Cherokee, N.C. – Snuggled between the Smokey Mountains and the Tuckaseegee River are 300 acres thought to be the spiritual birthplace of the Cherokee Indians. In 1996 the tribe bought back land where the ancient village of Kituwah stood hundreds of years ago.
But now, some Cherokee members say they want to build a golf course on that spot to lure more visitors — a prospect that has upset others in the tribe and propelled them to fight to preserve the land.
"It’s a sacred place and we want to leave it as such," said Marie Junaluska, Cherokee Tribal Council member. "I'm one that wants to see it preserved for our youth. What are they going to have if we start developing this? We need to save as much as we can."
Proponents of the golf course plan agree that the land is sacred — but point to the economic need for tourism.
"It’s like our Garden of Eden — it’s where we originated," said Chief Leon Jones of the Eastern Band of Cherokee. "But there are people who want to develop the land. We paid quite a tidy sum for it, and they feel that we should use it and make some gain from it."
Nearby, the town of Cherokee, N.C., is packed with stores selling trinkets, already cashing in on Native American heritage.
The tribe has made quite a bundle on Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, which lies next to the tract of land where the golf course might be built. In the four years since it opened, the casino has pumped more than $100 million into the local economy, attracting 3 million visitors annually.
"The standard of living on the reservation has gone up considerably," Jones said. "I think we needed a shot in the arm."
Excavation of the site in question is already underway, and archeologists have unearthed pottery and other artifacts from the ancient village.
"This is the touchstone of their identity," said archeologist Brett Riggs, the head of the dig. "For the Cherokee folk, they’re very much defined by their common history, by their past."
The battle between profit and historic tradition will likely be left to the entire Cherokee community. A tribal referendum on the future of the land could take place this fall.
Jones believes that the part of the land with artifacts can be preserved, while another section can be used for the golf course.
"It's a controversy," he said. "It's one that needs to be settled, and we need to know which direction we are going."
Fox News’ Catherine Donaldson-Evans contributed to this report.
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