Tahlequah, the Cherokee Nation Capital
Tahlequah has a complex history beginning in the southeastern states of Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee. In some ways its history still extends all the way from its present location in Oklahoma, east to those areas and in between; in Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, and Mississippi. Here, the town was the site of a new beginning for an old nation: the Cherokee.
The four (or more) routes of the Trail of Tears culminated in Indian Territory, now known as Oklahoma. Those Cherokee that survived the forced displacement from their homes in GA, NC and TN ended their weary travels in this area along the Middle and Lower Illinois River, a tributary of the Arkansas River. In 1839, the Cherokees founded a new town and capital: Tahlequah.
Years before the great removal of the tribes in the southeastern colonies, small bands of Cherokee had left their ancestral lands and ventured west. They remembered traditional stories of lands in the west where all the game they wanted flourished and away from intrusion of white men. Some settled in Arkansas, some in Texas, and some on the rivers in modern Oklahoma. The latter band of Cherokee had established a settlement and capital named Tahlonteeskee around 1829.
When the rest of their people joined the existing band in Indian Territory, things weren't exactly a homecoming. The established band were steadfast traditionalists and opposed adoption of the 'white ways': the religions, clothing, education, commerce, private property, and owning slaves. It was not 'their way'.
Many of the refugees arriving on the Trail of Tears were progressives. They realized and believed that the only way to survive was to adapt, adopt and change. They tried, but their efforts didn't alter the encroaching settlers, colonists, and the burgeoning upper class. After years of political and philosophical clashes, all the tribes in the southeastern states were driven from their homelands. Upon arrival in Indian Territory, it was time for the Cherokee people to unify if they were to survive.
The new Cherokee nation's capital was established in the new town of Tahlequah, north of the former capital. The name is a derivation of one of the older great towns, also a former capital of the Overhill Cherokee, in Tennessee: Great Tellico, the site of modern Tellico Plains on the Tellico River. For me, this was an irony. Having ridden and slept on their former lands in Tellico Plains, hiked and ridden on their former war paths and hunting grounds. And now here I am, standing in front of the former courthouse and on their new townsite: Tahlequah.
When the Dawes Act divided their public lands into individually-owned parcels, the town changed. It was no longer a Cherokees' home site. It became more like many of the places in this country: multiracial, multiethnic, and multicultural. The tribe and nation still exist as a solid community; they've adapted, adopted and changed. And they are the largest Native American nation in the country.
Walking around the courthouse is a walk through history, connections and many stories. On the lawn were stakes with photographs that told a story: a remembrance ride of the relocation on bicycles.
A group of Cherokee students and nation officials rode bicycles from Calhoun, GA, and retraced parts of one route of Trail of Tears. They arrived at the Courthouse in July of this year to a homecoming ceremony. The photographs shared some of their ride.
Walking around the perimeter of the building and square, one can learn quite a bit of history by reading the monuments and stones.
I was surprised, well, almost shocked, to see this. To embark on a long history of the Cherokee factions is beyond this travelogue. Suffice to say that Ross and Watie were polar opposites. Most of the Nation followed the leadership of Ross. Watie.... well, he paid a hefty price for a betrayal to the Cherokee people that cost them their homelands and ultimately thousands of lives*. On the other hand, it is
a part of their history, no matter how painful it is. It is a part of their collective public memory. Better to acknowledge it, be reminded of it, than sweep it under the rug and ignore it.
Now, here was a surprise. Does 'Bell' ring a bell?
Anyone interested can read the long version of the story here
Interestingly, interspersed in the brick and stone walkway around the perimeter of the courthouse are blocks commemorating all the principle chiefs of the Cherokee Nation since their arrival to Oklahoma. Including the present day chief, Wilma Mankiller (the first Cherokee woman chief).
The sky clouded and rain drizzled, which was refreshing, and stopped. The sun shone again and we were ready to move on.
* Synopsis: "A group of Cherokees known as the Treaty Party began negotiating a treaty with the federal government. The group led by Major Ridge and including his son John, Elias Boudinot, and his brother Stand Watie, signed a treaty at New Echota in 1835. Despite the majority opposition to this treaty - opposition led by Principal Chief John Ross - the eastern lands were sold for $5 million, and the [minority group of] Cherokees agreed to move beyond the Mississippi River to Indian Territory. The [U.S.] Senate ratified the treaty despite knowledge that only a minority of Cherokees had accepted it. Within two years the Principal People were to move from their ancestral homelands."