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Tribes and Trails in Oklahoma

Chickasaw, Cherokee, Wichita, Seminole, Choctaw: The history of each of those tribes is represented throughout Oklahoma.

Oklahoma’s first residents came in constant contact with cowboys, ranchers, cattle drivers, bureaucrats, buffalo soldiers and settlers across Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory, sometimes with good results and other times with conflict. But together, they painted a colorful portrait of peoples in transition, all striving for a better life in the foothills and on the plains of Oklahoma.

During my journey through the state, I found an array of outstanding sites presenting the impressive story of the Oklahoma’s Western Heritage.

One is the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. It collects and displays artifacts and classic and contemporary Western art to encourage interest in the American West. It owns one of the world’s premier collections.

I enjoyed the fascinating Native American Gallery, which features sculptures from the finest artists, and the Western Performers Gallery. It was a thrill to see the exciting American Cowboy, Rodeo and Fine Firearms Galleries.

My visit also included a stroll through a mythical Western minitown called Prosperity Junction that has 19 historically accurate structures and a windmill, all inside a part of the museum space with 40-foot ceilings.

To appreciate the topography of southwestern Oklahoma as people saw it more than a century ago, groups should drive the paved road to the summit of Mount Scott in the Wichita Mountains. Enjoy breathtaking, almost panoramic views of the region with mountains, hills, the valley, plains and lakes and even giant wind turbines.


Chickasaw Culture

The Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur celebrates the history and culture of the tribe on its beautiful campus. Not a traditional museum with displays under glass, it’s a vibrant, interactive, hands-on place for groups to explore.

“We see many groups here; school and church, mystery tours, bus tours from Dallas and faraway places. Guests come from around the world. Native Americans are very big with foreigners,” said Brad Lieb, cultural resource specialist at the center. “Here you experience it all: Chickasaw food, language, dancing.”

In the town of Sulphur, the Chickasaw nation has opened the fabulous new Artesian Hotel, Casino and Spa. It’s a re-creation of the original hotel built in 1906, improved with modern amenities. Across the street, the Chickasaw National Recreation Area has an abundance of hiking, camping, swimming, picnicking and general exploration opportunities.

The Chickasaws operate a welcome center in Davis. Inside I was delighted to find a Bedre Fine Chocolate factory, owned by the tribe, churning out delicious Native American sweets.

“Starting in October, we’ll book group tours, and guests will get the whole chocolate experience, watching chocolates being made and sampling them too,” said Cathy Bean, welcome center manager.


Will Rogers and More

The town of Claremore has several Western attractions, including the Will Rogers Memorial Museum. The Will Rogers Birthplace Ranch is in nearby Oologah. Both are dedicated to this fascinating Oklahoma cowboy of Cherokee descent who became a vaudeville, radio and movie star; columnist; and humanitarian, and who reached pinnacles of success in the 1920s and 1930s.

“People find his story and museum are much greater than anticipated,” said Steve Gragert, museum director, during my visit. “It’s a huge story about one person who impacted the lives of so many in the early 20th century. Will’s range of interests was tremendously wide. He could speak to people of all sorts, engaging in conversation with any intellectual or with the guy sitting next to him in the local chili parlor.”

Claremore also boasts the J.M. Davis Arms and Historical Museum. Davis was a local hotel owner and an avid gun and memorabilia collector.

“We’re the world’s largest privately held arms museum, with 14,000 weapons,” said Wayne McCombs, the museum’s executive director. “However, we have another 35,000 unusual things to see, much more than guns.”