To get a good feel for Cherokee culture and history, Tahlequah, Oklahoma, is a great place to visit. It is located in the heart of “Green Country” and “Lake Country” in northeastern Oklahoma and is the capital of the Cherokee Nation and the Keetoowah Band of the Cherokee. There are a number of historical museums and the Cherokee Heritage Center where a visitor can learn about the historical and pre-historical Cherokee.
We began our tour in downtown Tahlequah with the Cherokee National Supreme Court Museum built in 1844. It is the oldest government building still standing in Oklahoma. The museum features in addition to exhibits on the Cherokee judicial system and the Cherokee language, exhibits on the first Cherokee newspapers–The Cherokee Phoenix and the Cherokee Advocate.
The Cherokee Phoenix was the first Native American newspaper and the first issue was published on February 21, 1828, in New Echota, (Georgia), capital of the Cherokee Nation at that time. The paper continued until 1834. The Nation founded the paper to gather support and to help keep members of the Cherokee Nation united and informed. The newspaper was printed in English and Cherokee, using the Cherokee syllabary developed in 1821 by Sequoyah. The first editor was Elias Boudinot who was forced to resign in 1832 when he began to support the view that removal was inevitable and that the Cherokee should protect their rights by treaty. He was replaced by Elias Hicks whose views aligned with the majority of Cherokee at the time who supported Cherokee sovereignty and apposed relocation. The federal government stopped annuity payments in 1834 and the Georgia Guard took the printing press and destroyed the printing office to prevent any further publication.
In 1830, President Andrew Jackson helped gain Congressional passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which authorized the government to offer deals in order to extinguish Native American title to lands in the Southeast. In Worcester v. Georgia (1832), the court ruled against forced relocation and re-established limited sovereignty to the Cherokee. President Jackson directly defied the ruling boasting, “[Justice] John Marshal has made his decision; let him enforce it now if he can.” Ultimately, thousands of Cherokee men, women and children were rounded up and forcibly removed to Oklahoma in what came to be known as “The Trail of Tears.”
After the Trail of Tears, The Cherokee National Council passed a law to re-establish a press office to produce a national newspaper aimed at “spreading useful knowledge among tribal members and accurate information about the tribe to non-Cherokees.” The last issue was printed on March 3, 1906. The Cherokee Phoenix was later revived and is printed and published online today.
Next, we visited the Cherokee National Prison Museum just a block from the National Supreme Court Museum. Before contact with the Europeans, the Cherokee practiced “Blood Law” or “Clan Law” based on the concept of balance or justice. Basically, when a member of a clan was offended by the member of another clan, the clan of the offender was responsible for reciprocity, not unlike “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” idea. After contact, the Cherokee, over time, integrated some of the European concepts. After the Trail of Tears, one of the first acts by the new Cherokee government was to establish a judicial system to keep order and in 1875, the Cherokee National Prison was constructed.
My lovely wife Lin posed for a picture inside of one of the cells in the prison. However, a non-Cherokee would never have been incarcerated in this prison since crimes committed within Cherokee territory by non-Indians were under U.S. Federal jurisdiction. There were, of course, clashes over jurisdiction such as in the case of Cherokee Nation v. Ezekiel Proctor. “Because the crime occurred on Cherokee land between Cherokee citizens “and an adopted Cherokee citizen”, the Cherokee courts had legal jurisdiction to try the case. Prior to the trial, family members of the murdered party went to Fort Smith, Arkansas, and petitioned the court there to intercede arguing that because the intended victim was white the federal court had jurisdiction. The federal court sent a posse formed of marshals and family members of the deceased to see the outcome of the trial. Instead of heeding the federal court’s orders to remain peaceful, a gun battle ensued. Eleven people were killed, and a number of people in the room were wounded including the judge and Zeke Proctor himself.
“Despite this intrusion into Cherokee legal jurisdiction, the trial recommenced the next day and Zeke Proctor was acquitted of the murder. In order to restore peace, Zeke Proctor and everyone involved in the trial and shootout were granted amnesty by President Ulysses S. Grant a year later.” [from the Museum Guide]
Next week, I will share our tour of the John Ross Museum and Cemetery and the Murrell Home.