Chief Chat: Plan in place to improve and enhance Cherokee Heritage Center

In 1963, a forward-thinking group of Cherokees and allies formed the Cherokee National Historical Society. Their vision was to create a space to protect the cultural assets and history of the Cherokee Nation. They began by opening a living Cherokee history site known as the Ancient Village in 1967, and they opened the current museum in 1974. Collectively known as the Cherokee Heritage Center, the attraction has entertained and educated visitors from across the globe for more than 50 years.

The Cherokee Heritage Center is located on the grounds of the former Cherokee National Female Seminary, and is home to the largest collection of Cherokee-specific historic tribal documents and cultural treasures from the 1700s through present day. It also houses a popular genealogy library.

On any given day, center visitors can explore their Cherokee heritage, attend a class, play traditional games, or learn about pre- and post-removal history, Cherokee agriculture, clan structure and the first bilingual Native newspaper. In this special place, the Cherokee story is told from the Cherokee perspective, using a variety of exhibits, technology and hands-on experiences.

Up to this point, the Cherokee Heritage Center has operated as an independent entity, under the direction of a board and the Cherokee National Historical Society. While it initially thrived, economic downturns and changes in public entertainment consumption across the decades have left the center at a crossroads. Cherokee Nation has always been a great partner to the heritage center, funding a substitutional amount of its operations over the past two decades. Between the tribal government and Cherokee Nation Businesses, we have contributed more than $20 million to the center over the past two decades.

However, because this site is critical to sharing our culture with the public and serving as a repository for so much of our history, we recently took a bold step to secure its long-term future.

Passed unanimously by the Council of the Cherokee Nation, the Cherokee Heritage Center Act of 2020 transfers ownership of the site’s 44 acres, buildings, equipment, assets, collections and historical documents from the nonprofit Cherokee National Historical Society to the Cherokee Nation. It is an exciting new chapter for the tribe to assume ownership and stewardship.

Part of that stewardship includes working closely with a new Cherokee National Historical Society. This institution will be re-formed with a seven-member advisory board, all Cherokee Nation citizens.

This act gives us the tools to create an outstanding legacy. We can build on the work that has gone into this iconic site by infusing it with Cherokee Nation resources and aligning it with our other successful cultural tourism efforts. The center will benefit from shared marketing with Cherokee Nation’s six other museums, including promotion at national and regional tradeshows and conferences. Our excellent Cherokee Nation Cultural Tourism team will help bring the center to a much wider audience.

We also plan to invest in modern archival preservation to build a destination that reflects the resilience and spirit of the Cherokee people. I expect the transition to be seamless for the public and staff, and it will be completed soon.

Cherokee National Historical Society also has a bright future, and its board of trustees unanimously endorsed the Cherokee Heritage Center Act. A newly reformed historical society, enshrined in the Act, will help guide improvements at the Cherokee Heritage Center. Working together, Cherokee National Historical Society and Cherokee Nation will create a world-class Cherokee museum and research center.

The Cherokee Heritage Center has long been a beloved site for preserving irreplaceable artifacts and educating visitors on Cherokee culture. This transition will ensure that the center will be a strong institution for sharing our rich Cherokee history for many years to come.

Chuck Hoskin Jr. is the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.

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