Q. Is the Cherokee Heritage Center a part of the Cherokee Nation?
A. September 11, 2020 the Cherokee National Historical Society and Cherokee Nation issued a press release announcing that the Cherokee Nation would take ownership of the Cherokee Heritage Center and the CNHS would be reformed under the Cherokee Nation. The transition process was estimated to be complete by the end of the year.
Up until that point, the Cherokee Heritage Center, was closely affiliated with the Cherokee Nation. Our parent organization was the Cherokee National Historical Society, a non-profit, educational institution recognized by the IRS as a 501-c-3 organization. The Principal Chief and Deputy Chief and some council members were ex-officio members of our board of trustees. Also, our by-laws require that one-half of the board be Cherokees, but the percentage is usually from 90 – 100 percent.
Q. When was the Cherokee National Historical Society formed?
A. In 1963.
Q. Who were the founders?
A. Martin A. Hagerstrand and William Wayne Keeler were the two most responsible. Hagerstrand was recently retired from the U.S. Army and was a white man of Swedish descent married to a Cherokee-Choctaw. “Marty” or “the Colonel” as he was affectionately known, developed a great interest in Cherokee culture and was the driving force behind motivating the community to get behind this project. Keeler, was Chief of the Cherokee Nation and the head of Phillips Petroleum Co. He lined up the financial backing.
Q. What was the first phase of this project?
A. The CNHS was formed in 1963 and was literally housed in the basement of Col. Hagerstrand’s home. The Ancient Village opened in 1967. The Theater was opened in 1969. At that time, the CNHS office was moved from the Colonel’s basement to a room at the theater. The museum was built in 1973 and opened in 1974. Adam’s Corner Rural Village opened in 1979. Diligwa – 1710 Cherokee Village opened in 2013.
Q. Who designed the Cherokee Heritage Center?
A. Charles “Chief” Boyd, a Cherokee architect from Tulsa. The museum was his Master thesis. He designed all the buildings at the facility. The Ancient Village was the product of collaboration between Chief Boyd, Col. Hagerstrand, and Jack Kilpatrick. They each did independent research and then compared notes and the Ancient Village as we know it is the result of that effort.
Q. Have we always been called the Cherokee Heritage Center?
A. No. In the beginning we were known as Tsa-La-Gi. This often appeared with the equals sign instead of a hyphen on brochures and signs as Tsa=La=Gi. There were several problems with that name; 1) It was difficult for visitors to pronounce and often they were unable to obtain our phone number when trying to spell it to a directory assistance operator and, 2) The Restaurant of the Cherokees and motel at that time were both known as Tsa-La-Gi, as well as the Tsa-La-Gi Dodge dealership and other businesses, and calls often went to the wrong party. Later, we called ourselves the Cherokee Cultural Center, or Tsa-La-Gi: The Cherokee Cultural Center. The name “Cherokee Heritage Center” was first used in 1983. Our legal name has always been the Cherokee National Historical Society, Inc.
Q. We talk about the Cherokee National Museum. Is it a part of the National Park Service or other federal department?
A. No. The word “National” refers to the Cherokee Nation and is used in the same sense as the Cherokee National Female Seminary, or Cherokee National Prison.
Q. Then we have nothing to do with the National Park Service.
A. Not quite. The Trail of Tears exhibit we installed in 2001 was funded by the National Park Service ($600,000) and we now offer a NPS stamp for visitors who wish to have their NPS passport stamped. However, regular admission rates still apply.
Q. We are in Park Hill, but use a Tahlequah address. Why?
A. Did you ever try to find Park Hill on a map? We deliberately kept our post office box in Tahlequah so that prospective visitors would be able to locate us. Once we got them to Tahlequah, we figured they could find Park Hill.
Q. Have you done anything to become better identified on maps?
A. Yes. Several maps actually identify our site, although many still reference us as Tsa-La-Gi or the Cherokee Cultural Center. We have tried at various times to have the county road loop (Murrell Road, Keeler Drive, Willis Road), designated as State Highway 82A in order for us to have a more recognizable address, but so far it has proven too complicated. The State Highway department did resurface that loop with the justification that it provided access to state properties, the Murrell Home, Forestry Service office, and us. That is one benefit we receive from our property being state owned.
