Representing Native Identity: The Trail of Tears and the Cherokee Heritage Center in Oklahoma


While studying the exhibitions in the Hall of the North American Indian in Harvard's Peabody Museum, I overheard a conversation between two other museum visitors whom I speculatively identified as a Harvard student and her European guest. The conversation was intriguing and revealing, particularly the following exchange.

European guest: "How many Indians have survived?"

Harvard student: "I think…about 5% of the original population."

European guest: "Have you ever seen one?"

Harvard student: "Only descendants…not the way they were."

They had walked right past me. I suddenly had the urge to get their attention, "I'm Native American…over here. Don't you see me?" Perhaps we descendants are difficult to recognize. The juxtaposition of the past's visible images and the present invisible Native Americans in American society results in a loss of continuity between the two, both in museum representation and in collective American thought. Even as long-standing stereotypes are still being fixed and reinforced in many museums, forced acculturation and assimilation have rendered those stereotypes virtually useless in recognizing Native Americans today.

National museum representations of Native American are often outdated, unilateral in perspective, and far removed from the lives of the living populations. Local tribal museums strive to represent a tribal viewpoint while educating others about their tribe's history and traditions. For example, while many national museums in the United States represent the forced migration of Native Americans as a disembodied process, peripheral to the museum's message, for some local tribes and their museums, forced migration is central to their identities and their messages.

The Cherokee Heritage Center in Oklahoma is one local tribal museum that has represented Native Americans and forced migration to native and non-natives for almost 30 years. Established by the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the Cherokee Heritage Center has made the Trail of Tears its major theme because it is central to Cherokee identity in Oklahoma where many descendants of the survivors of that bitter trek still live. I an one of those descendants. My identity has been strongly influenced by the Cherokee struggle for survival that is both commemorated and continued in the Cherokee Heritage Center. As the Cherokee Heritage Center combats Financial and other problems, it is struggling for its own identity and survival.

Who Is Native American?

Recent repatriation legislation has brought to the already complex issues of Native American identity and representation in American society a new sense of awareness and urgency. The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (Act H. R. 5237) provides protection for Native American and Native Hawaiian burial sites and sacred objects, establishing ownership of cultural property through cultural affiliation. It requires institutions receiving federal funds to catalog all skeletal remains and Native American materials in their collections by 1995 and to notify each federally recognized native group of materials presumed to belong to them. One problem that federally founded museums must resolves is an increasingly difficult one-who is Native American? Who is authorized to speak for each tribe, and who are the proper recipients of each tribe's cultural property and human remains now in museums?

Identity is an extremely complex issue. Certification of blood quantum is usually required in order to be legally identified as Native American, and some tribes require a certain blood quantum for membership. Informal constraints within the tribe also affect identity as some tribal members with full-blood quantum consider tribal members with mixed ancestry not to be truly "Native American." Even when blood quantum is not an issue, the behavior of tribal members can effect the perception of their identity within the tribe, i.e., a full-blood can be considered a "government Indian" rather than truly Native American. In addition, there are those who claim Native American ancestry because it has become politically and financially advantageous to embrace and financially advantageous to embrace a multicultural and even a minority heritage in modern American society. The issue of Native American identity is thus problematic. In fact, some question whether "authentic" natives continue to exist at all, having been sullied by the degenerative impact of Western influence.

No one voice can speak for all Native Americans, including mine. However, as a mixed-blood Native American, I am the anthropological participant-observer in this scenario in a unique way. My heritage includes, in order of purported degree: Irish, Cherokee, Choctaw, Scottish, French, and German ancestry. Of these, the Cherokee heritage has had the strongest cultural impact on my life, probably due to my tribal membership, birth, and long-term residence in the tribal territory of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. However, when forced to make a definitive statement about my identity, for example on application forms, I mentally quantified my mixed heritage and close "Caucasian" to indicate that I was not more than half Native American (through I have no formal documents to prove that I am more than half Caucasian either). To complicate matters even more, I know of no formal documents that prove my Choctaw ancestors' blood quantum or tribal affiliation. According to family oral tradition, one of my Cherokee great-grandfathers registered as only half Cherokee on the Dawes Roll (1902-1907) because he feared losing his business. If this is true, even my documented Cherokee ancestry is not accurate.

Who is Native American? Am I? Who has the authority to define the category "Native American?" Do I identify with the majority or the minority, with both or with neither? One fact is indisputable - I am a Native descendant. I am a descendant of survivors of a bitter forced migration that has become so integral to the identity of Oklahoma Cherokees and others that I cannot remember a time when I did not know about the Trail of Tears.

The Cherokees and The Trail Where They Cried or the Trail of Tears.

