Tribal leaders mull acquisition of Cherokee Heritage Center

08/01/2019 09:00 AM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Jess Grimmett, 20, of Stilwell, mans an updated blacksmith shop at the Cherokee Heritage Center’s Adams Corner, which recreates Cherokee life in the 1890s before Oklahoma statehood. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Main Cherokee Phoenix
The Cherokee Heritage Center is described as “the premier cultural center for Cherokee tribal history, culture and the arts, located in the heart of the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah.” CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
PARK HILL – Tribal leaders have expressed interest in acquiring the Cherokee Heritage Center as a “showplace” for the Cherokee Nation.

“I’ve often thought that the center should be owned and operated fully by Cherokee Nation, and remove the state of Oklahoma, so that we would have absolute control over what’s happening with our artifacts and our staffing,” At-Large Tribal Councilor Mary Baker Shaw said July 16 during a Culture Committee meeting. “What would it take as a motion to make this go under Cherokee Nation, to pursue all efforts to try to obtain our Heritage Center for Cherokee Nation?”

Established and owned by the Cherokee National Historical Society, the 44-acre CHC on Keeler Drive includes a mid-1970s building that houses the Cherokee National Archives, a museum store and office and exhibit space. It also features reconstructed historic villages, a Trail of Tears display and original columns from the former Cherokee Female Seminary.

CHC Executive Director Charles Gourd called the brief July discussion “a good first step.”

“We have mutual interests,” he said. “We need to share resources, stop duplicating and essentially become full partners. We’re all in this for the same reason.”

It was suggested that a Tribal Council representative attend the CHC board of directors’ next meeting, which was set for July 31.

“The time is now to merge those two interests,” Gourd said. “There’s no other entity out there that has the interest or the money.”

Currently, the CHC would revert to the state if closed, but Gourd said public perception is that the CN already owns and manages the site.

“It’s because of the name,” he said. “But this place was created before there was a Cherokee Nation. This was 1963, and the Nation didn’t have a government until 1971 when Congress passed the Five Tribes Act.”

Gourd said it would cost nearly $200,000 to buy out the site’s reversionary clause.

“Based on the formula … $190,000 is what the Heritage Center would have to come up with in cash to give to the historical society for them to clear it,” he said. “The option that was presented was deed it to the Nation, have it immediately placed federal restricted in trust. That would remove the reversionary and make it tribally affiliated.”

Responding to the cost, Tribal Council Speaker Joe Byrd said, “That’s OK, we owe them something.”

“But $190,000 for us to make that place that’s got the word Cherokee on there, a showplace … we just need to do it,” he said. “What do you need from us?”

Funding sources for the CHC include membership donations, grants and the CN. Annual operating costs at the center are $1.4 million annually, CHC officials said.

Under the CN umbrella, other investments could be made, Gourd said, and federal funding opportunities would increase. “For example, the Cherokee Nation roads program could come over and help fix the parking lots. But at present, the Cherokee Nation doesn’t make investments in property they don’t own. I wouldn’t either.”

Of the potential change of ownership, Gourd said he “wouldn’t consider it a takeover.”

“It won’t become a part of the management or operation of the Nation,” he added. “The current board and everything else will stay the same. The difference will be eligibility. It becomes actual trust property, which opens up a whole other area of federal funding opportunities.”
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