- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 20, 2002

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — Here in the capital of the Cherokee Nation, cultural preservation is a tourist attraction and a subject of debate among the Cherokees themselves. Tribal "traditionalists" argue that the exhibits and demonstrations displayed for tourists at the Cherokee Heritage Center are offensive and sacrilegious. Others contend that they are merely expressions of cultural pride and something to be shared.

"The traditionalists are still a little leery about what we're doing here," said Robert Lewis, a tour guide at the heritage center.

Clad in buckskins and barefoot, Mr. Lewis takes visitors through a re-creation of a Cherokee village before European influence. Other Cherokees employed at the center demonstrate bow making, blowgun marksmanship, pottery, fabric and basket weaving, and stomp dancing.

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"I believe in education," added Mr. Lewis, 37, a professional artist whose mother is Cherokee and father is Navajo-Apache. "I believe in showing different aspects of a culture. How on earth is anyone supposed to know [about the Cherokees]?"

Although the traditionalists are in a decided minority, Mr. Lewis said, the heritage center is sensitive to their arguments.

"They prefer that we do this just as demonstrations," he said, explaining that the dance demonstrations are not held on any of the seven sacred stomp grounds.

The box-turtle shells in the ceremonial rattles are inverted, he said, so they are not like the ones used in the traditional religious ceremonies.

About 100,000 visitors this year up from 71,000 in 2001 are expected to visit the heritage center, housed in a brownstone building resembling an ancient longhouse.

Tahlequah, located in the scenic Ozark foothills 70 miles southeast of Tulsa, is best known as the terminus of the Trail of Tears. During the winter of 1838 and 1839, an estimated 4,000 American Indians perished during the forced 700-mile migration of 16,000 Cherokees from their tribal homelands in Georgia and Tennessee.

The Cherokee tragedy is brought to life in the "Trail of Tears Drama," written by playwright Joe Sears and performed at the heritage center. Some 12,000 people attended the performances last year; 14,000 are expected this year.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Cherokee National Holiday, the Labor Day weekend fete that commemorates the Cherokee Nation Constitution drafted in Tahlequah in 1839. About 50,000 people, Cherokees and non-Cherokees, are expected to attend.

Mary Ellen Meredith, interim executive director of the Cherokee National Historical Society Inc., whose office is in the heritage center, describes herself as an "enlightened traditionalist." She said objections from traditionalists forced changes to the "Trail of Tears Drama," such as removing the genuine stomp dance.

"We try very hard to offend as few people as possible," she said.

She bristled when asked how much Cherokee blood she had.

"We don't discuss that around here," she said. "It's all about culture around here. Our emphasis is to promote and preserve Cherokee history and culture. Educating people is our mission. We try to have enough so the traditional Cherokees can participate, but we want everyone in the world to know about the Cherokee culture."

The two best things about that culture, she added, are "a lack of greed and making decisions by consensus. The Cherokees always had a republic. Of all the governments known to man, the Cherokees excelled at minority rights, because they governed by consensus."

They still do. The Cherokee Nation, composed of nine districts that encompass 14 Oklahoma counties, is governed by a 15-member council and a principal chief, elected every four years. The incumbent principal chief is Chad Smith.

About 289,000 registered members of the Cherokee Nation are eligible to vote, though only about half live in the nation.

The Cherokees, along with the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole and Muscogee, or Creek, were called the "Five Civilized Tribes" by early 19th-century whites because they were not nomadic and practiced agriculture.

Before their expulsion, the Cherokees borrowed much from their European-American neighbors in an effort to coexist. They built frame houses. They adopted Christianity. They published a bilingual newspaper in Echota, Ga., the Cherokee Phoenix. They intermarried with whites. Some even owned slaves.

When a small group of Cherokees, without authorization from the tribal council, signed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835 that surrendered traditional grounds, the Georgia legislature passed a law confiscating the land. Chief John Ross appealed in the courts, and in an opinion written by Chief Justice John Marshall, the U.S. Supreme Court found the Georgia act unconstitutional.

But President Jackson, not known for his love of Indians, declared, "John Marshall has issued his decision; let him enforce it."

He then ordered troops to evict the Cherokees, which led to the Trail of Tears. Resentment against the U.S. government led most Cherokees to side with the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Tonya Still, 24, a senior in history and education at nearby Northeastern State University, worked this summer at the heritage center demonstrating weaving. She has a Cherokee father and a French-Irish mother and describes herself as "smack-dab in the middle" of the debate between traditionalists and non-traditionalists.

"I believe in stomp dances and I go to church," she said. "I still practice the same crafts that my family has practiced for generations, but I follow the norms of society. I go to school, I drive a car, I wear regular clothes."

A Baptist, she said it was not difficult for Cherokees to reconcile their traditional beliefs with Christianity.

"We believe that all of our prayers and our language have been handed down to us by U-thl-a-na, the creator," she said. "We believe that Jesus walked this earth 2,000 years ago, and he came to the Cherokee and told us that we were doing everything right and to keep on worshipping U-thl-a-na and we would be fine. He wasn't here in body, but he was here in spirit."

Mr. Lewis said his visitors seem genuinely interested in, and respectful of, Cherokee culture.

"I've never had a bad experience," he said, "but I get some off-the-wall questions. Once, a guy from New York asked me, 'So, why did you people move out here?' The other visitors just looked at each other. I just smiled and said, 'Well, that's a long story.'"

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