By almost any account, including historian Grant Foreman's, the Trail of Tears is a story of insidious greed and broken treaties on the pert of the white settlers and the United States government. The Cherokee people were forced to embark on a long, bitter and costly journey far away from their homeland despite their best efforts to peacefully coexist with Europeans. As one of the so-called "Five Civilized Tribes," Cherokees exhibited a remarkable acceptance of the Europeans, allowing intermarriage with them and the attainment of positions of power within the tribe for mixed-bloods. The Cherokees consciously adopted "civilized" lifestyles that included permanent agricultural settlement with churches and schools, elected tribal governments, a tribal constitution, a Cherokee syllabary introducing literacy to most members of the tribe, and the first Native American newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix.

Despite their efforts to peacefully coexist, the Cherokees had become an obstacle to the "pioneers" of the expanding United States of America, especially after gold was discovered on Cherokee land in 1830. President Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Bill of 1830 that was adopted after debate "abolished and took away all the rights, privileges, immunities, and franchises held, claimed or enjoyed by those persons called Indians within the chartered limits of that state by virtue of any form of policy, usages or customs existing among them." In 1832, Reverend Samuel Worchester, a missionary to the Cherokees, won a case challenging the constitutionality of the Removal Act before the Supreme Court, but President Andrew Jackson refused to enforce the ruling, thereby refusing to halt the forced migration.

Although small groups of tribal members and their families had their families had begun leaving voluntarily for the West as early as 1794, their numbers were few. Cherokee resistance to forced migration induced tactics against them that included bribery, threats, theft, and imprisonment. The oppression of the Cherokee culminated with the so-called Treaty of New Echota signed December 29, 1835. In the absence of the elected tribal representatives, Major John Ridge, a prominent Cherokee, violated tribal law and signed the document in the presence of as few as 300 (of over 17,000) members of the tribe. Repeated protests to the federal government that the tribe would not abide by a treaty that they had not made included a protest signed by nearly 16,00 Cherokees. Nevertheless, after the deadline of May 23, 1838, government officials begin rounding up tribal members who had not left voluntarily, literally dragging them from their homes and abandoning, selling, and/or burning their possessions.

On a journey that sometimes took six months, groups of Cherokees were sent westward, by both land and water, throughout the summer and winter. Revolted by the meager and unfamiliar diet of corn meal and salt pork, crowed and exposed to disease and the elements as the result of hurried departure and inadequate provisions, many weakened and died during the journey. Due to the number of deaths, births, escapes, and the refusal of many to give the names of their families to their captors, the total number of people forced to migrate varies and is still disputed. An estimated 4,000 Cherokees, approximately one-fourth of the group who made the journey, are believed to have died during the course of what has come to be known as "The Trail Where They Cried" of The Trail Of Tears. Grant Foreman relates a quote from a Georgia volunteer who later become a colonel in the Confederate services: "I fought through the civil war and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by thousands, but the Cherokee removal was the cruelest work I ever knew." The approximately 2,000 Cherokee who managed to elude capture or escape at various stages of the journey become the Eastern Band of Cherokees now centered around the Qualla Reservation in North Carolina. The Western Band of Cherokees settled in Indian Territory which become the state of Oklahoma in 1907. The tribe currently has more than 165,000 members with legally documented ancestry.

The Cherokee Heritage Center and the Trail of Tears

The Cherokees called themselves Ani-Yun'wiya meaning "Leading or Principal People," but Tsa-la-gi, meaning "Cherokee," is now used widely. Tsa-La-Gi is also sometimes used to refer to the Cherokee Center. The Cherokee Center in Tahlequah, Oklahoma is comprised of the Tsa-La-Gi Ancient Village, a recreation of a 16th century Cherokee settlement, the Trail of Tears Outdoor Drama, the Cherokee National Museum which also houses the houses the archives for the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and the Adams Corner Rural Village, reconstruction of a small crossroads community in the old Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma of 1875-1890.

According to Executive Director Mac Harris, the Objectives of the Cherokee culture and heritage along archived history, to educate tribal members and the general public, and to provide a place where all Cherokees, and others, can come together comfortably. Similarly, the Official Guidebook of the Cherokee National Museum states that the purpose of the museum is both to preserve its rich culture and heritage for the sake of the tribe and "to serve as a bridge of understanding between those inside the tribe and those outside the tribe." The Center's educational programs in the past have included visits to, and field trips from area schools to educate young people about Cherokee culture, crafts, language, and the Trail of Tears. While the audience for the Cherokee Heritage Cherokee Heritage Center is primarily the surrounding community in northeast Oklahoma and in nearby sates, the center considers itself, to be a national and even an international center as evidenced by its supporters from all over the country and abroad.

