By Giles Morris
Tourists flocked to see Cherokee men dance in the streets dressed as Great Plains Indians, arrayed in long feathered headdresses. The tribe’s history play, “Unto These Hills,” which was supposed to tell the story of the Cherokee nation, was written and acted by whites and riddled with historical inaccuracies.
Meanwhile the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, built in 1976 as the repository of the tribe’s recorded history, didn’t have an exhibit that could communicate an impression of the Eastern Band as a people.
“There were artifacts everywhere, but you wouldn’t know anything more about the Cherokee when you left than when you’d come in,” said Ken Blankenship, the museum’s longtime director.
This weekend, when the Cherokee Voices Festival arrives on the museum’s doorstep, that will all have changed.
The Museum of the Cherokee Indian will have opened its brand new $2 million Resource and Education Building, a project that will share its archives with the tribe’s members and signal the culmination of a decade of effort to recraft the tribe’s historical narrative. That work began with the 1998 update of the museum’s permanent exhibition, which turned the information held in tens of thousands of documents and thousands of artifacts into the story of a people.
At the same time, “Unto These Hills,” now in its 60th year of production, will feature a script written by the Cherokee for the Cherokee, and some of its leading actors will come from communities like Yellow Hill and Big Cove instead of Nashville and Asheville.
In short, the effort to re-cast the story of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and present it to people from outside the Qualla Boundary has reached maturity.
“For years, Native Americans––Cherokees too––have been followers,” Blankenship said. “They’ve wanted the Bureau of Indian Affairs to lead. But now we want to lead.”
Which is why those who whine about "PC" don't like it. They prefer their inauthentic brand of history. You know, where Indians were primitive savages, God gave America to the chosen, and white people rule because they're superior.
A quick review of the official site shows that the museum covers pre-Columbian history and the conflicts during the founding of America (Revolutionary War, Trail of Tears, etc.). This is in contrast to the National Museum of the American Indian, which doesn't give you much of the history or conflicts. Naturally, I think the Cherokee approach is the right one. Real history, warts and all, is best.
Truth overcomes fiction
Have these changes been effective? The article addresses that too:
“We had to create that storyline over there, and we did that using what we have over on this side,” Blankenship said, referring to the archives.
Blankenship noticed the return on the investment immediately, as visitors began to leave comments that showed their understanding of the Cherokee.
“If you read the comment book, it shows people are starting to get it,” Blankenship said. “What we’re doing is educating them without them knowing it.”
This is why entertainment products--movies, TV shows, comic books, etc.--are so effective. People remember stories more than they do information. Given the choice between a vaguely true movie and a completely true textbook, people will believe the movie.
It doesn't even matter which they believe, because they'll remember the movie more. And as psychologists and the police will tell you, the human brain transforms fictional memories into remembered facts. Whether it's a movie or a museum exhibit, people tend to believe what they see. Seeing becomes believing.
I'm also reminded of Michael Cooke's claim that stereotypes will fade away "organically" if we don't do anything. When you think of the millions of educational efforts (lessons, books, documentaries, exhibits) and the millions of analyses, critiques, and protests, you see how silly this claim is. Unless you're living in a vacuum, there's no way you can avoid cultural inputs. Stereotypes will "fade away" after countless Indians, activists, teachers, scholars, artists, writers, and critics make them fade away. That's what has happened before and that's what will continue to happen.
Gaming makes it go
Anyway, kudos to the Eastern Cherokee for taking control of their story. And for using their casino revenue productively. This is why Indian gaming has been a godsend for so many tribes.
Another recent article said they give $9,000 to each member annually and spend the rest on the tribe. That sounds about right to me. The amount is enough to help members without making them dependent on it. The bulk of the revenue goes to building and sustaining the tribe for future generations, not for immediate gratification.
For more on the subject, see The Right Way to Teach About Indians and Children and Dudesons Believe Stereotypes.