The Orange County Historical Museum is honoring an Indigenous tribe native to Hillsborough with its newest exhibit.
Despite challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and building renovation setbacks, the museum opened “Yésah: Journeys of the Occaneechi," on Friday.
Reservations must be made ahead of time for in-person tours, and masks will be worn in the building at all times. There will be a size limit for tours, and time will be allotted to clean the museum between visitors.
Beverly Payne, a museum board member, said the exhibit is an important part of Hillsborough’s history, and that there had not been an exhibit honoring the Occaneechi people in the past.
“As a tribe, we aren’t really seen around here. When November comes, everybody thinks it’s great that it’s Native American Month then. What about the rest of the year?” Payne said. “I didn’t choose the theme by myself. I felt honored that it was agreed upon to have the Occaneechi exhibit as the first exhibit since we closed.”
Courtney Smith, the exhibits and program coordinator, said the exhibit details the Occaneechi, an Indigenous group of people who lived in the Orange County area, and seven major historical journeys the tribe undertook. The exhibit includes art, tools, pottery and jewelry from thousands of years ago, collected from the Hillsborough area.
“I don’t think there’s been a complete exhibit — starting from what we know from Occaneechi island through Hillsborough to the Catawba Nation in South Carolina — this is probably the most complete exhibit that I’ve ever seen in my lifetime," Payne said. "It just brings the feeling that where I stand is where I belong, we were the first people, (the exhibit) is an affirmation that we’re really here and it cannot be undone."
The word “Yésah” from “Yésah: Journeys of the Occaneechi” means “the people” in the Tutelo-Saponi language. The exhibit is a culmination of numerous bands of Native Americans united by their ancestors and customs.
“As far as I know, every tribe in America has a name that means ‘the people,'" Payne said. "If you’ve ever heard the word ‘dine,’ it means ‘the people’ in the Navajo language.”
Vickie Jeffries, the tribal administrator for the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, provided art used in the exhibit.
“People should know that the tribe that occupied the land is right at your back door. I think that the exhibit will show how long we have been here,” Jeffries said. “It’s telling our story. Thanks to Courtney, different members were able to help out with the exhibit to tell our story correctly. People will get to see our culture and our people firsthand.”
Smith said she conducted interviews with members of the Occaneechi tribe to determine the most important piece of knowledge that museum visitors needed to take with them: that the Occaneechi are still here and a part of the community.
“They never went away," Smith said. "They've always been an integral part of the community, and they planned to be so for many generations to come.”
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