It's business as usual at Harrah's Cherokee Casino on this balmy summer evening. Burly guys wheel carts through the crowded aisles, harvesting the take from Digital 21 and Double Bonus Poker machines. Neon flashes. Cigarette smoke swirls. Jackpots clink seductively as a man in a wheelchair leans into a slot machine while the sound system plays "Too Late to Turn Back Now."
Business as usual, that is, except for the conversation in the Seven Sisters Restaurant, tucked behind the big room's back wall. There, two Cherokee chiefs are explaining how their casino came to be part of an exhibition at the new National Museum of the American Indian, which opens in Washington next week on the Mall.
Those involved in organizing the Eastern Band's NMAI exhibit include, clockwise from upper left, Lynne Harlan, Marie Junaluska, Carmaleta Monteith, Jerry Wolfe and Walker Calhoun.
(Photos Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
The museum says it wants to let Native Americans tell their own stories for a change. To that end, it invited 24 native communities from around the hemisphere to help shape three opening exhibitions. The North Carolina Cherokees -- known as the Eastern Band, to distinguish them from their more numerous brethren whom the U.S. government forced west in 1838 on the infamous Trail of Tears -- were one of eight tribes recruited for a historical exhibition and asked to select 10 events from their thousands of years of existence that helped define who they are today.
Event No. 9 was the opening of the casino on Nov. 13, 1997.
To some, this seemed a strange choice for a national museum display. "I questioned it myself," says Joyce Dugan, who was principal chief of the Eastern Band when the casino opened and now works as a manager there. "It seemed odd that it would be placed in there among everything else about us."
When building the casino was first proposed, many Cherokees worried that it might destroy their community. Dugan herself had feared the potential for corruption; the Eastern Band's financial systems, she says, were inadequate to manage millions in new revenue. To help address this, she recruited Michell Hicks, the man she's having dinner with tonight. A certified public accountant with six years experience at a New York firm, Hicks became his tribe's financial officer and is now principal chief himself.
And yet: Here was a tribe that had fought through impoverishment for a century and a half, a community perpetually in pursuit of ways to keep its culture and people alive in their beautiful homeland hard up against Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If the Eastern Band needed to roll the cultural dice and tart up Cherokee like Las Vegas -- well, why not?
"We're all about survival," Hicks says.
The Stories They Tell
The National Museum of the American Indian is all about survival, too. The mere existence of its new building on the Mall, standing proud amid the monumental architecture of the hemisphere's Euro-American conquerors, is a dramatic statement to that effect. The gigantic curved overhang above its east-facing entrance suggests a blunt finger pointing toward the Capitol. One way to read the symbolism is: You guys did your worst, but we're still here.
If you're looking for the deeper meaning of the new museum, however, it helps to get out of imperial Washington -- a place Native Americans have never found especially congenial -- and schlep your questions down to the Qualla Boundary, as the Eastern Band's 56,000-acre reservation in western North Carolina is known.
What stories did the Cherokees choose to define themselves, and why? What does being "all about survival" really mean? Talk to the people who helped put the NMAI's Eastern Band display together and you'll learn that the words encompass many things.
They mean speaking and writing the language of Sequoyah, and passing it on, and doing the same with traditional games and dances. They mean honoring an ancestor whose death helped keep his people off the Trail of Tears, and never mind how much the story blends fact and myth. They mean, at times, deliberately undermining traditional culture to save it. In sum, survival means doing whatever it takes to stay rooted here in the rugged Appalachian landscape first shaped -- as Cherokee legend has it -- by a buzzard in flight.
Spend enough time with the Eastern Band and you'll start seeing history as Cherokees see it. At the same time, you'll begin to grasp the broader survival story the Indian museum has undertaken to tell.