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  • A Cherokee EpicKermit Hunter’s Unto These Hills and the Mythologizing of Cherokee History
  • Gregory D. Smithers (bio)

On July 1, 1950, 2,400 patrons sat expectantly in the crisp evening air at the Mountainside Theatre, an amphitheater in Cherokee, North Carolina. On that night, a predominantly white audience witnessed the premiere of the outdoor drama Unto These Hills.1 Written by playwright Kermit Hunter and sponsored by the Cherokee Historical Society, a group of white business leaders, Unto These Hills was written and performed as part of a larger effort to stimulate the economy of western North Carolina by touting the region as an adventure-educational tourist destination.2 In its first year of production, Unto These Hills drew 100,000 visitors to the Mountainside Theatre at the Eastern Cherokee Band’s Qualla Boundary Reservation. By the mid-1950s, Unto These Hills had become the “largest attended outdoor drama in America.” According to a 1997 report by the Cherokee Historical Society, over 3 million people (or 2,133 people per performance) had seen Unto These Hills since its 1950 premiere. And ticket sales from the play injected well over $1 million into the local economy. Prior to the opening of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino in 1997, the income generated from Unto These Hills proved pivotal in funding the Oconaluft-ee Indian Village—which tourist brochures advertised as an “authentic working [Cherokee] village”—and helped fund the construction of the Cherokee Indian Museum and improvements to schools, medical care, and housing for Eastern Band Cherokees.3

Unto These Hills clearly had a major economic impact on the Cherokee community of western North Carolina in the half century after its first season of production. Despite this, Hunter’s most famous outdoor drama has attracted surprisingly little critical analysis from historians, folklorists, and dramatists. As such, the impact that Unto These Hills had [End Page 1] on American pop culture understandings of Cherokee history remains underdeveloped. Scholars who have turned their attention to Hunter’s most famous play, such as historians Andrew Denson and Tamrala Greer Swafford, provide general overviews of the socioeconomic impact of Unto These Hills on North Carolina’s Cherokee communities. Others, such as literary and composition scholar Adrienne Hollifield, have placed Unto These Hills in the broader folkloric culture of the South.4

Appealing to the folkloric and recreational pleasures of the Great Smokies (and Appalachian region more generally) became a central component of tourism advertising during the Cold War decades. The promotion of Appalachian tourism began in earnest during the Great Depression under the auspices of the Tennessee Valley Authority (tva). The tva promoted the Appalachian region as a vacation destination defined by outdoor adventure and cultural discovery. Scholars such as Torben H. Larsen, Al Fritsch, and Kristin Johannsen have all observed that after World War II advertisements for Appalachian tourist destinations continued the marketing strategy initiated by the tva. Postwar advertisers also touted the educational pleasures to be found at cultural venues such as museums and outdoor theaters. These venues were designed to complement the rapidly expanding ecotourism market of the 1950s and 1960s as vacationers temporarily left their busy urban lives behind them and traveled by plane, train, or automobile to Appalachia in hope of enjoying pristine rivers and hiking trails while taking in a little local history and culture at nearby museums.5

The more exhaustive studies of tourism and the theatrical arts in western North Carolina highlight the commercial importance of local museums and an outdoor drama like Unto These Hills in the Cold War era, but these studies offer limited textual analysis of the place of Hunter’s most famous drama in the Great Smokies. Studies by Christina Beard-Moose, Richard Starnes, Matthew Thompson, and Heidi Nees provide synopses of Unto These Hills that serve the larger purpose of understanding the use of cultural stereotypes in promoting tourism to the Great Smoky Mountain region after World War II. Beard-Moose, for example, confines her analysis of Unto These Hills to a reiteration of historian John Finger’s terse dismissal of the play as “formulaic” and being more mythology than history.6 Despite these harsh (and not entirely unwarranted) assessments, the historical...