Q. What are the three columns in front of the museum?
A. Those are the remains of the Cherokee National Female Seminary that was built in 1850. It was the first school of higher education for women west of the Mississippi River, and the first to pay equal salaries to male and female instructors. Its curriculum was based on Mt. Holyoke in Massachusetts and the first principal, Ellen Whitmore, was a graduate of that school. Her salary was $800 per year plus board. The school burned on April 10, (Easter Sunday) 1887. It was rebuilt on the north side of Tahlequah and reopened in 1889 and was the forerunner of Northeastern State University. The rebuilt seminary is today known as Seminary Hall.
- How stable are the columns?
- Very stable. During the early development of this facility, Haliburton Construction was contracted to reinforce the columns. Rods were placed in the center of the columns and other measures were taken to make sure they do not fall.
- Where did the bricks come from?
- They were made on-site from clay and straw. The bricks used in the columns are wedge shaped to better allow the circular construction.
Q. How large are the grounds of the Cherokee Heritage Center?
A. We have 44 acres, plus about 5 acres across the road from the front gate.
Q. Is this tribally owned land?
A. No, it is owned by the Cherokee National Historical Society, Inc. and was leased from the State of Oklahoma through 2009.
Q. Why is this not tribal?
A. When the center was being planed, the State of Oklahoma owned the twenty acres surrounding the seminary columns in front of the museum. The Cherokee National Historical Society purchased an adjacent 24-acre tract, deeded that land to the State and now leases the 44 acres. The state officially turned the land ownership over to CNHS in 2009.
Q. How many years has the Trail of Tears drama been produced?
A. It premiered in 1969, the playwright was Dr. Kermit Hunter who also wrote Unto These Hills in North Carolina, as well as several other outdoor drams. Kermit Hunter’s Unto These Hills was the story of the Cherokees up to the Trail of Tears. Our play was essentially a continuation of that play. Dr. Jack F. Kilpatrick was supposed to have written our musical score, but died before completing the work. Parts of his work were utilized in the play.
Summer Performance History:
1969 – 1983 Trail of Tears, Kermit Hunter version
1984 – 1985 Trail of Tears, Jim Vance version
1986 – 1994 Trail of Tears, Kermit Hunter version
1995 No Performances
1996 Trail of Tears, Kermit Hunter version
1997 Joe Sears Trail of Tears: Nation
1998 – 2000 No Performances
2001 – 2003 Trail of Tears, Joe Sears version
2004 Trail of Tears, Layce Gardner version
2005 Trail of Tears, Richard Fields version
2006 No Performances
2007-2010 Under the Cherokee Moon by Laurette Willis; performed in the Ancient Village and Adams Corner
2011 Legends at Dusk by CHC Staff; performed in the Ancient Village
2012–Present No Performances
Also, Will Rogers: The Cherokee Kid, by Earl Squyres was performed three nights per week in repertoire with the Trail of Tears Drama in 1979 and one night per week in 1980. Annie Get You Gun, by Irving Berlin, appeared in repertoire with the Jim Vance version of Trail of Tears in 1984. Although it was regarded as an excellent production, attendance was awful and the show was changed mid-season from three nights per week to only one. In 2011, Under the Cherokee Moon by Laurette Willis performed for four shows in September in Adams Corner.
- One former cast member that might be recognized is Mark Holton. A couple of his roles include playing a chubby basketball player opposite Michael J. Fox in Teen Wolf and the kid who stole Pee Wee’s bike in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.
- The 2001 cast featured Larry Sellers who might be recognized from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.
- The male lead in the 1970s was often John Mansfield (sometimes using another name because of Actor’s Equity restrictions) who also appeared in several commercials and had a role on a soap opera.
- One of our former dancers, Lt. Col. Howard “Ace” Schrum, was shown in a ½ page picture in the Smithsonian’s Air & Space (May 2008) magazine flying a B-1 bomber. He is a graduate of the U. S. Air Force Academy.
