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Conversation with the Museum of Cherokee People: Sovereignty and self-determination

As you enter the Qualla Boundary, the signs read, "Welcome to the Cherokee Reservation." BPR discusses with the Museum of Cherokee People the meaning behind these signs.
BPR News
As you enter the Qualla Boundary, the signs read, "Welcome to the Cherokee Reservation." BPR discusses with the Museum of Cherokee People the meaning behind these signs.

This is a selection from a conversation during the Appalachian Studies Conference at BPR’s Listening Lounge at Western Carolina University.

A new exhibit at the Museum of the Cherokee People opens today. Called sov·er·eign·ty, the exhibit focuses on the autonomy of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The title is written as a dictionary entry to signify that the museum’s curator are exploring the definition of sovereignty. The museum’s Director of Education Dakota Brown and Director of Collections Evan Mathis were co-curators of the exhibit. The pair held a conversation hour with BPR’s Senior Regional Reporter Lilly Knoepp at the Appalachian Studies Conference earlier this month.

BPR's Lilly Knoepp spoke with Museum of the Cherokee People Director of Education Dakota Brown and Director of Collections Evan Mathis at the Appalachian Studies Conference on Friday March 8 at Western Carolina University.
BPR News
BPR's Lilly Knoepp spoke with Museum of the Cherokee People Director of Education Dakota Brown and Director of Collections Evan Mathis at the Appalachian Studies Conference on Friday March 8 at Western Carolina University.

An alternative path to museum work

Brown and Mathis both took alternative paths to museum work. Brown first went to college to study finance because a professor told her there weren’t any jobs in history.

“I worked in the marketing department at the casino and it was really close to the finance department,” she remembers. “I would walk in there and there were no windows in their office and they were all hunched over at their cubicles just like really typing away and I was like, ‘Wow, I don't think I can do this.”

After working at the museum and being promoted as an interim leader she realized that history and serving her community are her passions.

Mathis has a degree in history but upon moving back to Western North Carolina the only job he could find initially was night shift patient registration in the emergency room at the local hospital. He moved up to the supply department and has translated his skills in tracking hospital supplies to managing collections at the museum. Mathis has also been doing beadwork since he was 15 years old.

“EBCI [Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian] tribal members taught me how to bead and how to make moccasins and how to make my own regalia. I've experimented with basketry, pottery, a little bit of carving (not very much), finger weaving. I know how to make all the objects that I'm caring for (at the museum),” Mathis said.

Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act

After joining the museum staff in late 2021, Mathis’ first task was going through all of the collections in January 2022. He said that this was the first known inventory of the museum since 1998. He was particularly interested in understanding which items were potentially NAGPRA eligible. NAGPRA stands for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. It was passed in 1990 and gives tribes the right to ancestral human remains, funerary objects and objects of cultural patrimony.

Mathis explains that that any intact Native American or Indigenous pottery was likely looted from a grave.

“We did the inventory of the permanent exhibit and my suspicions were correct. There were objects - even some pots that said, 'from Indian grave on the bottom.' I think we've cried as much as we can about it at this point. Like we have no more tears left to cry but it's just really gross to think about graves being robbed and looted and then put on exhibit in a museum,” Mathis said.

BPR reported on how North Carolina institutions are following NAGPRA laws. Universities, museums and other organizations in the state continue to hold more than 1,200 Indigenous remains. A national investigation by ProPublica in 2023 found that only about half of the more than 200,000 human remains collected across the country have been made available for return to tribes. In North Carolina, that return rate is even lower with less than 30% of ancestral remains held in institutions have been made available for return.

In 2023, the Department of the Interior announced new rules within NAGPRA that the department hopes will speed up repatriation and close loopholes,BPR also reported.

Disruption

The removal of these ceremonial and funerary objects left empty shelves in the Museum, Brown and Mathis explained. They decided to invite Eastern Band and Cherokee Nation artists to respond to the items that were removed in a “band-aid” exhibit called “Disruption.” More than three dozen artists responded to the removal of dozens of objects from the museum’s shelves.

Brown said that folks would ask why there were “new artifacts” at the museum, but she was encouraged that the exhibit challenged visitors.

“That was disrupting their expectations of what they were going to see when they went to see an Indian exhibit or went to see a Cherokee exhibit. They were being confronted with this idea that their expectations was to see arrowheads and was to see like primitive tools and dioramas of Indian life. So to come in and see contemporary Cherokee artwork was, I think, sometimes hard for some of them to grapple with and we were fine with it. Our community loved it,” Brown said.

Tribal Sovereignty

The new sov·er·eign·ty exhibit explores the tribe’s tourist economy and educates visitors about the Eastern Band of Cherokees’ autonomy, its relationship with the U.S. government, and how the tribe has defined its own relationship with its land, people and culture.

This is encapsulated in the signs leading onto the Qualla Boundary that read, “Cherokee Reservation.” Brown explains that the Eastern Band of Cherokee bought back their land after the 1830 Removal Act and put it into a federal trust unlike other tribes who live on reservation land owned by the federal government. However, the reservation signs were put up to fulfill the narrative tourists expected, Brown says.

“They had these conceptions that they brought with them to see headdresses and leather and fringe and things like that. Then they got to Cherokee and there was just really poor people and regular clothes,” Brown said. “And so we started capitalizing our community — started capitalizing on those stereotypes and on those images.”

Brown said she hopes that someday the signs will come down.

“It was born out of sovereignty which is why I do have love for those signs, even though they are wrong,” Brown said.

New collection site being built

The sov·er·eign·ty exhibit is also in response to upgrades that need to be made at the museum to better care for the collection. The Eastern Band of Cherokee has been discussing the construction of a new collections facility since 1994.

“The building wasn't built in a way that that accounted for that the fact that we live in a rain forest and we get a lot of rain here,” Brown said.

In February, officials announced the project, which will be at the Kituwah Mound property, is moving forward, according to the Cherokee One Feather. The Museum of the Cherokee People recently received a $150,000 grant from the Duke Foundation to help with the research and development of the project.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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