Q&A with Shana Bushyhead Condill, director of Museum of the Cherokee Indian

LIVING HISTORY: Executive Director Shana Bushyhead Condill says leading the Museum of the Cherokee Indian feels like coming home. Photo by Kristy M. Herron

Growing up, Shana Bushyhead Condill frequently visited museums with her family. Whether in Montana where she was born or in Milwaukee where she graduated high school, Condill had exposure to a broad range of collections. But as a citizen of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, what she did not see was an accurate representation of her people. “You get the diorama of a Native mannequin in Native dress standing next to a fire and a case of arrowheads,” she explains.

Condill wrote her undergraduate thesis on Native American representation and the role museums can play in correcting stereotypes; she then earned a graduate degree in history with a certification in museum studies from the University of Delaware. Following an internship at National Museum of the American Indian, she later joined the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in 2016 for a position in administration and finance.

The National Gallery of Art was a positive experience for her, due to the arrival of Executive Director Kaywin Feldman in 2018. In a previous post at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Feldman had launched an exhibition of Native women artists from early to contemporary; under Feldman, the National Gallery of Art acquired its very first piece by a Native artist – “I See Red: Target” by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Feldman also named Condill, the museum’s only Native American employee, to its newly formed Mission Vision Values team, an inclusion Condill calls an incredible honor.

Yet when Condill’s husband spied the ad in the newspaper One Feather announcing the Museum of the Cherokee Indian’s search for a new executive director, she knew she had to apply. “I had kept my eye on this museum my entire career,” she says. “It’s my tribal museum, and I care about it deeply. It feels like I have come home.” The Museum of the Cherokee Indian named her executive director this spring.

Condill spoke with Xpress about the current exhibition, what she envisions for the future and supporting contemporary representations of Native people by Native people.

Can you tell us the history of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian?

The museum has been around since 1948, but this building opened in 1976. The current permanent exhibit was installed in 1998 — the summer I interned here — and they did a really good job with what was available then. But we are ready to upgrade that experience.

What is on your immediate to-do list?

One of the first tasks that the board shared with me is planning an overhaul of the permanent exhibit. We have room to grow, I inherited an amazing team, and we’ve created additional positions. Once those are filled, we can move forward more thoughtfully into what’s next.

Is there a glaring omission that comes to mind in the permanent collection?

It ends! Going through the timeline of the Cherokee from 13,000 years ago, the story stops in 1920 with an exhibit on tourism here in Cherokee and a small section about boarding schools. From 1920 to now, there is a century of history we are not seeing.

What exhibit is in the temporary space right now?

We are so fortunate to have an incredible exhibit, “Living Language: The Cherokee Syllabary and Contemporary Art.” There are about 50 pieces, and it brings the thread from the past of the syllabary to the present, using traditional methods to create contemporary art. The artists represented are rock stars. We need to make the permanent exhibit do the same.

Having been at the museum nearly six months, is a vision coming into focus for you?

My primary goal is making sure we are telling our story from our perspective in our voice. That will take a lot of listening to the community, and so far, people in the community have been very willing to share their thoughts with me [laughs].

We get about 3 million people a year passing through Cherokee on their way to the Great Smoky Mountains, and over 80,000 people stop here. It’s great to have that tourist base and have developed as an attraction, but I am really interested in how we can serve our community here. How we can be a resource for cultural preservation, so that a basketmaker today can have access to a basket made 500 years ago? I want to be sure we preserve these artifacts, make them accessible to the community and be a place just locals can come on occasion and not have to share the space.

What is on your wish list for the museum?

More light! The interior is dark. Being part of place is inherent to Eastern Band Cherokee, and I can’t see the mountains from anywhere in this building. But to be able to drive through the mountains to and from work means so much to me.

Are there books, broadcast media and local sources for art by Native Americans you might point people to?

Qualla Arts and Crafts is right across the street from us and operates under the Indian Arts & Crafts Act to certify everything is made by Natives. At the National Museum of the American Indian, we were all given copies of the book “Do All Indians Live in Tipis?”— it’s kind of an Indian 101.

I recommend the novel “Even As We Breathe” by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle — she is Eastern Band. “Firekeeper’s Daughter” is a YA novel by Angeline Boulley. The movie “Smoke Signals” came out in 1998, an epic movie produced and made by Natives with Native actors. The television show “Rutherford Falls” is fantastic. We love “Reservation Dogs” on Hulu. It drops on Mondays, and the staff talks about it the next day — it’s fabulous. It is a relief to know you won’t have to roll your eyes at the representation and good to see yourself being reflected accurately.


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About Kay West
Kay West began her writing career in NYC, then was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, including contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. In 2019 she moved to Asheville and continued writing (minus Red Carpet coverage) with a focus on food, farming and hospitality. She is a die-hard NY Yankees fan.

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