Campus archaeological facility dedicated to former Cherokee village

The Western Carolina University community celebrated renovations to a curation facility for archaeological collections associated with the Cherokee, including objects from the Trail of Tears and the Unicoi Turnpike, in a dedication ceremony held Thursday, Dec. 5.

Ceremony guests check out artifacts that were on display.

The Trail of Tears was the forced removal of the Cherokee from their homeland, including what is now Western North Carolina, in the 1830s to present-day Oklahoma. The Unicoi Turnpike was the primary route of the Trail of Tears from WNC to eastern Tennessee.

The ceremony was attended by some 75 people, including the WCU Board of Trustees. The facility on the ground floor of the McKee Building is formally named Tali Tsisgwayahi “Two Sparrows Town” Archaeological Collections Curation Facility in recognition of the ancient Cherokee village that previously stood on the site of the Cullowhee campus.

The university’s ties to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are deep, with both undergraduate and graduate programs in Cherokee Studies, a Cherokee language program and one of the largest regional collections of Cherokee-related materials.

“It is only fitting that Western Carolina University, which is located on the ancestral homeland of the Cherokee people, provide a safe haven for the storage, curation and study of important historical artifacts that help to honor and tell the story of the people of Cherokee,” said WCU Chancellor Kelli R. Brown in opening remarks. “The university is truly honored to be permitted to be the keeper of one of the largest collections of Cherokee-related materials in the Southeast, to be trusted with their care and safekeeping, and to be able to share access to these significant items with others, from both near and far.”

Joyce Dugan, a retired educator and the first woman elected principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, speaks at the dedication ceremony.

Joyce Dugan, former principal chief of the Eastern Band and a current WCU trustee who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from the university, said facility is a continuation of awareness of native peoples by the larger population.

“This creates a great responsibility for the university going forward,” she said. “An education is needed by this country on the accurate history of our people. This facility highlights Western Carolina University’s commitment to the preservation and enhancement of Cherokee history, of our heritage and of our traditional culture. As a member of the tribe and a former leader, and on behalf of the tribe, I think I am safe to say that we remain committed to assisting with your effort. I am really pleased and proud today to see this come about and that the indigenous people could be involved.”

The Eastern Band tribal council has previously passed a resolution that WCU has responsibility as the official repository for U.S. Forest Service-owned collections of materials associated with the Cherokee Trail of Tears. The Forest Service provided a $175,000 grant for renovations to create a climate-controlled room, catalogued with easy access for researchers, that meets federal standards and is in accordance with tribal guidelines regarding Cherokee artifacts.

Melissa Twaroski, the U.S. Forest Service coordinator for the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail on national forest lands, said the renovated facility is now “a wonderful place for study, and also will hopefully be a wonderful place for the Cherokee people to visit and the proper place for artifacts and archival material to be kept, here in the heart of the Cherokee homeland.”

Brett Riggs, WCU’s Sequoyah Distinguished Professor of Cherokee Studies, summed up the intent of both the facility and the dedication ceremony.

“The reason for this dedication and that name ― Tali Tsisgwayahi ― is that it was the ancient name of this place,” said Riggs. “This development brings about new understandings and will continue to inform us about our collective past. So, we’re bringing that identity back to Western North Carolina with this unique facility, standing in the center of that ancient town.”