETA President Ingrid Newkirk, and informed her of what Young had seen.

“She promptly sent a couple people down there and they reported that some of the conditions were worse than had been reported,” says Barker.

Barker agreed to put his name to the cause.

“Mr. Barker has been a longtime animal rights advocate and we’re glad he’s taken an interest in this. It’s something that has been the source of a high number of complaints to PETA,” said Debbie Leahy, head of PETA’s Captive Animals Division.

When PETA released a nationally circulated statement June 8 calling for an end to the bear exhibits, it was accompanied by a letter from Bob Barker requesting a meeting with Eastern Band Chief Michell Hicks. The statement made note of Barker’s letter.

What happened next is a bit hard to decipher. Hicks says that the supposed letter mentioned in PETA’s statement was never actually sent to him.

“That was a big lie on their part,” Hicks says of PETA.

Hicks says he had to call PETA to obtain the letter, at which point they sent him a faxed copy that wasn’t signed. He then requested a stamped, signed letter, which he finally received.

“That was a big farce, was all it was,” says Hicks.

Barker disagrees, maintaining that the press release with the letter followed an earlier press release PETA had put out on the issue.

By last week, on Wednesday, June 24, PETA had still not heard back from Hicks’ office about setting up the requested meeting, though they continued to hope a call would come.

“We think the solution is going to require an opportunity to sit down with the chief and other members of the tribal council and discuss improvements that can be made for these bears,” Leahy said.

When The Smoky Mountain News spoke with Hicks on June 25, he told the paper he had still not responded to Barker’s request. Asked if he would indeed agree to it, Hicks said, “I will absolutely honor a meeting. I have no reason not to do that.”

Later that day, Barker confirmed that he had not heard back from Hicks. The SMN informed Barker of Hicks’ willingness to meet.

“Maybe we can get together then,” said Barker. He added, “I’d come down and meet with them. I’ll call PETA and arrange a trip to Cherokee.”

Barker said he looks forward to meeting with the chief in an effort to find some common ground on the issue of bear exhibits.

“I want to smoke the peace pipe with him,” Barker said.

— Julia Merchant

Casino to buy liquor in bulk, but from whom?

Cherokee isn’t the only one that potentially stands to make money off the sale of alcohol to patrons at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

Swain or Jackson counties could see a mini-windfall of their own if Harrah’s purchases vast quantities of liquor from the ABC stores in either Bryson City or Sylva.

Restaurants and bars that serve liquor must buy their booze from the nearest or most convenient ABC store — part of the tightly regulated nature of liquor that ensures collection of a hefty excise tax tacked on to each bottle.

While the state lays claim to the excise tax revenue, any profit turned by an ABC store remains with local coffers, generally split between the county and town where the store is located. More booze being purchased, especially the bulk quantities that gamblers at Harrah’s are bound to consume, means more profit for whichever store lands their business.

Before Sylva or Bryson City get too excited about the prospect, however, typical state laws governing liquor purchases may not apply to establishments in Cherokee, which consider itself a sovereign nation.

“They’re different,” said Laurie Lee, the auditor for the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Commission. “We don’t know at this point how it is going to work. It is a unique situation.”

Instead of buying liquor from the existing ABC stores in either Bryson or Sylva, Cherokee might look for a way to keep any profits of the bulk liquor purchases for themselves. That would essentially mean setting up its own ABC store.

State law requires voters in an area to approve the opening of an ABC store. Such a vote would be tough to pass in Cherokee where alcohol is a controversial issue, both for cultural, social and religious reasons.

While Cherokee voters approved a measure earlier this month to allow drink sales at the casino, the rest of the Cherokee reservation will remain dry. The pledge to limit drink sales to casino premises assuaged many who otherwise would have voted “no” — making it unlikely a vote on setting up an ABC store would curry favor from the majority.

But once again, it is possible an exception could be made for Cherokee. If Cherokee wanted to set up its own ABC store with the sole purpose of selling liquor to Harrah’s — rather than to the public — the state may allow such an arrangement without requiring the regular referendum.

Yet another option is for Cherokee to buy its liquor directly from the state warehouse, bypassing the Sylva and Bryson ABC stores. The state might like that idea, since it would stand to make the profits from the bulk orders.

