Oklahoma’s Cherokee Nation is a fascinating view of history
By Stephen Hartshorne
Maybe I’m dating myself here, but back in my day, young people slaved away at summer jobs to scrounge up enough money to buy some sort of vehicle and set off in search of America.
Families often set off together on the same sort of quest, and I’m all for it. I think our country should be rediscovered and reinvented by each new generation.
There’s not much question about which road to take. Route 66 has established itself in story and song as the quintessential American highway.
When you do set off down Route 66 to rediscover America, I suggest you make a stop at the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. The Cherokee have been here a lot longer than most of us new arrivals, and they can give you a whole new perspective on American history.
When I got an invitation to visit the Cherokee Nation, I grabbed it right away — a chance to learn about the past, present and future of our country through the stories and teachings of this extraordinary people.
I have written previously about the wily Cherokee war chief who won independence for Texas (that would be Sam Houston) but he was kind of an honorary Cherokee — he only lived there for a few years. This would be the real deal.
The pot was sweetened by the chance to attend Will Rogers’ 131st birthday party. That was not an opportunity I was going to miss.
America’s Most Famous Cowboy was a Cherokee
Will Rogers traveled Route 66 himself, in a way. He started out as a cowboy in the Indian Nation in what later became Oklahoma, got a job doing rope tricks at the Ziegfield Follies, and ended up a famous movie star with a ranch in Pacific Palisades, California, now Will Rogers State Park, where the famous highway meets the sea.
He was also America’s most popular newspaper columnist, with more than 40 million readers, sending back dispatches from destinations all over the world. When he died in a plane crash in Alaska in 1935, all of America felt they had lost a friend.
I had a chance to visit Will Rogers’ birthplace, Dog Iron Ranch, in Oolagah, where the birthday party was held. His great-niece Ada was there, still going strong at 92, and there were rope tricks and singin’ and fiddlin’ and cake! I had a piece. How could I not?
Then we went over to the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore where the members of the Pochahontas Club laid a wreath on his tomb. Will was a member for many years.
There’s a big interactive museum there, too, where you can watch his movies and listen to his shows on the radio and read his newspaper columns and see all kinds of exhibits about his life. I’m a big Will Rogers fan, and I couldn’t get enough.
I bought a CD collection of his radio shows. There are lots of collections of his famous witticisms, but it’s even funnier to hear him deliver them himself, he was such a funny guy. Here’s a link to a video.
I also watched some of his movies in the theater. He played Sir Boss in the movie of Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, and at one point he tells King Arthur that his country will one day rule the world: “The sun will never set on your empire,” he says, “but you’ll never learn to make a decent cup of coffee.”
To share in the fun, check out my Will Rogers Photo Gallery.
The modern Cherokee Nation covers 66,000 acres on the Illinois River in northeastern Oklahoma. The tribe has about 300,000 members, of whom about 180,000 live in Oklahoma.
We had a chance to meet Principal Chief Chad Corntassel Smith, who explained the Cherokee concept of gadugi — working together for the good of all.
From its private enterprises like casinos and hotels, the Nation generates revenue to build roads and bridges and health clinics, fund community development projects and support schools and universities and language-immersion programs for children and youth. I couldn’t help thinking that the US Congress could use a shot of gadugi.
Chief Smith said tourism is an important part of the Cherokee’s plan for a “happy, healthy people with strong communities and strong leadership.”
“Cultural tourism is an important endeavor for the Cherokee Nation,” he says. “It allows us to tell our stories and to share our histories that convey the wisdom, challenges, and aspirations of the Cherokee people.”
Planning Your Visit
It’s a good idea to do some planning for your tour of the Cherokee Nation, because the attractions are pretty spread out. You’ll find all the information you need at CherokeeTourismOK.com. You can take scheduled tours or design your own.
Between stops on our bus tour, we listened to interpretive guides in period clothing who told us about Cherokee history, language and customs and screened some very moving documentary films about the Nation.
The center of your tour is probably going to be the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah, which includes the Cherokee National Museum, the Ancient Village, the Adams Corner Rural Village, the Cherokee Family Research Center, and Cherokee National Archives.
