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Cherokee foundation branching out

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By Rosie Molinary

When the Cherokee Tribe first built its casino, many believed it would create a surge in tourism for its region of Western North Carolina.

But the opposite happened. Individuals visiting the casino never explored the Qualla Boundary, the Cherokee’s trusted land, and tourists once interested in gaining a unusual cultural perspective stopped visiting.

Concerned with the decline in tourism and the subsequent regression of the Cherokee community, the leadership of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians worked with the state of North Carolina to create the Cherokee Preservation Foundation.

Created in 2000, the foundation is independent of the tribe and is charged with reinvesting annual gaming profits for the benefit of the community.

In its first three years of operation, the foundation received $5 million a year from the profits, while in subsequent years it is eligible to receive up to $10 million a year, depending on the casino’s financial performance.

The foundation’s mission is to increase the quality of life for the Eastern Band and strengthen Western North Carolina, says Susan Jenkins, executive director of the foundation.

It does that by acting not only as a funder, but as a convener.

“Bringing people together is so important because we are in an area where we don’t have a critical mass of anything,” she says.

The foundation also helps develop new partnerships.

“We provide $5 million to $6 million dollars a year in grants, but I am not happy if we are not getting the Gates, Kellogg and other foundations into this region for further investment,” says Jenkins.

The foundation operates on a yearly cycle and offers grants in the areas of cultural preservation, economic development and environmental preservation.

Since it began awarding grants in 2002, the foundation has given out $27 million, which was leveraged for a total investment in the community of $62 million, including in-kind donations, other grants and financial resources from other sources, says Jenkins.

In addition to dollars, the foundation provides community leadership.

With over $8 million dollars directed toward principal cultural attractions in the area, including the Cherokee Historical Association, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, and the Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual, the foundation also worked with the groups to write business plans and develop strategic plans.

Since then, those organizations have partnered to create a branding and marketing campaign, revamped their well-known production of Unto These Hills, expanded the museum’s facilities and exhibits, and created other new opportunities.

Those efforts have paid off.  In September 2006, Cherokee was named the Travel Attraction of the Year by the Southeastern Tourism Society and received an award for the travel marketing effort.

With its own original programming and partnerships, the foundation is working on revitalizing the Cherokee language, given that seven in 10 fluent Cherokee speakers are over age 50.

The language effort includes a partnership with Western Carolina University, where Cherokee language teachers will be trained.

Other initiatives, including a program that sends fourteen students to Costa Rica each summer and a new youth leadership curriculum based on Cherokee culture, are critical to revitalizing the Qualla Boundary, says Jenkins.

“So goes the tribe, so goes the region,” Jenkins says. “So goes the region, so goes the tribe.”

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