Touring the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma

T-shirt from the cherokee nationOne of my favorite T-shirts I received while visiting the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. It has one simple word emblazoned on the front — “Osiyo.” Anytime I wear it out, someone asks the meaning and what language it is.

The language is Cherokee and “osiyo” is an all-purpose greeting like “aloha” is in the Hawaiian language.

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Visiting the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma

visiting the cherokee nation

The Cherokee Nation today is 14 counties in northeast Oklahoma where nearly 200,000 citizens celebrate their rich and sophisticated, but traumatic and resilient heritage.

Some first-time Anglo visitors to the Cherokee Nation may be somewhat confused. Where are the tepees and buffalo hides? Where are the people who ‘look’ like American Indians are supposed to look?

Then, after a few hours, you begin to understand: none of the stereotypical images of the American Indian apply to the Cherokee people. First of all, many are blond- haired and blue-eyed.

What to See and Do in the Cherokee Nation

Tahlequah is the capitol of the Cherokee Nation. There you may tour the Supreme Court, the national jail and offices of the Cherokee Advocate, which was published from 1844 -1906. All are factors of an advanced culture.

In many of the restaurants and businesses in Talequah, you’ll see menus and other notices written in Cherokee and English. It’s not uncommon to hear Cherokee spoken. Did you know that citizens of the Cherokee Nation hold dual citizenship with the United States?

An important stop in Tahlequah is Seminary Hall on the campus of Northeastern State University. This building was home to the Cherokee National Female Seminary from 1889 – 1909.

Sequoyah statue, cherokee nationA massive bronze sculpture of Sequoyah, the 19th century Cherokee diplomat, stands in the courtyard. It is surrounded by 86 engravings of the Cherokee syllabary, which he created. You’ll also find symbols of the 14 clans of the Cherokee Nation.

In 1850, the Cherokee built the the first institution of higher learning for women west of the Mississippi in nearby Park Hill, Oklahoma. Fire destroyed the original Cherokee National Female Seminary in 1887. The three columns remain and now frame the entrance to the Cherokee Heritage Center.

The Cherokee Trail of Tears

Cherokee Heritage Center Exhibit on Trail of TearsA visit to the Cherokee Nation must include the Cherokee Heritage Center. Here you begin to feel just a fraction of the pain and injustice inflicted on the Cherokee people along the Trail of Tears as they were force marched from their ancestral homes in Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia.

The exhibits include axes that broke down doors, guns, Bibles and a few baskets that survived the grueling journey. The howling winter winds and cries of parents being forced to abandon sick and dying children along the path sear the hearts of even the most cynical traveler.

President Andrew Jackson authorized the Indian Removal Act of 1830. His image now anchors the U.S. $20 bill. Please don’t insult the Cherokee today by paying for goods and services with a $20.

cherokee art market, oklahomaThe museum store offers some fabulous Native American art. An even bigger event is in October each year at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino near Tulsa.

The Art Market is open to all Native American artists. Bring your credit cards and an open heart to the talents of the Cherokee people.

Tip: for another museum devoted to Native American heritage, visit nearby Bentonville, Arkansas.

Will Rogers —The Cherokee Kid

Will Rogers look-alike

A Will Rogers look-alike.

Another stop in northeast Oklahoma is the museum devoted to an entertainer known as The Cherokee Kid.

In the 1920s and 30s, Will Rogers was the biggest name in Hollywood. He was the most widely syndicated newspaper columnist in the country with more than 400,000 weekly readers and the most requested public speaker in the U.S. He did 50 silent movies and 21 talkies, published more than two million words in four books. Seven U.S. presidents called Will Rogers a personal friend.

Will Rogers was born in 1879 before Oklahoma was a state. He never liked school and had little patience for work on the family farm.

“I wanted to be ignorant and was real successful at it.”

Will Rogers Entertainer and World Traveler 

Will Rogers portrainWill Rogers left home at age 15 to travel the world, doing trick roping in Wild West shows. His break into comedy came one night when he tripped up on a rope. “I got all but one of my feet out that time,” he said. The audience laughed. Because he was ¼ Cherokee, he took on the nickname “The Cherokee Kid.”

Rogers was the first civilian to fly coast to coast in the U.S. He thrived on the adventure. Eventually that’s what took his life. Along with his friend Wylie Post, Rogers was killed in a plane crash in 1935 near Point Barrow Alaska as they were flying toward Russia.

Some of Will Rogers’ Books and Movies


Will Rogers Memorial Museums

Will Rogers statue in museum rotundaHis birthplace home in Ooligah is open for tour and is frequently the site of special events. The museum in Claremore is where you can watch Will Rogers’ many black and white movies, see his rope tricks and large collection of saddles.

If he were alive today, Will Rogers may be the host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central or The Tonight Show instead of Jimmy Fallon. He would certainly be the star of his own sitcom. His quick wit would have a following on Twitter and he would be the master of Instagram.

But we doubt that any of his successes would go to his head. He was just a simple Oklahoma cowboy, a good ole boy in the truest meaning of the words and a member of the Cherokee Nation.

 “No man is great if he thinks he is.”

saddle collection at Will Rogers Museum

Learn more about the Cherokee Nation