People associate the sound of a lone wooden flute as traditionally Native American. And while this sound accompanies the centerpiece video on the Visit Cherokee website promoting the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, the video’s text and visuals urge viewers to see the museum as contemporary.
“One of the things we’re most excited about pursuing is looking into what a retelling of our story is going to look like,” Shana Bushyhead Condill, who started in May as the museum’s new executive director, said in an interview. Even tribal members, she added, can too often view themselves through the lens of history rather than as living, evolving people.
“I cannot tell you how many times I’m editing something and changing past tense to present tense, if that gives you an idea,” she said.
The museum debuted in 1948 and celebrated the opening of its current building 50 years later. Former longtime director Ken Blankenship died this past March. Condill is the first woman to lead the museum and, on paper and in temperament, appears optimal for the challenge.
Now age 44, Condill grew up near Oklahoma City and Milwaukee with what she frames as two identities—one of a service-oriented Generation Xer, the other as a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee—in communities where Condill often saw herself as the lone Native American in her peer groups.
“Growing up, my dad was always really interested in having me learn Native history, but he was also really interested in having me learn about the Civil Rights movement and the Holocaust,” she recalled. “He felt those topics were really relevant to the Native experience.”
Condill came to Cherokee after several years in Washington, D.C., in budgeting and planning roles with the National Gallery of Art, making her the first director of this museum with significant experience at a larger cultural institution. Her husband was the first to point out the job listing in the tribal newspaper, the One Feather.
Condill’s parents live in Bryson City, but Condill is planning frequent weekends in Reston, Va., where her husband and daughter are remaining until their daughter graduates high school.
“It was never a question of whether I was going to apply,” she said. “In my interview for here, actually, I was talking about how—I laugh about it now—this was the best cover letter I ever wrote because I’ve been writing it my entire life. All the other experiences I had leading up to this moment today, I draw on those experiences every single day. This was sorta the point, was ending up here and doing this position.”
About 83,000 people each year pass through the museum’s doors, Condill said, adding the museum serves two categories of people, each with distinct needs: Native Americans and non-Natives. She points to a current exhibition of contemporary art, organized before her arrival, as a successful walk along that tightrope, but said she believes the museum could improve as a resource within its own community. As an example, she wants basket makers of today to visit the museum to learn about the dyes and techniques of basket makers from centuries ago.
“Our primary focus is our community. We want to make sure they understand we are here for them,” she said. “What is going to be our process? How are we going to survey our community? Who is going to be at that table?”
For non-Natives, Condill said she’s driven to counter popular portrayals of Native Americans. She remembers growing up with constant questions from other kids about the movie “Dances with Wolves,” and she grimaces at the mention of “Unto These Hills,” the sanitized, simplified evening of musical theater that has drawn tourists to Cherokee since its premiere more than 70 years ago.
“The vast majority of Americans aren’t going to meet a Native person. That’s just statistically true,” Condill said. “I feel like my job and our job in museums is to present people with the historically accurate truth, with information, with resources. And then when you’re faced with secondary resources like movies or books, that’s up to you to be an informed receiver of those things.”