The Museum of the Cherokee Indian: Ancient History in State-of-the-Art Exhibits | Cherokee, NC

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The Museum of the Cherokee Indian: Ancient History in State-of-the-Art Exhibits

Even before you set foot inside the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, named a “Best Native American Experience" by USA Today, you can tell it’s a special place. At the entrance, a hand carved statue of Sequoyah, the inventor of the Cherokee alphabet, stands 20 feet tall; a powerful landmark in town.

If you visit on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday, Jerry Wolfe will be there to greet you. (The museum is open Mon-Sun.) Wolfe, a tribal elder and World War II veteran is a Beloved Man of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians—the first person to receive this honorary title in over 200 years. A little further into the museum, a life-size, realistic statue based on Wolfe’s likeness depicts ancient Cherokee custom and dress.  

Created by Disney

At every turn, the exhibits in the Museum of the Cherokee Indians are as informative as they are stirring, tracing the story of the Cherokee from 11,000 years ago to the present. While the history is ancient, the museum technology is cutting edge. The staff worked with the Imagineers, the design and engineering team from the Walt Disney Company, to create the special effects, short films, audio clips, dioramas, and artifacts on display throughout the museum.  

“We were also able to collaborate with eight scholars and community members so that the museum is a reflection of what they wanted to see,” says Dr. Barbara R. Duncan, Education Director of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.

The self-guided tour begins in the Story Lodge, where the ancient Cherokee creation myth is told through computer animation. The water spider, a symbol of Cherokee creation, and an emblem for the museum, brings fire to the earth in a basket on her back and a soft “fire” glows in the heart of the lodge.

From the Paleo Period to the Trail of Tears

From there, visitors move through the Paleo period, where mastadons—large, tusked, ancient elephant-like creatures—were hunted with simple spears. Duncan points out a mastodon vertebra that shows where it was worked on with stone tools, one of her favorite artifacts in the museum.

The displays in the Archaic period show more sophisticated tools and how the Indians begin to cultivate plants and use gourds as containers. As the food supply increases, and more crops are cultivated, including the Three Sisters—corn, beans, and squash—the Mississippian Period provides more leisure time, reflected in the refined arts and crafts of the period.   

The award-winning traveling exhibit, Emissaries of Peace, tells the story of Henry Timberlake’s visit to the Cherokees in 1762, and the Cherokee leaders’ visit to London to meet King George III. Artifacts, archeological treasures, artwork, music, video, and life-size installations bring the story to life, with special pop-up books and panels placed at eye level for children, so they can follow along.

The Trail of Tears exhibit depicts the forced removal of the Indians to Oklahoma, and is handled with sensitivity and care. Leaving the exhibit, you can’t help but think of the Cherokee journey as one paved with resourcefulness, skill, creativity, and irrepressible spirit.

More Than a Museum

“The goal of the museum is to enable and give tools and resources. All of my work as a scholar is guided by what Cherokee people are interested in,” said Duncan

All together, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian is a moving experience with visually stunning displays capturing the look and feel of the journey of the Cherokee people throughout history, but as Duncan points out, it’s more than a cultural attraction. The museum is also an education and resource center, offering a rich set of programing, including classes covering Cherokee archeology, history, anthropology, folklore, literature, and geography, and Cherokee Experiences workshops covering storytelling, dance, crafts, and traditional Cherokee food, for school groups and individuals.

For scholars and museum members, the new Education and Research Wing is open by appointment, giving users access to the museum archives with over four thousand books, black and white photographs from the 1880s and 1930s, old manuscripts, microfilm foreign archives, and more.

Hours and Events

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian is open year-round except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s day. For information on events, like the annual Cherokee Voices Festival, visit www.cherokeemuseum.org.

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