At the Ancient Village you can get a sense of what life was like in a Cherokee village in the early 1700s, and there are lots of hands-on exhibits for kids. They can shoot a blowgun and a bow and arrow, learn to play stickball (a forerunner of lacrosse) and see demonstrations of flint knapping, bow making, basketry and pottery.
There are winter and summer dwelling houses (Cherokees have never lived in teepees) and I especially liked the Council House, where tribal decisions were made. Our guide Scottie Ennis explained that the Cherokee lived for a time among the Iriquois, and the Iriquois Convention was used as a model for the US Constitution.
The Cherokee were quick to adopt European ways: cloth, tools, roads, schools, churches, farming, ranching and representational government; and the Adams Corner Rural Village illustrates the changes that took place in the first two centuries of European settlement.
The Trail of Tears
The most moving exhibit at the Cherokee Heritage Center tells the story of the forced relocation of the Cherokee to Oklahoma from their ancestral homelands in the Southeast in 1838, the Trail of Tears, through the voices of the Cherokee, and the friends of the Cherokee, missionaries who voluntarily joined them in their exile, and even the soldiers who carried out the relocation.
No doubt there were a couple of paragraphs in your history textbook about the Trail of Tears. Approximately 16,000 Cherokee were rounded up with nothing but the clothes on their backs, herded into stockades and led on a forced marched from Tennessee to Oklahoma during one of the most severe winters ever recorded. About four thousand Cherokee died, most of them children and the elderly.
As I passed through the Trail of Tears exhibit and read the words of those who were there, I gained a deeper understanding of what it must have been like for the mothers and fathers to lose their children and their parents and arrive in a strange land with no past and no future.
In one of the documentaries we saw, a little girl dropped her corn-husk doll in the snow, and and I thought of my own little girl, and I could understand this tragic story so much more deeply. I was moved also by the words of one survivor: “I will never laugh again in this life.”
The story of the Trail of Tears is one that I think every American should hear. It provides a whole new perspective on American history, particularly President Andrew Jackson, who ordered the relocation even though Chief John Ross and the Cherokee had fought at his side during the War of 1812.
The Cherokees appealed the relocation all the way to the US Supreme Court, and won! But the soldiers came anyway. Jackson ignored the ruling of Chief Justice John Marshall. “The Chief Justice has made his decision,” Jackson is said to have said. “Now let him enforce it.”
The Murrell Home
After their relocation to Oklahoma in 1838, the Cherokee Nation, like the rest of the country, was divided by the Civil War. Principal Chief John Ross took the side of the Union and his enemy Stand Watie became a general in the Confederate Army.
The Indian Nation was no man’s land, which was worse than being occupied by an invading army because they were raided constantly by forces from both sides. There were more than 107 different battles in the Indian Territory.
The amazing thing about the Murrell Home is that it’s there at all. There used to be stately homes all around it, but they were all burned to the ground.
The only reason the Murrell Home is standing today is that it was owned by a Virginian, George Michael Murrell, who had married Minerva Ross, the niece of John Ross, the Principal Chief of the Cherokee, and had come west on the Trail of Tears with his wife’s family.
He built the Greek Revival house called Hunter’s Home because of his fondness for fox hunting. At the time it was surrounded by stables, mills and cabins.
When war broke out, Murrell and his family went east and he served in the Confederate Army. That’s why the Rebel raiders didn’t burn his house down.
The Union forces didn’t burn it down either because Minerva’s sister Mary Jane Ross was living there, and in fact archives of the Cherokee Nation were hidden in the basement walls. But war raged all around and men were killed in sight of the historic home.
“I am surrounded by poor, miserable wretches: widows and little children,” Mary Jane wrote a friend. “I cannot let them freeze and starve before my eyes. We must give, and then our flour gives out… Uncle Lewis gave Susannah a new dress and blanket. She says she’s fixed until the secesh come again.”
Touring this historic estate, you can actually hear the bullets flying and imagine how hellish it was to try to survive in a lawless land between warring armies.
