It was the saddest museum I had ever visited. If you visit any United States history museum, you start at the birth of the nation and walk through time, through trails and tribulations, watching a nation grow and expand into what we have today. But as you walk through the Museum of the Cherokee Indian it’s like looking at a world in reverse: you start with a great nation and walk through time, watching it fade and decay, until nothing is left. I was on the edge of tears by the time I left the museum two hours later.
I can trace my Cherokee heritage back to Pocahontas, who was my thirteenth great-grandmother, and Chief Moytoy, the last emperor of the Cherokee Nation, who was my ninth great-grandfather. I am also related to Dragging Canoe, a Cherokee war chief who was my sixth great-grandcousin. I have a very distinct Cherokee heritage, but it was not until I visited the Museum of the Cherokee Indian that I realized this heritage is profoundly sad.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m proud to be an American. But I’m also not the naive kid I once was while halfway studying early American history in middle school. The watered-down textbooks of our youth do nothing to accurately describe our nation’s history. While I am proud to be an American, a person who loves my country, I also know our country has had darker days and horrible moments in history. The Cherokee Nation was one of those darker moments that spanned centuries.
After I left the museum I sat down and fervently jotted down a few notes so I would not forget the emotional impact of this museum. I learned a lot about the Cherokee Nation and a few things about my own heritage. Here is a list of my six favorite things I learned.
1. The Cherokee had an origin story for just about everything
Ballgame of the Birds & Animals
This is what the old people told me. Long ago, the birds and the animals were arguing about who was the best. So they decided to settle their differences by playing a game of stickball – anetsa.
The big bear was the captain for the animals. The wolf, the panther, the bobcat, the giant tortoise, and all the strongest, swiftest animals were on his team. The bear felt something tap his foot. Two little creatures wanted to play. But the bear just laughed, because they were so tiny, and kicked them out into the brush.
The little creatures went to the mighty eagle and timidly tapped his sharp talons to get his attention. “We want to play,” they said, “but the bear won’t let us play for the animals.”
“You can play on our team,” said the eagle, “but you’ll need some wings.” So the birds got together – the hawk, the buzzard, the martin, the hummingbird – and all of them decided to cut some leather from their drum to make wings for the first creature. The eagle threw him into the air and he dodged and darted and swooped – the bat, tsamcha. They didn’t have any leather left, so they stretched the skin between the front and back legs of the other little creature, and he glided through the air – the flying squirrel, tewa.
When the game began, the flying squirrel and the bat scored time after time to win the game for the birds. The old people say it doesn’t matter how small you are – you can always do something to help your people. Today you can still see the bat swooping and darting at dusk, just like he did in that game long ago.
This was the first story I read as I entered the museum, and I immediately fell in love with this place. A few minutes later I sat in a small, dark theater in the museum watching a video about the origin story for mankind, told by a reenactor portraying a medicine man. Throughout the museum were stories of the origin of mankind (they have a few different stories), various games, crops and hunting, and origin of words. Each story is riveting and alluring. I spent more time reading the text panels here than any museum I’ve visited in the last five years.
2. The Cherokee didn’t want the Thirteen Colonies to win their independence
Every year I make big plans for the Fourth of July to find a place to celebrate the birth of my nation, watch some amazing fireworks, and eat a hot dog. But it wasn’t until I visited this museum that I realized there was much more at stake than just the independence of thirteen colonies from British rule. There was more to this than the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere, George Washington, and liberty.
When the Revolutionary War broke out, George Washington urged the Indian tribes to remain neutral. Some did, some chose to fight for the colonies, but others fought for the British. They knew if the colonies gained independence from British rule, they would immediately expand westward and take their lands. They were right.
Almost as soon as we won our independence, the oppression of the Cherokee began. President George Washington did his best to ensure the survival of the Cherokee Nation, protecting the lands with laws forbidding expansion, but it was almost impossible to enforce. Just as it was with the Proclamation of 1763, which forbade anyone settling west of the Appalachian Mountains, the laws of the early Congress were difficult to enforce across a vast wilderness.
Soon, expansion happened. It was inevitable. There was no stopping it. At the birth of our nation, as we expanded and grew, another nation dwindled and faded. A simplified version of the Pauli Exclusion Principle of quantum mechanics states that “two objects cannot occupy the same space and time.” That is exactly what happened between the United States and the Cherokee Nation.
3. The newly-formed United States enacted the “Civilization Policy”
The irony of the Civilization Policy is both hilarious and depressing. The United States was founded on the principles of freedom: freedom of religion, freedom of man, freedom from tyranny. Yet, one of the first things the newly-created United States did was to strip those freedoms from the Cherokee.
One text panel inside the museum struck me hard. At first, I was not sure I had read it correctly. I took a photo. A blurry cellphone photo, just so I could quote the text in this story:
At the end of the 1780’s, the United States created the Civilization Policy to transform the Indians from wandering hunters into farmers. The Indians would adopt the American way of life through individual ownership of property, the speaking English, the worship of the one true God, and would govern themselves with written laws. They would give up their culture, religion, and tribal organization. (emphasis added)
So at the dawn of our country, after a bloody revolutionary war fought for our independence from tyranny, after the Constitution had been written that guaranteed freedom to all men, we decided the Cherokee were not men who deserved to be treated equally. Sure enough, while the American way of life still exists, the Cherokee way of life now includes moccasins and casinos with little else left.
