November 6, 2010

Cherokee National Heritage Center, Tahlequah, Oklahoma

Yesterday, we drove up to Tahlequah, OK to visit the capital of the Cherokee Nation (or at least the Oklahoma part of it). This area represents the 16,000 or so Cherokees who were forceably removed from their homelands in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and elsewhere in the southeast and walked on the "Trail of Tears" to start over in Oklahoma (then Indian Territory). Only 12,000 survived the journey.

The beads here represent the number of Cherokees forced on the Trail of Tears
The 4,000 black beads represent those who died on the journey
The 12,000 white beads are those who survived and made it to Oklahoma
In Tahlequah, they have the Cherokee National Heritage Center, a museum that discusses and documents the history of the Trail of Tears, the circumstances of how it occurred, and the divisions and battles that rages because of it within the people. On of the most divisive things that occurred was that a minority faction with no authority to speak for the tribe signed the treaty, behind the back of the extremely popular and respected Chief Ross' who defended staying, that ordered them out of their homelands, despite the vast majority being against it. In the end, those leaders of the "Treaty Party" who signed it were executed upon arrival in Oklahoma.

The Heritage Center also has a re-creation of an 1800's Cherokee village as it would have looked like once they rebuilt their lives in Oklahoma. It is called Adam's Village after Tennessee Titans owner Bud Adams, who is part Cherokee, who paid to build it. It has many of the typical structures of the era such as a general store, church, various types of homes, and a school house. What is different is that the Cherokee's developed a syllabic writing system to record their language and that is evident throughout the village.

A traditional mud-dab structure at the Ancient Village
Lastly, they have a traditional village site, built as it would have looked in North Carolina in the 1700's when white settlers began moving into the area. It was an excellent tour by a very knowledgable and skilled interpretor. He explained some of the background about the size and scope of the Cherokee tribes before contact. They were the largest culture in North America at the time made up of hundreds of villages that were permanent in nature focusing on agriculture. They were also a matrilineal culture with women owning the land and the husbands following them. He explained it as "Mother's Baby, Father Maybe".

He discussed the design and function of the village walls (to keep out predators such as bears, cougars, and only to a lesser extent enemies), village layout, and building construction. He explained and demonstrated how the blow-guns and darts were made and used, bows and arrows, various stone tools, and the axatl (spear thrower). It was so amazing to see how far that goes. He purposely tried to not throw it hard and it launched over the walls of the compound. It was hilarious.

He also discussed the rules and violent nature of their game of choice, stickball, which of course has evolved into modern day Lacrosse. The Cherokee has almost abandoned war, using stickball to solve problems without having to go to war. But, because issues of use of prime farmland or hunting grounds were at stake, it was very rough and sometimes people died playing it. He explained getting a wack from a hickory stick can do some damage (he had all of his front teeth knocked out last year and had $3500 of dental work!), as well as, a broken arm a few years before.

In the 7-sided Council House, he explained the structure of their democratic system of government that inspired people like Benjamin Franklin in developing the constitution and discussed their relationship with the Earth. It was powerful when he discussed how they could not understand white people's ideas of "land ownership".

He explained it that "we come from the Earth (similar to dust-to-dust in the bible) and the Earth gives us everything, food to eat, forests, shelter, etc", so how is it that we can own the Earth? We don't do anything to help the Earth! It was here before us and will be here after us. If anything, the Earth owns us!

We enjoyed our day learning about the Cherokee history and culture and it helped fill in the gaps from some of the things we learned when we visited the museum in Cherokee, North Carolina.

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