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Home for the past: Cherokee museum plans for archive facility

Located in Cherokee’s Cultural District, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian receives about 83,000 visitors each year. Holly Kays photo Located in Cherokee’s Cultural District, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian receives about 83,000 visitors each year. Holly Kays photo

A new archival facility, reimagined exhibit space and a website overhaul are all on the horizon for the Museum of the Cherokee Indian as Shana Bushyhead Condill  enters her second year leading the organization.

“When I came on board about a year ago, we had a conversation about the museum in general and what we were hoping to do,” she said. “For me, what was important was putting community first. We’ve sort of operated the museum for a long time as an attraction, which is important, but I wanted to swing that pendulum back towards our community first.”

Condill’s initial interest was revamping the museum’s permanent exhibit, which has been around since 1998. She started thinking that if collections could be moved to an offsite facility, there would be more exhibition space available downtown. It turned out, that’s a conversation that had been circulating in Cherokee for a long time. 

In Condill’s view, it’s an urgent conversation. The museum is running out of space for its collections, even as it seeks to expand its art collection and continually adds new artifacts to its repository. The Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, which acknowledges tribal ownership of remains and artifacts removed from tribal and federal lands, was enacted in 1990 but has recently received increased buy-in from organizations interested in returning tribal artifacts to their ancestral home.  

“We know there are EBCI collections being held off the Boundary,” she told Tribal Council during a Feb. 3 meeting . “From our own assessment we also know that our invaluable museum collections, both object and paper, need a home that better cares for and honors them. My staff and I consider this to be our most important task. This is our number one priority.”

Condill was before Tribal Council to speak in favor of a resolution  designating a portion of the Kituwah  property in Swain County — which was recently taken into federal trust for the tribe — as the future site of a permanent collections and archival facility. According to the resolution, the building would go on a parcel located on the opposite site of U.S. 19 from the fields and across Galbraith Road from the existing Tribal Historic Preservation Office. 

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Over the last two decades, Tribal Council has passed at least seven resolutions pertaining to constructing an archival facility, but this time the tribal government intends to see the project through, Principal Chief Richard Sneed said Feb. 3. 

“We’ve made this a top priority because it’s something that is really our responsibility as the tribe to bring our artifacts, our art back home,” he said. 

The resolution passed unanimously, but its goals will take time to realize. Condill said the three projects — the collections facility, permanent exhibit and website — go hand-in-hand and should move forward in tandem, and with abundant community input. 

“Our strategic plan is through 2024, and I’m really hopeful that we’re full-on into those projects by then, at the same time making it really clear that we want to represent our community and not just plow through with our own ideas,” she said. 

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