4. The Cherokee Nation had major cities, highways, and trade
I didn’t just learn horrible, sad, depressing information at the museum. One of my favorite parts, and the one that took me the most by surprise, was the fact the Cherokee Nation had major cities, highways, and trade. Not only that, but the Cherokee were mound builders. What?!
The Cherokee Nation stretched across the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains from Northern Georgia through Western North Carolina and Northeast Tennessee to Southwest Virginia. The nation was divided into areas like the Lower Towns, Piedmont, and Overhill Towns. Yes, that is right: towns.
It seems so many movies I had ever watched showed all Native Americans living in tee pees in the wilderness. In fact, there was even a restaurant in Cherokee, NC called the Tee Pee Restaurant. But the Cherokee were not nomadic. They constructed stick-built homes and formed small communities, towns, and even major cities. Some of these cities, such as the capital of Etowah, included massive mounds spanning dozens of acres and up to 100′ in height.
There was also an extensive trade network through these major cities and smaller towns. Coastal Native Americans would come to cities like Etowah to trade shells and dried fish for bird feathers and deer skins. The roads were so well-walked it made it very easy for early frontier settlers to find these towns and cities.
5. The Cherokee thought all White Men were from a single tribe
Despite the fact nearly all male Cherokee were athletic, skilled hunters, and agile warriors, there was very little crime or murder. I am certain there are many reasons and factors to explain this, but the one I found most interesting in the museum was the retribution of the victim’s family. It was also this retribution that led to a lot of conflict.
When a Cherokee murders someone, the victim’s family has the right to retribution by killing the murderer. However, if this person cannot be found then the retribution shifts to someone from the same tribe. These tribes were organized like towns (not everyone was related to everyone else), but they were also as close as extended family members. So when one of their tribe would commit murder, they would understand someone had to pay for that crime.
This act of retribution is what led to many problems during interactions between the Cherokee and White Men. A Cherokee chief once asked someone what tribe do the White Men belong to. But Europeans and frontier settlers didn’t understand the complexities of tribes, or the implications of the response. The Cherokee chief was told that all the White Men belonged to the same tribe.
Therefore, if a White Man murdered a Cherokee, and that person could not be found, Cherokee law allowed for any person of that tribe to be killed in retribution. In other words, any White Man. So if a frontier settler murdered a Cherokee, the victim’s family thought they could then kill a British citizen, maybe a French trader, in retribution. This led to a lot of conflict and a massive cultural misunderstanding.
6. The Cherokee were not fighting against civilization, they were fighting against invasion
About a year ago I learned about a large portion of my Cherokee ancestry and the effects they had on a large region of the country. On March 17, 1775 leaders from the Cherokee Nation signed the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals, handing over 20 million acres to frontier settlers that would eventually become parts of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Four of the Cherokee leaders who signed the treaty were Oconastota (my 8th great grandfather), Willanawaw (my 7th great grandcousin), Attakullakulla (my 7th great grandcousin), and Doublehead (my 7th great grandfather).
But there was a dissenting vote during this treaty, one Cherokee leader who was outspoken: Dragging Canoe, my 6th great grandcousin. Dragging Canoe threatened the lead war parties along the frontier lands between present-day Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee, vowing to turn the lands “dark and bloody” if the treaty was signed. He was a man of his word.
When I first learned about this heritage, I made jokes to my friends about how I’ve got this blood in my veins so if you make me angry I might just come after you. But when I visited the Museum of the Cherokee Indian I realized Dragging Canoe was not just a blood-thirsty Cherokee war chief; he was a man who felt the treaty would be the beginning of the end for his civilization. He was right.
The museum does a really great job detailing the history of war chiefs like Dragging Canoe and Tecumseh, and really spells out the dread and sorrow of the Trails of Tears. But as I walked through the museum, looking at the exhibits and reading the information, walking through history, I realized the beginning of the end for the Cherokee Nation was not the Trail of Tears. It was not the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals. It was not even the independence of the colonies.
The beginning of the end was the first moment a European foot stepped on American soil. From that first moment, that first explorer, that first settler, the Cherokee were doomed to extinction. From an estimated 3.8 million Cherokee at the establishment of the first colony down to only 10,000 remaining in portions of Western North Carolina and the American Midwest, the Cherokee have been on an endangered list. I understand this now better than I ever have before, all thanks to the amazing visuals, stories, exhibits, and history at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, North Carolina.
Museum of the Cherokee Indian Information
Phone – 828-497-3481
Address – 589 Tsali Blvd., Cherokee, NC
Website – www.cherokeemuseum.org/
Admission – $10 per person
Hours – Daily 9AM-5PM, Summer Hours Memorial Day – Labor Day Daily 9AM-7PM
Handicap Accessibility – The entire museum is handicap accessible.