- Who is Joe Sears?
- Joe was a member of several of the early Trail of Tears drama casts. He is a graduate of Northeastern State University and has gained recent fame with his broadway production of Greater Tuna and its sequels A Tuna Christmas and Red, White, and Tuna. In these shows, Sears and his co-star Jaston Williams play approximately 40 roles depicting life in Tuna, Texas, the second smallest town in Texas.
Q. Who are those people with statues, busts, and monuments in front of the museum?
A. Marble Cube – Robert L. Owen was one of Oklahoma’s first two U. S. Senators. He was a member of the Cherokee Nation and is known for drafting the legislation that created the Federal Reserve System.
Runner – Andy Payne. He was a Cherokee farm boy from Foyil, Oklahoma in 1929. Just like a poor Hollywood movie script, the family was facing financial hardship and about to lose their farm. Andy heard about a cross-country run that would pay the winner $25,000. Having never participated in track, or much at any sport, he borrowed money for the entry fee, hitched a ride to Los Angeles and competed against the greatest track stars of that day on a route that followed U.S. Hwy 66 from Los Angles to Chicago, and then to New York. He won the race, saved the farm and converted his fame into a political career and served as Clerk of the Oklahoma Supreme Court for many years. The sculpture was created Osage artist John Free (1929 – ) of Pawhuska.
Bust – Elias Boudinot was the editor of the Cherokee Phoenix in 1828 which was the first newspaper printed in a native language (most text was English). Boudinot, his brother Stand Watie, and John and Major Ridge led a group which signed the Treaty of New Echota (1835) which resulted in the Trail of Tears. Here in Park Hill, Boudinot worked with the Rev. Samuel Worcester to translate the Holy Bible. He was assassinated in June of 1839 for his role in signing the Removal Treaty. Boudinot is buried about two miles from here at Worcester Cemetery.
Bust – John Ross served as Chief of the Cherokee Nation longer than any other man. He became chief in 1827 and served until his death in 1866. Some argue that he was not chief during the Civil War when he fled the territory to live in Philadelphia. During the Civil War, while surrounded with Confederate forces, Ross signed a treaty with the Confederacy, but renounced it as soon as he was behind Union lines. He favored neutrality. Ross is buried about two miles from here at the Ross Cemetery.
Bust – Adm. Joseph J. “Jocco” Clark was a Cherokee from Chelsea, Oklahoma and is one of the highest ranking Native American military figures in history. Jocco was a pioneer of naval aviation and began World War II as Captain of the aircraft carrier Saratoga. He was Captain of the new carrier Yorktown, which replaced the one sunk at the Battle of Midway Island. During the Korean Conflict, he was Admiral of the 7th Fleet. Jocco was also one of the early board members of the Cherokee National Historical Society.
Column in front of the Gathering Place – It contains the names of several people important to Cherokee history, such as the names of the detachment conductors on the Trail of Tears, Judges, Sheriffs, and other notable persons. James and Maxine Tyner and Boyce and Alice Timmons donated this monument; a copper sculpture on top symbolizes the Eternal Flame. (James and Alice were brother and sister.)
Trivia – The sculptor of the three busts (Boudinot, Ross, and Clark) is Felix de Weldon, better known as the sculptor of the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.
Q. What is the small round building by the theater?
A. It is the Ho-Chee-Nee Trail of Tears Memorial Prayer Chapel. Jimalee Burton (1931 – 1977), Poet and Artist, funded the chapel in 1978 as a memorial to the Trail of Tears and a place for people to meditate. Inside you will find elements of both Cherokee and Christian religions. For example, there are seven poles supporting the roof to represent the seven clans. They are supported at the top by three vertical poles representing the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost). The floor in this building was leveled in 2006 to make it more functional. Originally there were three tiered rows in a sunken seating area.
Q. What are the small buildings behind the Museum?
A. That is Adams Corner Rural Village. It contains a school, frontier home, general store, log cabin, smoke house, church, and home. It is designed to represent lifestyle as might be found in the Cherokee Nation around 1890 – 1900, just before Oklahoma Statehood.
