© 2024 Blue Ridge Public Radio
Blue Ridge Mountains banner background
Your source for information and inspiration in Western North Carolina.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Museum of the Cherokee People forced to remove new sign painted by local artist

The empty sign outside the Museum of the Cherokee People on Thursday June 6, 20224.
Lilly Knoepp
The empty sign outside the Museum of the Cherokee People on Thursday June 6, 20224.

A committee of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Tribal Council has forced the Museum of Cherokee People to remove its newly updated sign, stemming from the organization's rebranding and renaming.

The Museum of the Cherokee People (MotCP) changed its name last year. In late April, the Museum announced that a local artist would update the two-sided sign at the building’s entrance into a contemporary work of art.

Now the Tribal Business Committee has voted for the sign to be removed, citing an alleged violation of local codes restricting messaging and coloration on business signs on the Qualla Boundary. It was taken down at the end of last week, according to reporting from One Feather. All that’s left now is an empty stone and metal pedestal where the museum’s sign used to be.

Artist Luke Swimmer, who is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, removed the sign with the Museum’s collections team.

“This sign is full of family, community, culture, and good times! Sgi toThe Museum of the Cherokee People for allowing me to be part of creating an awesome art piece and its removal,” Swimmer posted on Facebook on May 29.

The 'art intervention' updated the museum sign with the new name.
Luke Swimmer
The 'art intervention' updated the museum sign with the new name.

Swimmer painted the sign in April as a continuation of the Disruption exhibit. In reimagining the sign, Swimmer painted over the organization’s old name – Museum of the Cherokee Indian – to replace “Indian” with “People.” On the back of the sign, he wrote, “This is Cherokee Land,” and added Cherokee symbols around the Museum’s new name on the other.

In his artist statement when the sign was installed Swimmer explained the sign was a visual exploration of the change the Museum has taken as far as rebranding and leadership.

“Drawing inspiration from my culture, community, and my own experiences, I aimed to create something that makes a statement about us as Cherokee people, inviting viewers to think about the piece, and its message, to create emotions and have them think. I strived to create an immersive experience that resonates on multiple levels,” Swimmer said in a statement.

“The sign is a manifestation of personal experience and the meetings I had with the MotCP staff prior to drafting up ideas. I believe the sign invites contemplation and dialogue on some of the issues we face today, not only as Cherokee people, but Indigenous people in general. Ultimately, my art is a testament to the power of creativity and expression, when given the opportunity to do so.”

The Museum called the new sign an “art intervention.” Executive Director Shana Bushyhead Condill said that Swimmer’s art immediately came to mind when the project was brought up.

Artist Luke Swimmer painted, “This is Cherokee Land,” on the back of the museum sign.
Luke Swimmer
Artist Luke Swimmer painted, “This is Cherokee Land,” on the back of the museum sign.

“As we work to cultivate Cherokee traditional knowledge in our community, Luke has an amazing way of incorporating traditional elements into art that can speak to multiple generations. We each, as Cherokee people, have our ways that we continue to protect, and learn, and share with each other. I love that my kids, our kids, are able to be inspired by Luke's work and designs,” Bushyheah Condill, who is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, said in a statement in April.

The Cherokee One Featherreported that Tribal Council officials gave the Museum the opportunity to change the sign in May after determining it violated Cherokee Code.

A letter from the sign enforcement officer explained Cherokee Code permits signs that “promote economic and social activities that are consistent with the Cherokee Indian Reservation’s history and environment.”

“The Committee does not believe that the current proposed sign for the Museum meets this criterion,” the letter said. The letter also stated that the sign did not follow color use guidelines explaining that the code recommends the use of earth tones and no more than three colors.

The re-painting process was already underway when the proposal to the business committee was submitted on April 15. The Museum said it was unaware that approval was required to update existing signage that was “in need of maintenance.” The art was intended to be in place on the Museum’s sign as part of a multi-year renovation effort on the property.

Last week, the Museum told the committee that it declined to change the sign, according to the One Feather. The committee then voted for the sign to be removed.

The Museum’s board stands by the decision to update the sign.

“The board is proud of the Museum staff for creating a space for cutting-edge work that disrupts an old narrative. The Museum rebrand, along with Luke’s piece, sparked discussion within the community, which was the goal. Art is meant to make you think,” MotCP Board of Directors President Samantha Ferguson said in a statement.

“We continue to support the effort of the Museum staff and our contemporary artists to question accepted standards. Through the name change and rebrand, we hope to pave the way for future scholars, artists, and historians within our community,” Ferguson, who is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, wrote Ferguson.

One word, big change 

In 2023, the museum changed its name from the Museum of the Cherokee Indian to the Museum of the Cherokee People.

At the time, Bushyhead Condill, executive director of the museum, explained one word makes a big difference.

“We have been, for so long, seen as relics of the past. And the word ‘Indian’ of course is very dated. It’s also very incorrect,” Bushyhead Condill said in 2023. “It’s not something that we would ever say publicly as a descriptor of ourselves. Adding the word ‘people’ literally personifies who we are as Cherokee people, and it makes it harder to relegate us to the past when we use that word.”

The museum’s name has also been updated in Cherokee to ᏣᎳᎩ ᎢᏗᏴᏫᏯᎯ ᎢᎦᏤᎵ ᎤᏪᏘ ᎠᏍᏆᏂᎪᏙᏗ (Tsalagi idiyvwiyahi igatseli uweti asquanigododi): Museum of the Cherokee People. According to the museum website, the expression translates to: All of us are Cherokee people. It is all of ours, where the old things are stored.

The name change also coincided with a rebrand of the museum including a new color scheme inspired by the bright neon colors of the local flora and fauna of the region.

The museum plans to hang the sign art by Swimmer in its lobby.

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.