‘Missing Pieces’ exhibit fills gaps in Keetoowah history

05/02/2019 12:15 PM
TAHLEQUAH – Hundreds of documents telling the history of the Keetoowah people, once readable only in the Cherokee syllabary, have now been translated into English and are on display for visitors during the “Missing Pieces: Rediscovering Keetoowah Law, Language, Literature” exhibit at the John Hair Cultural Center and Museum.

“It’s very gratifying because it’s kind of been a dream of mine for many years to be able to share this history,” said Ernestine Berry, JHCCM director. “I don’t mean just the history you might have heard somebody talk about, but to actually have that history verified by your documents. You can tell somebody something, but when you actually have the documentation for it, that really validates you.”

The free exhibit is divided into separate sections and focus on government happenings at the time of Cherokee removal, stories and personal letters from as recently as the 1960s. Binders with the documents in both Cherokee and English will be available for viewing, as well as digital files on computers that visitors can browse.

The exhibit is culmination of two years of work and was made possible in part by a two-year grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences.

Through the grant, Berry was able to locate, travel and collect several Keetoowah documents scattered throughout the U.S., including in Washington D.C. and the Newberry Library in Chicago. Berry even found a letter with personal ties to her own family at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

“I found some letters from my great-grandmother in the Beinecke Library Collection. I was amazed,” said Berry. “You see it and think, ‘Wow, my great grandmother actually wrote this.’ Hopefully there will be some ‘wow’ moments for a lot of other people who read these letters. It might be that there’s other people who will find letters or references to their people, too.”

Berry also visited the University of Oklahoma in Norman for one of the exhibit’s most important pieces.

“There we got the digital copy of the Keetoowah Nighthawk Constitution from 1925,” said Berry. “They have the original there, and I got to touch it with gloved fingers. It’s 32-pages long and it took quite, quite a bit of time to translate that one. I think we got that down to 22 or 23-pages typed.”

Working alongside Berry to translate the documents from the syllabary into English were Keetoowah members Clara Proctor, Oleta Pritchett and Opal Foreman.

“We’ve been working on this for about two years and I had basically three translators. They’re the ones that stuck with it,” said Berry. “They were very good, very enthusiastic and they really wanted to sharpen their skills at reading and writing in the syllabary. They learned a lot while they were doing it.”

Translators had a difficult task, which was made even more complicated by the age of some of the documents.

“There were a number of words in there that are not even in usage anymore,” said Berry.

Visitors to the exhibit will get an insight into how the Keetoowah people lived through documents such as community announcements, death notices and New Echota Church minutes.

The exhibit will be open to the public until March 2020, after which some documents will be added into the museum’s permanent displays.

“It’s going to be up for at least a year. I would like to encourage people just to come and take their time,” said Berry. “Sometimes we have people that come in here and they just want to sashay right through and hurry and you don’t really get the full impact when you do. I’d like to encourage people to linger and plan to stay a little while and to come back. If you didn’t get it all the first time, come back. Cherokees are always welcome here.”


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