Celebrating 70 Years of Unto These Hills: Actors Reflect | Cherokee, NC

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Celebrating 70 Years of Unto These Hills: Actors Reflect

Even though the production of Unto These Hills is cancelled this year due to COVID-19, 2020 still marks 70 years of celebrating Unto These Hills. As one of the oldest running outdoor dramas in the United States, Unto These Hills remains one of the most popular and beloved attractions in Cherokee. To date, over six million people have watched the stirring performance. It has become a mainstay event for locals and visiting families who return to see it year after year. 

Living History of Unto These Hills

Unto These Hills tells the story of the Cherokee people through a moving performance that includes song, dance, and lots of action. It follows the story of the Cherokee up through the removal in 1838 through the Trail of Tears to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, and beyond. The storylines of notable historic Cherokee figures weave through the drama, including Sequoyah, Junaluska, Chief Yonaguska, and William Holland Thomas.

Actors Reflect: A Sense of Family and Tradition

For many of the actors and staff of Unto These Hills, being a part of the production has changed their lives.

A Family Show

For Thad Walker, being a part of Unto These Hills is a badge of honor. This would have been Thad’s fourth summer with the show as an actor and his second summer as Associate Artistic Director. He has played Junaluska, Tecumseh, Seqouyah, Daniel Webster, and Elias Boudinot as an understudy for two weeks. This summer he was going to play Major Davis.

At first, Thad was interested in acting in Unto These Hills to have a job, but he soon realized it was so much more than that.

“Once I got to Cherokee and saw this beautiful play, and actually heard the story of the Cherokee, I realized how important this story is to tell,” Thad says. “In today's climate, to say, ‘It's not that a man's skin is black, red, or white. Choose all men as your brother.’ I think that is something people need to hear more, and not just read it on a computer screen.”

So many young actors got their start in Unto These Hills.

“I can't tell you how many times someone has told me they did the show 25 years ago. One of my professors in Grad School had his first job here back in the 80's,” Thad says. “My favorite part is hearing the stories of the audience members who come to see the show. I've had people tell me that they have been trying to see the show for two decades and that they were so happy they finally got to. Or people who say that their parents brought them when they were kids, and now they are bringing their own kids. We are a FAMILY show in every sense of the word.”

Thad says that being in Unto These Hills makes for a special summer filled with friendships and experiences that will never happen again.

Nights That Sparkle

Kaki Clements, who has been with Unto These Hills since 2017, says that being a part of Unto These Hills is one of the coolest experiences she’s ever had.

“This story and the town of Cherokee give me far more than I could ever hope to give in return and continue to weave themselves into the fabric of my daily life,” Kaki says. “I have made so many close friends working at Unto These Hills; truthfully, not a week goes by in my life without talking to a UTH-er, or three. I have built so many friends who push me to be a better actor and storyteller in every way. I am especially grateful for that aspect of this company.”

Kaki says that being a part of Unto These Hills has also changed the lens through which she views the world. 

“I feel I am more conscious of the ways in which we tell stories, both in traditional storytelling formats (books, movies, etc.) and in our day to day interactions (news media, talking with friends, etc.), and the perspectives we leave out in doing so,” Kaki says.

Kaki says she’ll miss those ‘magic moments that happen on stage every night.’

“The show ebbs and flows, as we do over 60 performances every year, and each night feels a little different. I live for those moments each night that just really sparkle. Usually for me, it’s seeing Tsali come back from the war or watching Nundayeli see her wedding dress for the first time,” Kaki says.

There’s no denying that Unto These Hills is a special experience for visitors.

Kaki says that for many, Unto These Hills is their childhood; it was a family tradition on the summer camping trip or the last special thing they did with their grandfather. 

“There’s something magical about Unto These Hills, and our audiences really hold that close throughout their lives,” Kaki says.

“Anyone who has ever spent time in the Smoky Mountains will tell you that twilight in the Smokies is otherworldly. There is something so enchanting about sitting in an outdoor theatre, surrounded by the Smoky Mountains, just as the sun starts to set, and hearing that opening narration... ‘In the beginning there was the land…’ UTH transports you, and it’s hard to forget a feeling like that.”

“You are the Story” 

In 2014, Wes Milton had three contracts and he chose Unto These Hills.

“After the summer of 2014, I knew I had to go back. I fell in love with the mountains, but most importantly the culture,” Wes says. “I made lifelong friends who I now consider forever family. I helped my now fiance get a job with me, which made my summers in Cherokee even more memorable.”

Wes Milton has overseen special effects as the Pyro Master and he’s played the role of Sam Houston. From 2014-2019, he understudied many roles and stepped into several, including Rev. Worcester, Prospector Elijah, William Henry Harrison, and Senator Webster. After the 2019 season, he took a new position as Special Effects Coordinator.

Growing up, Wes recalls only one paragraph in history books on Native Americans.

“In my opinion, American History overlooks Native Americans, not only the hardships that they endured through manifest destiny, but also their culture that is American culture,” Wes says. “Being involved in UTH gives you a sense of pride. You are not just telling the story. You are the story. There is a massive responsibility you take on as outreach to patrons and tourists when they visit and watch the show. You take that responsibility with you in the off season, back home, and continue educating. There's more to the Cherokee than just a paragraph on the Removal.”

Wes says that both Unto These Hills and the Oconaluftee Indian Village offer an immersive learning experience into the lives of the Cherokee that you “simply cannot get anywhere else.”

“From hearing patrons talk at meet and greets and at the Oconaluftee Indian Village, there is definitely a sense of tradition. Families come to see our show generation after generation. The grandchildren who see our show will bring their grandchildren one day. The impact and outreach we create spreads like wildfire,” Wes says.

Refunds, Exchanges, and a Return in 2021

If you need to request a refund or exchange for tickets for Unto These Hills for next year, please call 828-497-2111 or email groupsandtouring@cherokeeadventure.com. Staff will be in the office from 9 am to 4 pm to answer your questions. Also, if you would like to use your pre-purchased tickets as a donation, the Cherokee Historical Association staff can provide the information you need for a tax write-off.

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