Swayney working to share Cherokee culture, history
Genealogist and archivist Robin Swayney talks about her role with the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, North Carolina. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
The Museum of the Cherokee Indian is located in Cherokee, North Carolina. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians operate it. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
“Ostenaco’s trip to London” is an historical exhibit at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, North Carolina. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
CHEROKEE, N.C. – When she was a teenager Robin Swayney daydreamed of living somewhere else besides the Qualla Boundary, home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
She said growing up in the town of Cherokee in the 1970s and 1980s she intended on graduating high school and leaving the EBCI boundary and never coming back because it was not “thriving.”
After high school, she went to Atlanta to attend school at an art institute. Not wanting to go right into the workforce, she attended Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, on a full scholarship and earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art.
“Long story short, I sat there one day and thought, ‘I’m not making it.’ I was working, but all I was doing was working and paying rent. I moved back home,” she said.
After coming home 21 years ago, she took a class with Right Path and it forced her to think about who she was both as a person living where she was and who she was as a Cherokee.
“I could spout out acreage, the number of people that were here, but to tell you why we were here, I had no clue. After taking that class I got these little snippets of history, and ‘here’s the small picture. It’s your choice whether you go dig for more information.’ That’s kind of where I’m at right now. Here (Museum of the Cherokee Indian) it’s Christmas every day. I find something new all of the time, which reinvigorates that drive to want to know more,” she said. “I always tell everybody that’s a big room of stuff (archives) back there, but until you share it, that’s when it comes alive.”
In 2017, after 11 years as manager of the Qualla Boundary Public Library, Robin Swayney began working as a genealogist and archivist at the museum in Cherokee. She said she enjoys getting to help others who want to better understand their family’s history.
She said her daily activities at the museum varies from answering genealogy questions to assisting researchers in the museum or assisting with museum exhibits. Each year, she helps EBCI “Remember the Removal” Bike Ride cyclists trace their family histories.
Along with assisting with genealogy at the museum, she shares information about why Cherokee people are still in the mountains of western North Carolina instead of Oklahoma with their kin. She said one has to look at genealogy through history because they are intertwined and can explain why someone’s ancestors are Cherokee or not.
“Being able to share that, even with our own local folks, that’s what I enjoy,” she said. “And I want us, as a museum, to open the doors for more community involvement so we can dispel those (false) myths, legends.”
Swayney is also a founding member of the Qualla Boundary Historical Society. It works to provide correct information about her tribe’s history and culture and to encourage people to share their knowledge of their Cherokee heritage.
She said she hopes eventually Eastern and Western Cherokees can combine efforts and share cultural and historical information “because it takes both” to have a true picture of the Cherokee people. She said the Trail of Tears is always considered the pinnacle of the tribe’s history, but there’s much more history before and after the forced removals of the early 1800s.
“Through the museum, through the library, we’re trying to push that information out, and it’s the only way we can broaden that sense (of history and culture),” she said. “We’re getting there. I was thinking the other day, ‘if we had only known this in high school, how much better would we be today.’”