Connecting Culture to Ancestry: The Cherokee Heritage Center
Nestled in a wooded grove of land in Park Hill, Oklahoma, the Cherokee Heritage Center sits on the former site of the Cherokee Female Seminary, c. 1851, one of the first institutions of higher learning for women west of the Mississippi. The idea for a heritage center began in 1962 and culminated when Tsa-La-Gi opened to the public in 1967. Today, the center serves as a premier location for those wishing to learn about and experience Cherokee culture, and it offers ample opportunity to explore a fully interpretive site that offers live interactive exhibits.
Cherokee National Museum
The approach to the main entrance of the Cherokee National Museum is shrouded by the three columns that remain from the original Cherokee Female Seminary building, which burned in 1887. The impressive columns stand in memory of the Classical Revival architecture of the original building.
The museum’s permanent exhibit on the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of the Cherokee people from the southeast, portrays the life of the Cherokee from pre-Removal to the arrival in Indian Territory. Additionally, an excellent gift shop offering a wide variety of books, both historical and genealogical; handmade gifts; and other sundry items round out a visitor’s experience at the center.
Outdoor Interactive Exhibits: Village at Tsa-La-Gi and Adams Corner
The most exciting aspect of the Cherokee Heritage Center is the outdoor interpretive areas – Diligwa: 1710 Cherokee Village and Adams Corner. Based on Cherokee life in the early eighteenth century, Diligwa gives visitors an authentic portrayal of a Cherokee settlement, complete with guided tours. As visitors tour the village, they experience a detailed historic landscape of wattle and daub structures and interpretive stations arranged on four acres adjacent to the museum building. The Adams Corner Rural Village opened to the public in 1979, and visitors enjoy a leisurely self-guided tour through seven buildings, including a general store, church, schoolhouse, traditional log cabin, and smokehouse representing life in Indian Territory in the late nineteenth century.
Cherokee Family Research Center
Genealogists can utilize the small Cherokee Family Research Center (CFRC) located at the rear of the museum display area. Here researchers will find unique resources for Cherokee ancestry and heritage, beginning with the Trail of Tears era through the formal dissolution of Indian Territory in 1907, when the lands of Indian and Oklahoma Territories became the state of Oklahoma. The center features computer stations and work areas to access digital material, books, microfilm, and other resources. The CFRC maintains a listing of the library’s holdings online. Overall, while the CFRC may be a small, but quaint library, the material held offers researchers a unique opportunity for researching their Cherokee ancestry.
Finding Place: Connecting People
My return visit to the Cherokee Heritage Center late last year rekindled an awareness that I am still in awe that my ancestors survived the Trail of Tears and I was there to re-learn my family’s history. In 1974, our family was visiting my father’s grandmother, a Dawes enrollee who lived in Adair County, Oklahoma, and our cousins recommended taking “the kids” to Tsa-La-Gi, known today as the Cherokee Heritage Center. This visit left an indelible mark that is still felt over forty years later.
As a small child, I stood in awe at the live Cherokee who stood before me. Their dress and activities mesmerized my sister and I. As we toured the grounds, walked through the museum, and watched the outdoor play portraying the Trail of Tears, my father’s ancestry became first person and no longer just stories he told. They were real; we were real. And even at a young age, I understood they were telling my story, even though my home lay 1,300 miles east of Oklahoma. This simple family event, a family vacation, planted the seed of awareness to my cultural identity, which later became a driving force in my pursuit of learning more about my family’s history.
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