The Cherokee Heritage Center functions as a tribal museum and a nonprofit organization built on state land by the Cherokee National Historical Society. The Historical Society's founders sought to assemble everything ever written by or about Cherokees in one central facility. While the Center has always been very closely associated with the tribe (the majority of members of the board must be tribal member and the chief, deputy chief, and three other tribal leaders are ex officio members), it receives less than one-fourth of its annual operating budget in monetary and in kind donations from the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. The rest of its founding comes from Cherokee National Historical Society memberships, donations, federal and other grants, ticket sales, and museum gift shop sales. Therefore founding has been an on-going challenge.

The Cherokee National Museum, the year-round center of the Cherokee Heritage Center, is modeled after a traditional Cherokee longhouse with sloping sides of native stone. Upon entering the Cherokee National Museum, visitors pass through the gift shop to an introductory display where they are welcomed, o-si-yo, and thanked, wa do', for visiting, an indication of the importance placed upon the use of the Cherokee throughout the museum. The exhibits are laid out in roughly chronological order along a single path through the museum. Although the museum exhibition is designed to present the cultural history of the Cherokees from the arrival of humans on the North American continent to the present day using art, the focus of the exhibition is the Cherokees' survival and life in Indian Territory after the Trail of Tears.

From the beginning, the Cherokee National Museum's exhibits focus the visitor's attention on forced migration. The first exhibit to confront the visitors is the sculpture "Exodus," a potent symbol of Cherokee struggle during the forced migration and the unofficial symbol of the Cherokee Nation today. The powerful sculpture, carved from a solid black of native walnut in 1967 by Willard Stone, a nationally-recognized Cherokee artist, conveys its message through both its aesthetic beautiful and strength and the artist's inscription on the base:

Over a trail of tears, reaching from the great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee to eastern Oklahoma, transferred and transplanted in our present state. In this block of native walnut...I have tried to capture the tragedy, heavy load of sorrow and heartache being overcome by a courage and determination seldom, if ever; equaled by any race in history against such heavy odds.

Other displays graphically illustrate the Cherokees' losses since European contact. The "Original Cherokee Territory" display uses maps to show the reduction in Cherokee populations and lands from European contact in 1540 to Removal in 1838-1839. The "Cherokee Maps" display compares the territory taken from the Cherokees in the East with the territory given to the Cherokees West by the United States Government. The "Cherokee Removal" display also maps the East at different points in time, as well as the overland and river routes taken during the forced migration in 1838-1839. The display text states that the forced migration resulting from the 1835 Treaty of New Echota bought "untold hardship" for the Cherokee people leaving "countless unmarked graves" in the wake of their journey.

Many of the displays focus on the tribe's survival and florescence after the Trail of Tears. The "Cherokee Language" display focuses on how Cherokee education flourished after the Trail of Tears at the Cherokee National Male Seminary and the Cherokee National Female Seminary. Both seminaries were established in 1851 and were intended to prepare Cherokee children to enter Eastern colleges and to obtain a more accepted place in white society while keeping their Cherokee heritage alive. A display with an old printing press once used by the Cherokee Phoenix, the tribal newspaper that began in 1828 and is still being published as the Cherokee Advocate, testifies to continuity and progress in tribal literacy. The "Cherokee Medicine" display focuses on continuity in Cherokee religion, music, and dance, including the Stomp Dance, a ceremonial dance performed to express thanks and remind participants of their responsibilities to the continuance of life on earth. The "Cherokee Recreation" display attests to the continuing popularity of Cherokee games and contests, particularly stickball which was occasionally substituted for warfare. Other displays focus on continuing traditions in Cherokee pottery, basketry, and weaving after the forced migration.

Several displays that focus on the Cherokee Nation today bring the story of Cherokee survival and success after forced migration into the present. Subjects include the Cherokee Nation's community self-help programs, Headstart, and other educational programs, tribal high school, and other services from the tribal government whose capital building and offices are located nearby.

Since 1969, the Trail of Tears outdoor drama has told the story of the forced migration of the Cherokees and other Native American and non-Native American actors during the summer months to reenact the Trail of Tears and its aftermath. The drama both serves as a memorial to those who died and focuses attention on the impact of this bitter journey on the lives of the Cherokees who survived and their descendants.

The oldest component of the Cherokee Heritage Center, the Tsa-La-Gi Ancient Village, is a living museum separated from the rest of the complex by a wooden fence. The Ancient Village has been educating the public about ancient Cherokee culture and traditions for almost 30 years and employs local Native Americans, mostly Cherokees, during the summer months to recreate the life of the Cherokee people in the 16th century. There are demonstrations of flintknapping tools and weapons, pottery-making, woodcarving, and leather-working. The village made such an impression on me as first-grader that I still remember the rectangular (summer) and circular (winter) dwellings, the people dressed in deerskin, the fires, the gourds, and the only Cherokee stickball game that I ever witnessed almost 30 years ago. Many other Oklahomans have related similar stories no me about the impact that trips to the village and the museum had on them as children-quite a testimony to its success. The Cherokee Heritage Center is clearly a forum for the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma to present a local tribal viewpoint on their own history and identity.


