Harrah’s Cherokee Casino has donated $10,000 to Friends of the Smokies in honor of the 75th anniversary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park this year.
The contribution recognizes the value of having the most visited national park in the country at Cherokee’s doorstep.
“I can remember as a child sitting under an apple tree under the highway watching the traffic go by just bumper to bumper,” said Joyce Dugan, the director of Communications and Relations for Harrah’s.
While Cherokee is a unique tourist draw in its own right, Dugan said the creation of the park instantly catapulted Cherokee into a tourism economy.
“There was a little dabbling in tourism prior to the park opening because there was curiosity about Indians. But being the gateway to the park brought thousands more through,” Dugan said. “There was just one way in and one way out. It really did open up Cherokee.”
Harrah’s sees 3.5 million visitors a year — roughly the same number that the North Carolina side of the Smokies sees every year.
“I think we share some of the same patrons,” Dugan said. “I think we can work hand in hand and promote each other.”
Cherokee has been retooling its tourism image in recent years. A large part of the new image has involved incorporating themes of nature into architecture and town layout, and promoting the Tribe’s various cultural tourism attractions like the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, “Unto These Hills” outdoor drama, and the Oconaluftee Indian Village.
The park means more to the tribe than just tourism, however. The Cherokee have a spiritual connection with the landscape that was preserved by the park’s creation.
“As a tribe in these United States, our role should always be about the protection of the earth,” said Dugan, who previously served as chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. “That’s what we stood for: not taking from the earth anything you could not use and always giving back. But we have adopted so many modern ways, we tend to abuse it, too. The park serves as a reminder to us of what preservation is all about.”
Dugan said there is some resentment against the park for the recent loss of gathering rights, which the Cherokee see as their right as native peoples. Cherokee historically were allowed to gather wild plants — mushrooms, berries, ramps, herbs, greens and the like. The park has recently tried to put an end to the special status afforded to the Cherokee people.
“Even though there have been resentments along the way, we know what a wonderful thing it was,” Dugan said of the park. “I think sometimes personally, ‘What if that park had not been designated? What would it look like?’ I just can’t imagine. In that respect, most all of us here who are Cherokee appreciate that.”