All around the Cherokee Nation you see statues and paintings of Sequoyah, the famous seer and silversmith who invented the syllabary adopted by the tribe in 1825. It’s a collection of Roman, Greek and Arabic characters, each of which stands for a syllable of the Cherokee language. (In an alphabet, each character stands for a sound.)
By 1828 the Cherokee had their own newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, and their literacy rate was higher than that of the European settlers.
This amazing man dreamed of reuniting the Cherokee nation and he traveled all over the country visiting disparate groups. He died in Mexico in 1845 while visiting members of the tribe who had settled there.
You can visit the cabin he built in 1829. It’s a national landmark. And you’ll find all kinds of outdoor adventure and recreation in the Sequoyah Nation Wildlife Refuge.
The Cherokee Capital
Two more stops on your tour should be the Cherokee National Capitol and the Cherokee National Supreme Court Museum in the Cherokee capital, Tahlequah. Here you’ll find a wealth of exhibits about Cherokee history, culture and government.
These buildings were taken away from the Cherokee Nation when Oklahoma became a state in 1907 and the lands that had belonged to the tribe as a whole were apportioned to individual tribe members by the Dawes Commission, which was appointed by the US Congress to make a census of the Cherokee.
The so-called Dawes Rolls are still used today to determine tribal membership.
Over the course of the 20th century, the tribe regained a greater and greater degree of sovereignty through the efforts of advocates like Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller, and a 1976 US Supreme Court ruling authorizing Indian gaming gave them increased resources to take control of their own destiny.
The Davis Museum houses the largest private collection of firearms in the world, with more than 20,000 guns and related products on display. It’s really quite impressive — case after case and room after room of every conceivable type of firearm from a 16th century Chinese hand cannon to an original Gatling gun.
There’s even a Sherman tank outside.
J.M. Davis purchased the Mason Hotel in 1917 and began collecting firearms that he displayed on the walls. He kept collecting them until 1965, when they were donated to the state on condition that they be displayed to the public with no admission charge.
Besides firearms, Davis collected swords, knives, arrowheads and other Indian artifacts, military uniforms, war propaganda, cattle brands, pipes and just about everything under the sun. There is even a huge collection of John Wayne memorabilia.
You should also take the time to visit the Lynn Riggs Memorial Museum. Riggs wrote the book Green Grow the Lilacs on which the musical “Oklahoma” was based.
The Museum has interesting exhibits about his life and career, and you can even see the famous surrey with the fringe on top. Remember? “Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry…” Maybe I’m dating myself again.
The Gilcrease Museum
And it would really be a shame to go to Tulsa without visiting the Gilcrease Museum. Thomas Gilcrease was a member of the Creek Nation when the Dawes Commisssion was apportioning land in the early 20th century. His parcel turned out to be part of one of Oklahoma’s most lucrative oil fields.
Gilcrease spent a lifetime collecting fine art, especially the art of Native Americans and the American West. And he really had an eye, as they say. I would plan to spend at least a day here. I had time for only a brief visit, and the works I saw really took my breath away. Sorry, they didn’t allow photos.
While the emphasis is on Western Art, there are magnificent works from the colonial and revolutionary periods, and many historic documents, even a hand-written copy of the Declaration of Independence. In one of the many beautifully appointed rooms, I found myself face to face with a marvelous portrait by John Singleton Copley — another Boston boy!
Learning a Little Gadugi
Long before the Angles came to Angle-land, before the Franks came to France, before the Germans came to Germany, before Romulus founded his city on the seven hills, before the Greeks laid siege to Troy, the Cherokee gathered at the Kituwah, their sacred hearth, to share their stories and their visions of the future.
Those who set off in search of America can learn a lot from this ancient people, with their rich history and heritage. Why right here in Sunderland, Massachusetts, we had a property tax override that got voted down and they had to cut art and music at the elementary school. I don’t think that’s going to happen in the Cherokee Nation any time soon.
I think my fellow townspeople, like a lot of Americans, could stand to learn a little more about the spirit of gadugi — working together for the good of all.
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