North Carolina has the largest American Indian population east of the Mississippi River, and Indigenous Peoples’ Day is the perfect time to learn about the culture.
Before Sir Walter Raleigh first stepped foot in North Carolina, our state was home to indigenous people who farmed, fished, and lived on the land as many as 12,000 to 14,000 years ago.
Nationwide, the federal government recognizes 574 tribes, and one of those tribes is the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians who have their own sovereign nation in Cherokee. It is absolutely worth a visit, with gorgeous trails, museums, and amazing views of the Smoky Mountains.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians isn’t the only tribe that calls North Carolina home. Far from it. North Carolina is home to eight tribes and four urban American Indian organizations, according to the UNC American Indian Center.
According to the 2020 U.S. Census, 300,000 individuals who identify as Native American live in the Tar Heel State. In fact, North Carolina has the largest American Indian population east of the Mississippi River, and that population is growing both in North Carolina and nationally.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day, on Oct. 10, is the perfect time to get to know the American Indians tribes who help make North Carolina, well, North Carolina. If you can’t celebrate that day, don’t worry. November is National American Indian Heritage Month. But really, any time is a good time to visit these sites and learn about Indian American history and culture in our state.
Town Creek Indian Mound
509 Town Creek Mound Road, Mt. Gilead
Town Creek Indian Mound is one of the best-studied archeological sites in North Carolina and the artifacts found there show that the indigenous people known as Southern Appalachian Mississippians lived in Piedmont as many as 12,000 to 14,000 years ago, according to the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Affairs. The site has been studied by archeologists for more than 60 years and still intrigues visitors and archeologists to this day.
Three rebuilt structures sit on the site and the mound, which was built into the earth and thought to be used in ceremonies, for trade, and for other gatherings.
Town Creek Indian Mound was designated a historical site in 1955, making it one of the oldest designated historical sites in the state. It’s worth a day trip. You can walk along its trail, have a picnic at one of the site’s many tables, enjoy exhibits at the visitors’ center, go on a free self-guided tour, or you can pay $2 for a guided tour. This is one of the best sites in North Carolina to learn about how people lived in our state during prehistoric times. The museum and site are open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The Guilford Native American Art Gallery
200 N. Davie St., Greensboro in the Greensboro Cultural Center
One of the best ways to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day is to support businesses that are owned and operated by American Indians.
You can do that by stopping by The Guilford Native American Art Gallery in Greensboro, which is owned and operated by American Indians. The gallery opened in 1990 and is considered one of the first North American Fine Arts Gallery in North Carolina.
In the gift shop, you can buy works of art from Native American artists, including jewelry, from Lumbee, Catawba, Cherokee, Navajo, and other tribes. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.
The Museum of The Southeast American Indian
Old Main First Floor at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke
1369 Old Main Road, Pembroke
This hidden gem sits just a few miles off Interstate 95 and Interstate 74. The Museum of The Southeast American Indian tells the stories of North Carolina’s indigenous people like few other places do. Visitors can experience late Lumbee artist Gloria Tara Lovery’s paintings and learn how the Lumbee Indians lived in this rural slice of our state for generations, including the tumultuous times when violence and racism dominated the landscape like on the night of
Jan. 18, 1958. That night, hundreds of American Indian men gathered in a field outside of Maxton and thwarted the Knights of the Klu Klux Klan’s plans to hold a rally. The night that could have ended in bloodshed but didn’t. Instead, the KKK backed down and nobody was seriously injured. The failed rally made national headlines at the time. Visitors can also marvel at the yellow pine canoe that was discovered in the 1980s and carbon-dating reveals that it dates to 950 A.D.
Best of all, admission to the museum is free. It’s open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. To get there, take exit 17 off Interstate 95 or exit 200 off Interstate 1-74.
The Trail of Tears
Museum of Cherokee Indian
589 Tsali Blvd., Cherokee
In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act that forced Indian tribes that inhabited land along the East Coast states to move to land west of the Mississippi River. About 3,000 North Carolina Cherokee Indians were rounded up and taken to five different U.S. Army forts in Western North Carolina and forced to walk west. On June 18, 1838, the first group of Cherokee Indians left Fort Butler in Murphy to the next fort in Tennessee. North Carolina proved to be a hotbed of resistance and many of the Cherokee Indians refused to leave and hid in secluded parts of the mountains, and then rebuilt their lives and communities.
You can’t celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day and not go to Cherokee. One of the best ways to experience the trail is to stop by the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and then walk sections of the Trail of Tears yourself.
Dorothea Dix Park
1030 Richardson Drive, Raleigh
Located in the heart of Downtown Raleigh, Dorothea Dix Park is worth a visit if you love a beautiful sprawling park with a conscience.
A land acknowledgment and blessing ceremony was held at the park on Aug. 1, 2020, where the park recognized its past as a site that had once belonged to many of North Carolina’s indigenous tribes who lived, fished, and hunted on the land for thousands of years.
The park and the City of Raleigh embrace its past and honor it by being part of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, which acknowledges a site’s difficult history while embracing present-day human rights.
Dorothea Dix Park is also the annual site of the Inter-Tribal Pow Wow, which is held in October and celebrates North Carolina’s American Indian culture through dance, competitions, and food. This is the park’s second year holding the Pow Wow. If you like great food, dance, and being outdoors, put this on your to-do list.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct the misspelling of Dorothea Dix Park. We apologize for the error.