When I look back on my life now and consider the most memorable moments, I always conclude that the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has had a significant influence on me.
From the time I was 5 years old and rode with my grandfather in his big red and white Esso truck to take kerosene and gasoline to Howell’s Grocery, I have been fascinated by the Cherokee culture and its people. I saw my first “real Cherokee” at Howell’s Grocery on that day, and although my experience has radically changed over the years, no other factor (except my own Appalachian culture) has both influenced and fascinated me more.
This was during World War II. There was very little traffic in the little village that would become Cherokee’s “commercial strip.” The road was unpaved, and the Oconaluftee river behind the store was full of Cherokee children swimming and laughing. Chief Carl Standing Deer, “the most photographed Indian in America” (according to the sign by his wigwam), was sitting on a tree stump behind the store, and he was in full “chief” regalia. He sported a full warbonnet, a torquoise-ladden vest, leather britches and beaded moccasins. Behind him was a large straw-stuffed bull’s eye target, and when Standing Deer spotted me, a gaping 6-year-old who stood in awe looking at him, he whipped out a bow and a quiver of arrows and sent one red -and-blue arrow thudding into the center of the target.
“Wow!” I said.
Standing Deer smiled at me, then kneeled down, with all of those feathers quivering in the breeze. He shook my hand.
“Can you speak Cherokee?” he said.
I shook my head. He then taught me to say, “Hello, how are you?” in Cherokee. It sounded like “Cee, Ooo. Sticki-sty-you.” While I was repeating the words and Standing Deer was nodding approvingly, a man in shorts came down the steps beside the store. He was leading his daughter, who was about my age. He raised his camera to take a picture of the Chief. Standing Deer immediately swept both arms behind his feathered bonnet and turned the feathers inside out. Suddenly, he looked like a ruptured turkey. Then, he extended his hand with an open palm. “Tip!” he said.
The man with the camera was confused, but he finally understood and came forward, placing several coins in the Chief’s palm. The change in the Chief was amazing. The feathers once more spread behind him, and he fired several arrows into the big target. He picked the young girl up and posed for the man and his camera. Finally, the man and his daughter left. When we heard the car drive away, Chief Standing Deer said, “That was my first customer today.” He smiled wryly, and said, “Not many people want to take my picture.”
“I would if I had a camera,” I said. The Chief laughed.
“It is OK,” he said. “They are coming. President Roosevelt has been here and dedicated the Park. They will come now. Hundreds, maybe even thousands.”
My grandfather came then. He said he had filled the tanks, and we could go home.
“You come from Sylva?” asked the Chief. My grandfather nodded.
“Before long, you will have to come several times in one week,” said the Chief. “We will sell a lot of gas.”
As I turned to leave with my grandfather, Standing Deer waved goodbye.
“Cee Ooh, Sty you,” I said. He laughed.
In the years to come, I would learn that Chief Standing Deer was not the chief of the Cherokees. There were numerous “chiefs” standing in front of craftshops, each wearing a warbonnet that had been ordered from South Dakota. Sometimes, there was a teepee that was made from tin or canvas.
The great deception was beginning. As the years passed, it would become more complex and misleading. In some ways, it still continues today.
Who created “the great deception?” It certainly wasn’t the Cherokees.