Q. Why is it called Adams Corner Rural Village?
A. It is named in memory of Blanche Keeler Adams. She was the sister of Principal Chief W. W. Keeler and the mother of K. S. “Bud” Adams, Jr. Mr. Adams is a member of our Board of Trustees and underwrote much of the cost of the Rural Village.
Trivia: K. S. “Bud” Adams, Jr. is the owner of the Tennessee Titans Football Team (formerly Houston Oilers).
Q. Are the Rural Village structures authentic?
A. Yes and no. This is their history:
School house – It is a replica of school houses of that era and was built based on photographs of schools. The Cherokee syllabary on the blackboard was painted by the late Cecil Dick, a Cherokee master artist. Most everything in the school house, like other buildings is a replica.
Frontier Home – The Samantha Bain Lucas home was originally built near Perkins, Oklahoma on land that was claimed in one of the Oklahoma Land Runs. In 1990, Ms. Marg Crumbaker, a great-granddaughter of Samantha Bain Lucas, acquired the home and had it moved to the Rural Village. The colors on the house are original.
General Store – Like the School House, the store is replicated from photographs. Both structures used lumber from the Stapler Homes in Tahlequah when those homes were dismantled. The store is now used by Cherokee Heritage Arts as a supply house for potters, basket makers, and other artisans.
Log Cabin – The cabin came from a site near Stilwell and pre-dates the Trail of Tears. In 1979, our staff disassembled the structure and reassembled it on this site. The cabin came from a site near Lost City and pre-dates the Trail of Tears. In 1979, our staff disassembled the structure and reassembled it on this site. (Information source: Betty Smith, she is the mother-in-law of George Smith and previously worked at the CHC as a gift shop manager and village manager. The cabin was acquired from George’s mother.)
Smoke House – It is a replica, but has been used by our staff to smoke meats.
Church – This was formerly the Log Cabin Florist Shop in Tahlequah. The property was being cleared to build Wright Real Estate and we were able to acquire and reassemble that building.
House – This house stood behind the Log Cabin Florist Shop and was acquired in the same transaction. It is intended to show the lifestyle of a merchant or more prosperous member of the community. The lifestyle of the very wealthy may be seen south of here at the Murrell Home.
Trivia: There is a shed behind the general store; it served for many years as a ticket office. It was first located in the area where the food vendors set up during Cherokee Holiday, and later moved to the area near the employee parking north of the museum.
Q. I was here several years ago and thought you had some buffalo and deer.
A. Yes, we had buffalo and deer for several years. They were in a pen near the front gate. We sent them to other herds about 1993 and tore the fencing down.
Q. What kind of animals do you have now?
A. In the Adams Corner Rural Village we have several kinds of animals that were typical of Cherokee settlements:
Dominique Chickens – Also called Dominiquers, these are the still a popular breed with many people.
Pineywood Cattle – These animals are related to the Texas Longhorns and were once very common along the Gulf Coast states. They are known for their ability to resist disease and survive extreme temperatures. Once very common, this breed is now very rare. It was man who nearly bred them into extinction because other breeds produced better weight gain and were thus more profitable.
Horses – The two white horses (Hawkeye and Sadie) we have are actually descendants from a Cherokee herd once owned by Old Tassel. They are also a rare breed.
Others – We have had Spanish goats, sheep, and guineas, but currently do not have any.
Q. What is the most valuable document in the museum?
A. The Cherokee Patent. This is the original parchment document that gave the Cherokees fee simple title to approximately 14,000,000 acres in northeastern Oklahoma which is now the 14-county jurisdiction of the Cherokee Nation. It is signed by President Martin Van Buren. Around 1989 we sent it to the Rocky Mountain Regional Conservation Center, which is now the Western Center for the Conservation of Fine Art, in Denver where Bob McCarroll performed deacidification and cleaning processes. During the process, President Martin Van Buren’s signature was slightly blurred. After it was returned, Shirley Wells, owner of the Indian Territory Art Gallery placed it in an acid-free matting and it was framed to archival standards. The glass is a special ultra-violet filtering glass and therefore has a yellowish tint and causes problems when photographing.