“It is all a gray area right now,” Lee said. “Whether they will purchase directly through our warehouse or go through a local ABC board or whether they could set up their own store, we are researching all those issues. Those are all things that will have to be worked out.”

The first step is for Cherokee to decide on its preferred arrangement and then ask the state if it’s OK.

Norma Moss, the director of the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise, said the tribe hasn’t worked through those details yet.

“The distribution process still needs to be decided,” Moss said.

Craft Revival Project receives funding from Cherokee foundation

The Cherokee Preservation Foundation recently awarded $87,700 to Western Carolina University’s Craft Revival Project to continue the university’s Cherokee crafts documentation project.

Following its initial year, which explored Cherokee baskets and basket makers, the second year of the project will focus on Cherokee potters and pottery during the first part of the 20th century. The project includes research on handcrafts made by tribal elders at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual.

The project’s primary goals are to provide documentation of early 20th-century Cherokee pottery, disseminate new educational information, build an online database of images and develop lesson plans to promote a better understanding of the role and impact of Cherokee crafts in Western North Carolina.

With the funding, the project staff will create a museum-level inventory system of the permanent collection at Qualla Arts and Crafts, photograph pottery in the collections, scan historic photographs of potters and pottery, and create individual records for each item photographed and scanned. In addition, the project staff will document the lives of the potter elders. The project plan also includes printing copies of a guidebook on Cherokee pottery. The guidebook follows one on Cherokee baskets and is second in the “From the Hands of Our Elders” series.

For more information about the project contact Anna Fariello at 828.227.2499 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Culture and history to take rightful place in new visitor center

A ceremonial groundbreaking was held this week for a new visitor center at the main North Carolina entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park outside Cherokee.

The new visitor center will showcase the cultural heritage of the region, from the Cherokee to early Appalachian settlers — or the “human side of the park,” as Steve Woody, a founding member of Friends of the Smokies, called it.

A proper visitor center for the North Carolina side of the park has been a long time coming — 75 years to be exact. Since the park’s creation, North Carolina has limped along with a cramped, make-shift visitor center fashioned out of an old ranger station built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

The new visitor center could help mend North Carolina’s second-fiddle status to Tennessee by establishing a greater presence on this side of the park.

“You have a huge influx of tourists that need a reason to stop here,” said Tom Massie, Jackson County commissioner and former chairman of the Great Smoky Mountains Association.

Since the Smokies’ creation, a master plan has called for a visitor center showcasing the cultural heritage of the region to be constructed at the N.C. entrance to the park. The $3 million project will finally come to fruition thanks to donations raised by the Friends of the Smokies and proceeds from bookstore and gift shop sales by the Great Smoky Mountains Association.

Bo Taylor, leader of a Cherokee traditional dance troupe, said it is fitting that the new visitor center museum will emphasize Cherokee history on the land. The Cherokee were the first people to call the Smokies home.

“Remember us as you go through this park,” Taylor said. “It is part of the DNA of our people.”


75 years and counting

The groundbreaking of the new visitor center on Monday (June 15) doubled as a 75th anniversary celebration. The Smokies was officially created by an act of Congress on June 15, 1934.

“Today we give special thanks to the families who sacrificed to give us one of the great treasures of the United States,” said Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, who spoke during the program.

Shuler said the park provides a connection to the collective heritage of the region. It is also a conduit to teach children about nature. Shuler recalled the life lessons imparted to him on hiking and fishing trips with his father. Shuler encouraged the audience to take the young people in their lives on a hike and get them outdoors.

Shuler also lauded the new visitor center and its cultural focus.

“Visitors from across the county will be able to come here and see our heritage,” Shuler said.

Smokies Superintendent Dale Ditmanson thanked the community leaders and visionaries who helped create the park 75 years ago, as well as the families who sacrificed their land for the park’s creation.

The promise of tourism was a driver in the creation of the Smokies, and has indeed held true.

“Tourism really is the engine that fuels our county,” said Glenn Jones, the chairman of Swain County commissioners. The national park is the anchor of that tourism economy, Jones said.

But the preservation of the land has also been important to locals.

“I can take my grandkids into the park and they can take their grandkids,” Jones said. “It will be here forever.”

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.