Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Interested in Cherokee History - Come see for yourself

Chief unveils project to promote history of downtown Tahlequah

Tahlequah Daily Press
Tahlequah, OK

Press special writer


People who shop and sightsee through Tahlequah’s downtown will soon receive additional insights into the rich history of the historic buildings surrounding Cherokee Courthouse Square and adjoining areas.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith Monday announced a plan by Cherokee Tourism for the History on Main Street project, which will place historic photos in downtown storefront windows. While shoppers admire the merchandise, they can learn more about life here, and what Tahlequah looked like, a century or more ago.

Beth Herrington, representing the city and Tahlequah Historic Preservation, joined in the enthusiasm for the project.

This was the third major action by Smith and the Cherokee Nation, along with Tahlequah city officials, in as many weeks in projects to benefit Tahlequah, Cherokee County, and this area.

On July 28, Smith announced construction of several new buildings, including an urgent care clinic, outpatient surgery and doctors’ offices, adjacent to W.W. Hastings Indian Medical Center. The Cherokee Nation’s Health Care Committee has approved plans for the tribe to assume operation of the hospital. Last week, Smith and other officials broke ground on a restoration project of the old Cherokee Nation Supreme Court Building and the adjacent prison.

“The Cherokee Nation wants to tell its story,” Smith said. “It seems so simple, but there’s a lot of work there.”

Smith noted that 9,000 people have taken the 40-hour Cherokee history class presented by the tribe, and one important lesson is evident.

“History always repeats itself. It’s like clockwork every 20 to 40 years,” he said, speaking of the federal government’s attitude toward the native population. “We are people who face adversity, survive, adapt, and prosper.”

The old part of Tahlequah represents two of the passions long present among Cherokee leaders, exemplified by the Supreme Court building at the south end of the square, the oldest government building existing in Tahlequah, and Seminary Hall at Northeastern State University to the north.

“At the south end of town is our great passion for justice in the Supreme Court building; at the north end is our passion for education, the female seminary,” Smith said. “Look at all the stories between these two bookends, the development of Tahlequah. It’s our belief that if we can tell our history, these stories, we will prosper.”

Smith said people want to learn the stories of those who lived here long ago, the details of their lives, how they triumphed over adversity.

Some of the photos on display portray moments frozen by the camera’s shutter, such as:

• The interior of the Crew Rexall Drug Store, now Kimberly’s, showing several people staring at the camera. It’s a favorite of Stephanie Lusher. She and Lori Smiley, owners of the NDN Art Gallery downtown, enlarged and mounted the photos for display. Lusher said Danny Perry, director of Tahlequah Main Street, pointed out what appears to be a ghost in the picture. “See the woman with no legs that you can kind of see through?” she said, pointing at a spectral figure in a white dress. (When the photos go on display, look and judge for yourself.)

• Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Thomas Buffington delivering a speech in front of the Cherokee National Capitol, now the Old Courthouse, sometime between 1899 and 1903Gentlemen – perhaps tribal councilors – sit behind him on a platform.

• The wood-frame Palace Hotel, on Keetoowah Street next to the Supreme Court building and jail.

• A street scene showing a man with a walrus mustache, with two gold medallions and a gold watch chain adorning his jacket, strolling down the sidewalk with two men wearing derbies.

• Two typesetters in the Cherokee Advocate office, Cat. N.J. Starr and Watie Freeman, about 1900. The office was in the old Supreme Court Building.

• The young ladies of the Cherokee Female Seminary parading down Muskogee Avenue in 1853. They are wearing dark dresses with ribbon decorations a few inches above the hem.

Smith said Cherokee Tourism hopes to use this program, along with other properties it has purchased in the downtown area, as an incentive to market arts and crafts, to teach and pass on the Cherokee language. He sees the day when tourists, including international ones, will stop at the Cherokee Casino in Catoosa and want to learn more about the Cherokees, leading them to this area.

“When they take our story back with them, we know that our future is more secure,” he said. “When we take these photos out and look at them, we know how many great stories there are, how many stories remain untold.”

Herrington, a retired educator, has devoted much of her life to studying and preserving Tahlequah’s history. She said that since 2000, eight local properties have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Cherokee County has 16.

“There are counties in Oklahoma that have none, so Cherokee County has a lot to be proud of,” she said.

Herrington said city officials have encouraged these preservation efforts. Two former mayors, Jerry Cook and Sally Ross, attended Monday evening’s announcement, while Mayor Ken Purdy was busy at the City Council meeting.

Since 2003, the Historic Preservation Commission has placed 10 signs on other properties of historic significance that may not qualify for the National Register.

“In many instances, they’re relevant to the magnificent direction the Cherokee Nation led from 1839 on,” she said.

Herrington said the lone building that survived the great fire of 1895, the subject of one of the photos, was the one occupied by the Dawes Commission. Meigs Jewelry now occupies the renovated building, the subject of one photo.

“I think this is just absolutely incredible,” said Todd Mutzig of Meigs Jewelry. “We have so much history, and this is finally a way to be able to tell it. We’ll take as many photos as they’re willing to send our way.”

Perry’s Tahlequah Main Street program has helped obtain and research the photos.

“I’ve learned more about the history of Tahlequah in the past four weeks working on this project than I ever knew,” he said.

He said 17 more photos have been obtained from the Northeastern State University archives and are being prepared.

“Eventually every building downtown will be able to have at least one photo,” he said.

Smiley said she and Lusher have been working to restore their building housing the NDN Art Gallery since they acquired it six years ago. They consider historic photos an appropriate complement to the town’s architecture.

“I’m certainly delighted to see the Cherokee Nation undertake this project,” said David Moore, executive director of Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce. “To see history and tourism united will ensure the likelihood of success. We look forward to future projects with the Cherokee Nation, NSU and all of our community partners.”

NSU President Dr. Don Betz agreed. He and his wife, Susanne, are eager to become a vital part of Tahlequah since moving back here.

“We love it,” he said “If we do this right, people will come. I think there is a unique and powerful relationship developing between the Cherokee Nation, the city and the university. I think the possibilities are virtually limitless.”