The bumps on the document, known as cockling were likely caused by too much moisture, probably resulting from exposure to high humidity levels combined with improper storage. The Patent was reportedly hidden in the Murrell Home for many years. Removal of the cockling would be a major job for a conservation house and very expensive. By now the parchment is warped and as it flattens you would have some real issues with the paint and ink. They just might decide to start flaking off.
Q. There is a Masonic cornerstone on the corner of the museum, how were the Masons involved?
A. Masonic cornerstones may be laid in any public building. In this case, both Col. Hagerstrand and Chief Keeler were Masons and aware of the tradition Masonry has in the Cherokee Nation. Cherokees established the first Lodge in Oklahoma in Tahlequah in November, 1848. It met in the Supreme Court building that still stands downtown. As a matter of trivia, the stone is very unusual in the following ways:
1. The northeast corner is preferred; this one is in the southwest corner. Actually Masonic custom allows the cornerstone to be placed on a corner other than the northeast if there is a good reason, such as being near the front door instead of at the rear of the building in an alley.
2. It should be square; this one is a trapezoid
3. It should be level; this one is a little lower on the right side.
4. It should be plumb; this one is set on an angled wall.
- Is there anything inside the cornerstone?
- Yes, there is a “casket” or small stainless steel box containing letters from the President of the United States (Richard Nixon), the Governor of Oklahoma (David Hall), the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation (W. W. Keeler), along with various papers and other mementos of the occasion. It was sealed and placed behind the cornerstone. The Grand Lodge of Oklahoma dedicated the stone on July 21, 1973. It also has the date July 21, 5973 A.L. which is a Masonic date. The “A.L.” is an abbreviation for Anno Lucis, meaning “Year of Light” and supposedly dating from the creation. It is obtained by adding 4,000 years to the current date.
- Are there any time capsules here?
- Yes. In line with the columns, near the sculpture of Andy Payne is a buried time capsule. It was placed there in 1989 and is supposed to remain there for 40 years. It contains a number of letters, newspapers, and a copy of Exploring Your Cherokee Ancestry along with assorted other documents. My guess is that in 2029 when we are supposed to dig it up, we will forget. The site is not marked,
Q. How were the life-cast figures in the Trail of Tears exhibit made?
A. They were produced by Studio EIS pronounced “ice”) in Brooklyn, NY. After establishing the number of figures we needed, we began seeking models. The man and girl in the lead are the same two as in gallery one, Charlie Soap and Joanna Glass. To their right is councilman Johnny Keener. Behind them is a Black woman as a reminder that we had slaves on the Trail of Tears. Alongside her is a White missionary and the model for that figure was someone the people in NY selected from that area. Behind them is Sam Watts-Scott. The mother (Ruby Wells Dirteater) and children along the wall is the wife and children of Curtis Dirteater. Studio EIS came to the costume shop behind the theater and had the models assume the desired pose. They then put a compound over their face and the person had to breathe through nasal tubes while it was setting. This was a real challenge for the children since they not only had to remain calm, but also hold a facial expression. The bodies were cast from stock figures in NY.
Q. What is that rock with the hole in it?
A. It is the cistern cover from the female seminary. If you will notice, there is a depressed area next to it. That is the site of the cistern. The ground there settled about ten years ago. We leveled it off and later it settled again.
Q. What happened to the rough rocks around the columns?
A. They were removed in the spring of 2006. They were replaced with stamped concrete which is much easier to walk across and makes the museum much more accessible to wheelchairs. One of those rocks was placed in an upright position (near the rock with the hole) alongside the walkway to the museum entrance. If you look closely you can see a starfish fossil in it. Others were used in the ancient village herbal garden. All of the rocks were stored for possible use elsewhere.
Q. What is the Murrell Home?
A. It is the home located approximate ¾ of a mile south of our front gate. Hunter’s Home, as it also known, was built in 1844 by George W. Murrell, a white man from Virginia who married a niece of Chief John Ross. At that time Park Hill had several mansions, notably those of John and Lewis Ross, which were even more impressive than the Murrell Home. Stand Watie burned all of those homes during the Civil War, with the exception of the Murrell Home. Mr. Murrell was a southern sympathizer and his home was spared.
