Tehee named new CHC executive director
Cherokee Nation citizen Candessa Tehee began serving as the Cherokee Heritage Center’s executive director on Dec. 9. Prior to coming to the CHC, she worked as manager of the CN Cherokee Language Program. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
New Cherokee Heritage Center Executive Director Candessa Tehee stands at the center’s Diligwa Village in Park Hill, Okla. Tehee is the first female, full-blood Cherokee Nation citizen with Cherokee language skills to serve as the center’s executive director. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Candessa Tehee will tell you that all she knows how to be as a person is Cherokee and that her “Cherokee-ness” makes her a good fit to lead the Cherokee Heritage Center as its new executive director.
Tehee, 36, took over as CHC executive director on Dec. 9. She said she was “immediately welcomed” by each staff member and that she met with them to hear their hopes and concerns as well as the challenges the CHC has faced in the past several years.
“I think giving them that voice has been very beneficial. We have a wonderful foundation in terms of the staff. The staff who are here really are the lifeblood of this organization,” she said.
According to Cherokee National Historical Society archives, Tehee is the center’s first female executive director, first full-blood permanent or interim director and first CN citizen with Cherokee language skills to serve as director.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in Native American studies and communications and a master’s degree in education from the University of Oklahoma. She is also finishing her dissertation for a doctorate in social, cultural and linguistic anthropology from OU.
“Candessa represents a new generation of Cherokee leadership,” Susan Plumb, president-elect of the CNHS board of directors, said. “Not only does she have a passion for her people, the Cherokee culture and history, she has the professional experience and education that make her a great fit.”
Prior to going to the CHC, Tehee managed the tribe’s Cherokee Language Program and oversaw the Language Technology Department, Translation Department and Community Languages Program.
Tehee said working as Cherokee Language Program manager helped prepare her for her new job because she worked on long-range strategic objectives, which will be part of her duties as executive director. She said her accomplishments and previous challenges helped her ask needed questions to develop long-range goals and collaboration with the CNHS board and CN.
The CHC’s mission is to celebrate, preserve and perpetuate the Cherokee culture. Tehee said the center’s cornerstones are Cherokee history, language and culture.
Tehee grew up immersed in the Cherokee culture in Sequoyah and Cherokee counties and comes from a “very, close-knit traditional community.”
“I grew up with the culture as an everyday part of my existence. I grew up with language as an everyday part of my existence. It’s not something that I can pick and put down; it’s just who I am. If I could live and breathe Cherokee, it was what I was doing when I was growing up. When I left my house I realized the existence that I had is very special,” she said. “I think it is those things that prepared me to be the manager of the Cherokee Language Program and now to be the executive director of the Cherokee Heritage Center.”
The center, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013, has not had a permanent executive director since early 2012 and Tehee said she faces tests as executive director.
The CHC is a nonprofit organization and faces budget challenges that can stymie growth and improvements to the center’s Cherokee National Museum, Diligwa Village, Adams Corner Rural Village, Nofire Farms, Cherokee Family Research Center and Cherokee National Archives.
One challenge is completing the Diligwa Village that opened this past summer. The village showcases Cherokee life in the early 1700s using summer and winter homes from that era, a council house, a ball field and interpreters placed throughout the $1.2 million structure.
Tehee said landscaping and a village pathway are being worked on during the offseason.
“The majority of the building phases of Diligwa have been completed. We’re pretty close to being ready, and we hope to be fully functional and ready in the spring of 2014,” she said. “Of course the challenge is always staffing. I worked in the Ancient Village, which was the village we had prior to Diligwa, as a tour guide and I remember it feeling like it was a community and I made some long-lasting friendships there in the village. I would really like to see Diligwa maintain that spirit as we move forward.”
Tehee said she’s seen plenty of enthusiasm about her joining the CHC from its staff, CNHS board members and people in the community.
“I feel very encouraged and supported by the enthusiasm because I don’t think it’s just for me. I think more than for me. It’s for the heritage center. I want to contribute in a positive way to the legacy of the heritage center,” she said.