Thursday, May 15, 2008

Cherokee Nation

Tahlequah, Oklahoma, is the headquarters of the Cherokee Nation. One of its prime attractions is the Cherokee Heritage Center. That was what we came to see. And we promised our granddaughter Renee we’d tell her all about it.

For the first time ever, we parked our home in an Army Corps of Engineers RV Park, this one on the shore of Tenkiller Lake. The name Tenkiller refers back to one of the war chiefs of the Cherokee. We had a great site, close to the lake, with 50amp electric. Staying only two nights, we didn’t need water or sewer hookups.
Directly in front of the Cherokee Heritage Center stand three tall columns, all that remains of the original Cherokee Female Seminary, which was built and opened in 1851, and burned to the ground in 1857. The Cherokee believed in balance and equality, so when they opened a school for boys and young men, they simply opened one for girls and young ladies at the same time. The Female Seminary was relocated, and still is in operation under a different name.

The Cherokee Heritage Center has several educational functions, for children and adults alike. First there is a guided tour of a typical Cherokee village, from before European settlement in North America.

We were very fortunate to have a private tour with Gina, a part-Cherokee lady who was very knowledgeable. We had plenty of time to ask questions and offer our own opinions.

Due to space considerations, the village and many of the structures were significantly smaller than they’d have been then.

A typical Cherokee village consisted of about 300 people, and a family might consist of six to eight people living together in a "wattle and daub" house like this one. This would be a summer home, and the raised structure in the back was used to store food off the ground. Its legs would be slicked with bear grease to keep small animals from climbing.

Each village compound would be surrounded by a stockade. They allowed the children to run free, and wanted them protected from predatory animals, and to not wander off and get lost.

The women were primarily responsible for gardening (they raised squash, corn, and other vegetables), preparing meat the men brought home, cooking meals, and generally taking care of the home. The men were the hunters and protectors.

Everyone learned at an early age how make tools and implements. While the men were off hunting (or occasionally fighting) the women would have to able to make and repair their own tools. They used stone such as chert and obsidian, and did the fine shaping with deer antlers.

As early as age 4, children would begin to learn hunting skills. They would start with simple blowguns, and soon would bring home small game such as squirrels and rabbits. Adults would use larger blowguns for similar purposes.

While we toured, groups of school children were playing games of stickball, using small hoops much as had been used for centuries.

In early days, the games might be played by as many as 200 men at a time, often as a means to settle disputes without serious fighting.

Early in the tour, Gina explained to us that the Cherokee believed in three main principles: purity, honor and balance. Balance appeared in the equality between men and women. Women had an equal voice and vote in all decisions, at least as far back as the 1500s.

The Cherokee Nation has seven clans, and the family belonged to the wife’s clan. She had to marry outside her own clan, and would find a husband from her grandfather’s clan. Even then they knew enough to not marry too close a relative.

The large council house (much larger than this reproduction, and without the paved walkways!)served as community and religious center (as well as a warm gathering place on a cold winter evening).

The outdoor ceremonial arena, again much larger than this, was also a gathering place, where a “sacred fire” was kept continually burning. In fact, one or two members of the community had the lifetime responsibility of keeping the fire alive.

The fire served as the center for dancing. Both men and women danced, but only the men sang, while the women kept the beat going by stomping while wearing turtle shell rattles on their legs. Each woman would wear as many as 12 turtle shell rattles. Imagine the clamor of perhaps 1200 rattles being stomped in unison!

Both the council house and the ceremonial arena were built with seven sides, and each clan sat in its own area. Both facilities would have to be large enough for the entire village to assemble.

Another outdoor area of the Heritage Center was Adams Corner, a reconstruction of a typical small village settlement, including both Cherokee and white citizens, from the 1800s. Three or four of the buildings were actually from that time, while others are reconstructions. This yellow house was one of the original buildings.

In the school, children learned how to read and write not only English but the Cherokee language as well.

A Cherokee by the name of Sequoyah had developed an 86-character alphabet, or syllabary. Each character stood for a single syllable, and the language was simple to learn. Within two decades of its development, 90% of the Cherokee could read and write, a much higher literacy level than that of their white neighbors.

Inside the Heritage Center building was an area used to display art (a special show of native art was currently on display), and a maze to wander through and learn about the tragic Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of eastern Cherokees from Florida and Georgia to Oklahoma, on foot, in the winter. No photographs were allowed, but the memory is firmly imprinted in our consciousness.

And so we looked back to a journey on foot, as we continue Our Life on Wheels.


  1. Thanks for posting information on the Cherokee Nation. It is wonderful when a people can value all if its members equally.

  2. Thanks for sharing....great write-up & photos!!

  3. Thank you Gramma and Papa for posting this blog! I really wish I could have gone with you to visit the Cherokee Heritage Center and learn more about tribe. At least I get to see it on your blog!

    Love you both and I hope to read more soon!



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