Q. Who was Stand Watie?
A. His Cherokee name was Degadoga meaning “He stands on two feet.” His kinsmen (Uncle) Major Ridge and (cousin) John Ridge, and his brother Elias Boudinot were leaders of the Treaty Party which signed the Treaty of New Echota and thereby sold the remaining Cherokee lands in the southeastern portion of the United States. After the Trail of Tears, the two Ridges and Elias Boudinot were assassinated June 22, 1839. Watie escaped an attempt on his life. During the Civil War, he rose to the rank of Brigadier General and earned a footnote in history by becoming the last Confederate General to surrender his command. He relinquished command at Doaksville on June 25, 1865. Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia two and a half months earlier on April 9, 1865.
Q. Who was W. W. Keeler?
A. William Wayne Keeler was a young engineer with the Phillips Petroleum Co. in 1949 when he was appointed to serve as Principal Chief on December 1, 1949 by President Harry S Truman. Succeeding Presidents appointed him on an annual basis. During that time, Keeler rose through the ranks to become Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board of Phillips Petroleum. In 1969 President Richard Nixon signed legislation allowing the Cherokees to again elect their leaders. The first election under that law was held in 1971 and Keeler ran for a four-year term and was elected. He retired at the end of that term in 1975.
- The “offices” of the Cherokee Nation were housed in the Keeler home for awhile. Eventually a storefront office in downtown Tahlequah with one employee was acquired. In 1979, when a portion of the current complex was built, the tribal offices were in the east half of the building east of the restaurant. The other half was shared with the BIAWhat other important sites are in this area?
- Downtown Tahlequah has three important buildings.
- The Cherokee National Capital building which was built in 1867, it became the Cherokee County Courthouse at the time of Oklahoma Statehood in 1907. It briefly housed the Tahlequah Chamber of Commerce and now houses the Judicial Affairs Tribunal, which is the Cherokee Nation’s Supreme Court.
- The Supreme Court Building, built in 1844, is the oldest public building in Oklahoma. It was also the home of the Cherokee Advocate newspaper and used as the first Masonic Lodge in Oklahoma. It was most recently used as the Cherokee County Superintendent’s office. The building is currently unoccupied and not habitable, but it is being restored and plans are to place offices there.
- The Cherokee National Prison built in 1868. Non-operational scaffolding is located behind the building. It served as the Cherokee County jail until 1979 and was transformed into the Tsalagi Library and now houses the Cherokee Cultural Center.
All three buildings were sold to the State of Oklahoma at the time of Statehood. In 1979 the city, county, and tribe had a three-way swap of land and buildings and in that process the tribe regained ownership of these buildings. All three are on the National Register of Historic Places. As part of the same agreement, the Cherokee Nation acquired land on the east side of Tahlequah to build a new W. W. Hasting Hospital, beside a new city hospital. The old city hospital became a city-county office building. Old W. W. Hastings Hospital was acquired by Northeastern State University for use as an Optometry clinic. A downtown National Guard Armory was given to the city and now serves as a community building, the armory moved into a new facility on the west side of town.
Q. Was there a Cherokee National Male Seminary?
A. Yes, it was located on the south side of Tahlequah at the present site of Markoma Bible Academy. It burned in 1910. Very little remains at that site.
Q I have heard about a movie “Where the Red Fern Grows” being filmed here. Do you have any information about it?
A. Yes. Our archives includes the papers of Wilson Rawls, the man who wrote the book on which the movie is based. He also wrote a book called “Summer of the Monkeys” that received even greater literary acclaim. His papers include original manuscripts of those two books, many letters from school children, items they made for him, some of his personal items and various copies of his books.
Q. Where was the film made?
A. It was filmed in several locations around Tahlequah. The country store can still be seen. It is the old Qualls store and has most recently served as a restaurant. Some old stores in Vian doubled for Tahlequah. They are still there, but have been altered to the point that they are no longer recognizable from the movie.
Last update: 12-15-2020