Making History:
Cherokee Indian Fair

Cherokee Indian Fair

Seasonal gatherings, particularly at harvest time, have long been a part of Cherokee society, as described by travelers and observers of Native American culture such as John Lawson and William Bartram. At a general tribal council meeting at Cheoah in Graham County, North Carolina, in 1868, a gathering of Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians gave the council permission to fix a place and days for holding a “national” fair. Over 50 years would pass, however, before such a fair was formally established in 1914 and held annually. 1

The Cherokee Indian Fair, held each autumn, has been a consistent venue for showcasing native crafts. Prizes are awarded in a number of categories that include baskets, pottery, masks, stone carving, woodworking, and metalwork. Other categories of competition include traditional foodways and agriculture.

Several circumstances during the early 20th century contributed to the institution of the Cherokee Indian Fair. The Appalachian Railway and Southern Railway Systems made travel easier in the mountainous regions that had previously been nearly impassable for tourists and casual travelers. Social relations also began to change somewhat at this time. Teller of Cherokee stories and honorary member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Mary Ulmer Chiltoskey, in her history of the Cherokee Indian Fair, states:

“The Indian and the white cultures were beginning to show signs of merging in pleasant settings. As relationships improved between the Cherokee of the Qualla Indian Boundary it is no surprise that, early in the 20th century, the Cherokees and their white neighbors were ready to enjoy together the types of celebrations that had been thought of as strictly ‘Cherokee’.” 2

From the time it was first held regularly in 1914, one of the primary functions of the Cherokee Indian Fair has been to sponsor craft competitions that provide a showcase for Cherokee craftspeople to display the wide variety and high quality of their work. The earliest fairs held competitions and offered premiums in two craft divisions: “Ladies’ Work” and “Indian Arts and Crafts.” Open only to Cherokee craftspeople, the competitions featured categories in traditional Cherokee crafts like basket making, pottery making, blowgun and dart making, and mask making as well as crafts more often associated with mainstream American culture like knitting, embroidery, furniture construction, and jewelry making.

Cherokee Indian Fair Program
The annual fair was suspended from 1942 to 1945 due to World War II

First printed by Miller Printing Co. of Asheville, North Carolina, the earliest fair program found in the collection of Hunter Library is dated 1929. It contains an announcement of the fair dates, the purpose of the fair, and a list of the directors and committee members of the Cherokee Indian Fair Association. Many prominent Cherokee citizens and craftspeople helped to organize the fair. Renowned woodworker Will West Long, representing Big Cove, served as one of the Directors of the fair from 1932 to 1946. The programs were usually between 20 to 30 pages long and often featured photographs of events at previous Cherokee Fairs, like stick ball games and displays of craft items. Beginning in 1950, advertisements for local craft shops and Cherokee tourist attractions were included in the programs. Descriptions of fair amusements were also included in the fair programs, including Indian ball games, archery and blowgun contests, Green Corn and Eagle Dance demonstrations, singing contests, and an annual baby show.

The main portion of the fair programs, however, was devoted to a comprehensive list of the competition categories and the respective premiums offered. In addition to the Arts and Crafts competitions, a wide variety of agricultural categories were judged: nuts, canned fruits and vegetables, home-made butter and cheese, jams, jellies, preserves, vegetable and fruit pickles and relishes, pantry supplies, flowers, bales and bushels of various livestock feeds, livestock, and poultry. Often, different townships set up their own displays to be judged.

The Ladies’ Work division originally included categories in quilting, rug making, weaving, sewing, embroidery, crochet work, tatting and needlework. In 1933, the Ladies’ Work division came to be called Needlework and, in 1948, it was divided into House Furnishing and Clothing, and Fancy Work divisions. A Girls’ Department was added in 1936 and offered girls, ages 10 to 18, the opportunity to submit entries in sewing, weaving, braided rugs, and quilting. Between 1931 and 1959, the number of craft categories in this division grew from 13 to 68 as more categories in clothing and home furnishing were added.

The Arts and Crafts division originally featured 14 categories under several craft headings: rivercane and white oak basket making, pottery, woodworking, mask making, beadwork, and blowgun and dart making. In 1934, honeysuckle baskets and bow and arrow making were added to the list, as were doll making, metal working, and spinning in 1940. A Spinning Contest in which Cherokee craftspeople demonstrated their skill before fair visitors was first held in 1940 as well. 

Cherokee Indian Fair Program

Cherokee Indian Fair program guide, 1948

During World War II, the Cherokee Indian Fair was suspended for the years 1942 to 1945. 3 When the fair resumed in 1946, in addition to seeing displays of the finished craft entries, visitors to the fair were also able to observe the techniques and processes involved in producing the craft items. In that year, demonstrations of basket making, pottery construction, spinning, and weaving were presented. New categories added in 1947 included portrait drawing, jewelry design, and Christmas card design. In 1950, a 2½ page history of the development of Cherokee Arts and Crafts was incorporated into the fair program. By 1959, 86 categories were included in the crafts competition among such headings as Art Metal and jewelry, woodcarving and woodcraft, weaving, basketry, pottery, vegetable dyes, and herbs.

Throughout the Cherokee Indian Fair programs, rules for the Arts and Crafts division were listed and the standards for participation were clarified. The programs stipulated that only native dyes were to be used in all craft items, including baskets, homespun wool, woven or braided rugs, woven towels or home furnishings, and Cherokee dolls. The use of any commercial dye in the production of a craft item was grounds for the item’s immediate disqualification from the craft competition. In many competitions, size requirements were given, and craft submissions that did not meet those requirements were not considered. All competitions were open only to Cherokee Indians living on the Qualla Boundary, the area of land owned by the Eastern Band. Ironically, teachers in the Cherokee schools were ineligible to enter arts and crafts contests. It was specified in the fair programs that all craft entries must have been made in the year since the last fair and be made entirely by the individual entering them. Particularly in later years, descriptions of the qualities by which entries would be judged were also listed in the programs. Traits judged included, “practicality, originality, design, usefulness, craftsmanship, beauty, and excellence of workmanship.”

- Kate Carter, 2009

See More: About the Cherokee Indian Fair

1. Mary Ulmer Chiltoskey, Cherokee Fair & Festival: A History thru [sic] 1978.  (Cherokee, NC: The Association, 1996) 3-4.
2. Chiltoskey, 4-5.
3. Chiltoskey, 12.