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Native American museums: Revered collections

Courtesy Buffalo Bill Historical Center

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine you and your family being forced out of your home and forced to leave practically everything you own behind but the clothes on your back, and being moved to a strange land hundreds of miles away.

And — oh yes — you will have to walk or, if you’re lucky, ride the distance on horseback through the dead of winter. There’s a place that graphically depicts that scenario — the Trail of Tears exhibit at the Cherokee Heritage Center at Park Hill, about six miles south of Tahlequah, Okla.

The exhibit explores the forced removal of the Cherokee people from their Southeastern homelands to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma. The exhibit includes nine realistic clay sculptures of Cherokees, depicted in a variety of lifestyles, making the heartbreaking trek where thousands died.

Standing beside the figures, you can get a glimpse of what it must have felt like. The experience leaves a lasting impression on visitors.

Like the Cherokee Nation, numerous Native American tribes and communities have painstakingly collected and preserved their culture and artifacts; the Cherokee Heritage Center is just one such depository.

The Cherokee story
“We talk about Cherokees and Cherokee history and preserve the artifacts and archives that illustrate their story,” said Carey Tilley, executive director of the center.

Tilley said the most popular exhibit is the ancient village in which people in period dress represent Cherokees 300 years ago. “They demonstrate crafts, tell stories and share Cherokee history from the 1700s,” he said. “Master craftspeople demonstrate basketry and pottery.”

The adjacent museum tells the tragic story of the Cherokees’ forced removal from their native lands in the Southeast and their relocation to Oklahoma in the 1830s.

“The Cherokee-removal story and Trail of Tears occurred when they were forced from their homeland into present-day Oklahoma,” said Tilley. “Our award-winning exhibit, developed with the National Park Service, draws much interest. People connect with ancestors and their past, or they see what happened where they live today.”

The Cherokee Nation realizes the significance of its historic sites and has made a commitment to preserve key locations in Oklahoma, including the Cherokee National Supreme Court Museum, which is housed in the two-story brick building constructed for the court in 1844 in Tahlequah. It is the oldest public building in Oklahoma.

“Cherokees are a very progressive sovereign nation that adopted customs of those around them. They had an early justice system,” said Travis Owens, senior manager of Cherokee Nation Cultural Tourism. “Visitors see how advanced the Cherokee Nation’s government systems were.”

Similar to the U.S. Supreme Court, with district and circuit courts, the Cherokee Supreme Court heard cases of theft all the way up to murder. “We still have a Supreme Court, but it mainly hears cases about tribal politics,” said Owens.

Two more interesting Cherokee museums open this year.

The Cherokee National Prison Museum in Tahlequah, built in 1875, focuses more on confinement than corporal punishment.

“People weren’t just sentenced to years of hard labor,” Owens said. “They also learned trades, like farmer or blacksmith. Interpretive centers will explain what happened at the prison, to the Indian Territory outlaws locked up, and how justice evolved.”

John Ross was the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation for nearly 40 years, helping see the nation through tough years like the forced removal. He later worked on relations with the United States. A museum will be dedicated to him this fall in a former 1913 rural school in Park Hill.

“He believed in government and the education of Cherokees. He helped establish schools, including the first educational institution for women west of the Mississippi.” Owens said.

In native voices
He was a guide, scout, frontiersman, showman, actor, entrepreneur and American icon. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his dealings with the Plains Indians are showcased at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo. “Celebrating the Spirit of the Old West,” the center features separate museums on firearms, Western art, the natural history of the Yellowstone area, Cody and the Plains Indians.

The Plains Indians museum “is considered one of the best of its kind in the U.S. and was developed with an advisory board of Native Americans,” said Lee Haines, director of public relations for the center. “Stories are told in native voices, such as a woman talking about life on a reservation or in a nomadic tribe. That brings it to life.”

Haines noted that the museum doesn’t just cover Plains Indians in the 1800s, but travels back to the centuries before Europeans arrived and progresses to today. “The Plains Indians have preserved and shared their culture with their families and descendents, and now with the rest of the world,” he said.

As he developed “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World,” a traveling circuslike show, Cody hired many Plains peoples as performers. Cody had been an army scout and an Indian fighter, and as “he envisioned how to tell the story of the West, he knew the Native American point of view and the Plains people were important,” Haines said.

Cody and the Indians traveled with the cast and crew around the United States and Europe. He paid Native Americans the same as everyone else and respected what the Plains Indians brought to the show with their history, culture and art.

Unconquered Seminoles
In the Seminole language, “ah-tah-thi-ki” means “a place to learn.” “We invite you to come to the Big Cypress Reservation to learn about our exciting history and culture,” said Dorian Lange, development officer at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in Clewiston, Fla.

The 5,000-square-foot museum sits on a 66-acre natural cypress dome of forested wetlands with a one-mile raised boardwalk that highlights native flora. There is space for permanent and traveling exhibits.

The museum illuminates how Seminoles lived in the Florida swamps and Everglades. The museum film “We Seminoles” shares their story, including the dramatic struggle to remain in Florida.

“They’re often referred to as the ‘unconquered Seminoles’ because they’re one of the few tribes that never signed a peace treaty with the government. They had a substantial war period against the U.S. military from 1817 to 1858,” said Lange.

“That period includes the Indian Removal Act signed by President [Andrew] Jackson that relocated tribes living east of the Mississippi River. Those that fought stayed in the Everglades, assembled and eluded the military.”

Described as resilient and resourceful survivors, Seminoles are also “a spirited, animated, happy and loving culture, but at the same time very serious about traditions and heritage,” said Lange.

The camp and three-dimensional dioramas speak to how the tribe lived and got out of the Everglades to trade and engage in commerce.

“The dugout canoes they used to travel are stunning. They are also known for their distinctive patchwork clothing. To be dressed so well in the middle of the Everglades is quite an astonishing thing to me,” said Lange.

Pueblo overview
Far to the southwest, in the heart of Albuquerque, N.M., sits the 11-acre Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, owned and operated by 19 Pueblo Indian tribes of New Mexico. Yearly, it showcases culture, history and food to thousands of visitors seeking an introduction to the Pueblo experience.

“We’re a culturally vibrant business community within an urban setting,” said Tazbah McCullah, marketing director. “Our permanent exhibits highlight Pueblo creativity and adaptation from 300 B.C. to now. This helped make possible their survival, diversity and achievements over thousands of years.”

Impressive galleries present changing traveling shows from the National Museum of the Native American Indian. There are historical and fine-art exhibits of and by Native Americans.

“We emphasize traditional and contemporary history and art featuring Pueblo artisans,” said McCullah.

The architecture is reminiscent of nearby Chaco Canyon, considered a seat of Pueblo civilization. Hundreds of kivas — underground, square-walled places for spiritual ceremonies — were discovered or unearthed there. The center’s design resembles the Pueblo civilization’s great houses, used for living, public gatherings and ceremonies.

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