Tribal Grounds

Cherokee, North Carolina

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In the Boy Scouts I was a member of the Order of the Arrow. When someone asks me what it was I tell them it was an ‘elite camping squadron.’ I don’t quite recall what it was, but membership required participation in an ‘ordeal,’ which, among a vow of silence and manual labor, consisted of sleeping out under the stars with no food, water, or tent by yourself where ever you were instructed to sleep. In retrospect… not much of an ordeal at all. When I went camping just west of Cherokee in the Smokies I believe I finally earned my status in the squadron. My bright idea to backpack in away from the RVs and rabble for a quiet night in the woods backfired when the fabled black bears of the area took an interest in our site. Miles away from anyone, we spent the night dead still and silent, mentally rehearsing our primal screams inside our tent and listening to the creatures shuffle and gallop around, intermittently grunting and groaning and sniffing. My hand never left my camp shovel. At one point one of the beasts trotted around and fell silent in a thicket near the tent where I was sure it lay in wait. The first bird song of the morning was beautiful and unzipping the tent fly to see a blank forest gave me pause to revalue my life. We got the fuck out of there shortly after sunrise and decided to check out the coffeehouse we had seen driving through Cherokee the previous morning.

Tribal Grounds

Cherokee is the quintessential national park buffer with its gift shops and shows, such as ‘Unto these Hills,’ devoted to the indigenous people that called the area home. There was also a casino and a ‘zoo’ with 6 bear cubs. The strong native American theme here replaces what is typically Flintstones or Santa related tourist traps. It is hard for me to say ‘theme’ though, as the inhabitants are in fact Cherokees. I know it is not in my purview to judge, but I was disappointed in the silliness of the representations in the area which seemed to lower expectations to the level of team mascots selling peace pipes. However, the significant presence of what I assume is the Cherokee written language made me think there was a deeper striving to perhaps show visitors the strength of the culture and the people. Some reading on the town will quickly reveal that it is in fact the intention of the tribe to revamp the image portrayed by the place and they are going so far as to remove distasteful and tacky outlets capitalizing on popular conceptions of ‘Indians.’

Tribal Grounds

When I am on the outskirts of a national park there is little I expect more as a vegan gourmand than to be eating an iceberg lettuce salad and drinking black diner coffee. Never would I have imagined, that in this little enclave I would find an inspiring and satisfying place. Tribal Grounds on the one hand could be seen as your typical coffee shop. There was some sort of proto-industrial music playing, there were thrift store couches, young baristas. What was odd was that it was here, on the outskirts of a national park and amidst the usual pap. But as much as it was a typical shop, because it was where it was, not amidst the tourist crap, but amidst the history and culture of ancient people, it seemed distinctive. There was something more that just cups made of recycled material and recycling bins and soy milk, although all that was there; there was a sense of pride, of ownership of the place, investment, and what I took away most of all was a stewardship, not only over the earth, but over the place, Cherokee. Perhaps having survived my pathetic mountain ordeal put me in a reverent mood, or the shock of being able to pour soy milk in my beverage in a Western Carolina 1-stoplight-town quelled my jaded perceptions. However, I think it is merely the fact that Tribal Grounds was a satisfying place to be, with helpful people, and positive aspirations illustrating culture by modern lived example rather than charades.

They also roast their own fair-trade beans. Hail!

Tribal Grounds

Tribal Grounds

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Tribal Grounds

516 Tsali Boulevard
Cherokee, North Carolina 28719

soymilk: extra charge
fair trade: available

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