How can museum representations recognize and preserve the ethnic and cultural diversity of a nation while struggling against the divisive potential of this diversity? Can Native American groups like the Cherokees only receive accurate representation in their own local tribal museums? Are both national and local museums needed for balanced representation?

Anthropologist James Clifford has concluded that no museum can tell the whole or essential story of a group. Both Clifford and anthropologist Adrienne Kaeppler suggest that the difference between national and local museums may be somewhat exaggerated, i.e., the objects in exhibitions may be similar through the emphasis and message may be different. For example, the portrait of John Ridge, son of Major John Ridge, in Harvard's Peabody Museum communicates the positive message that the Cherokee were "civilized" as shown by the prominent Cherokee's European dress against the popular stereotype of Native Americans at that time. The same portrait of John Ridge in the Cherokee National Museum would communicate a more Ridge family were put to death as traitors by the tribe moving to Indian Territory.

The repatriation of Native American objects will certainly effect the balance of collection in national and local museums by sending many objects in national museums back to the tribes. According to anthropologist Wilcomb Washburn, these objects will not be lost, but consigned to local Native American museums. In a sense, this is yet another forced migration, a potentially healing reversal in which the tribes' relocated cultural property and human remains are being forcibly moved back to their present homelands. Local tribal museums such as the Cherokee Heritage Center can provide important lessons for tribes seeking to establish their own museums to house objects belonging to the tribe, including those objects repatriated as a result of Act H. R. 5237.

While the repatriation of Native American objects already in museums is potentially a positive relocation, the repatriation of the archaeological past may be more problematic for the Cherokees and other relocated tribes. The archaeological past of Oklahoma is actually foreign to the relocated Cherokees, yet the archaeological material from the original Cherokee homeland in Tennessee on display in the Cherokee National Museum seems out of place in a museum so focused on the Cherokees' lives after forced relocation to a new and distant homeland. This disassociation with their archaeological past makes the connection between the Oklahoma Cherokee and the land different in their present homeland. While not trying to divorce the Oklahoma Cherokees from their archaeological past, perhaps the memory of the original and present Cherokee homelands in more appropriate connection than the actual relocation of cultural material.

The benefits of having local tribal museums such as the Cherokee Heritage Center are many, particularly presenting an alternative, Native American perspective on a nation's shared history. According to Clifford, tribal museums "express local culture, oppositional politics, kinship, ethnicity, and addition." He suggests that in some respects, local tribal museums are not museums at all, but "continuations of indigenous traditions of storytelling, collection, and display." The Cherokee Heritage Center is an excellent example of a tribal museum which expresses and continues Cherokee culture and traditions, allowing visitors to see Native Americans society. The Cherokee Heritage Center stands as a tribute to the perseverance of the Cherokee people and as a testimony to their efforts to preserve and share their culture despite such hardships as forced migration.


I would like to tank Mac Harris, Executive Director, Cherokee Heritage Center, and Tom Mooney, Curator of Collections, Cherokee Heritage Center, for their invaluable input regarding the history and the future of the Cherokee Heritage Center. My deepest gratitude is also due to Dr. Rubie Watson for her encouragement, guidance, and editorial advice on this article and the search paper for her course on museums and representation from which it grew.

References * Clifford, James. 1991. "Four Northwest Coast Museums: Travel Reflections" in Exhibiting Cultures. The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display. edited by Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, pp. 212-254. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press. * Foreman, Grant. 1972. "Indian Removal: The Emigration of the Five Civilized Tribes of Indians. Volume 2, "Civilization of the American Indian Series. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. * Gutelius, David Payne. 1992. The Official Guidebook of the Cherokee National Museum. Tahlequah: The Cherokee National Historical Society. * H. R. 5237, Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. * Kaeppler, Adrienne L. 1992. "Ali'i and Maka'ainana: The representation of Hawaiians in Museums at Home and Abroad." in Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture. Lavine, pp. 458-475. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press. * Mihesuah, Devon A. 1993. Cultivating the Rosebuds: The Education of Women at he Cherokee Female Seminary, 1851-1909. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. * Washburn, Wilcomb E. 1990. "Museums and Repatriation of Objects in Their Collections." in The Hall of the North American Indians: Change and Continuity. edited by Barbara Isaac, pp. 15-18. Cambridge: Peabody Museum Press.

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