TAHLEQUAH – Museums in the heart of Tahlequah and across the reservation explore the tribe’s history, its culture and people.
Telling the Cherokee story through museums and other programs is “of utmost importance,” according to Donna Tinnin, senior manager of museums and events for Cherokee Nation Cultural Tourism.
“We’re preserving our history, our culture, then we are sharing it with the world,” she said.
In Tahlequah alone, the tribe oversees history, prison and Supreme Court museums. Tinnin recommends starting with the Cherokee National History Museum, located at 101 S. Muskogee Ave. in Tahlequah.
“Each one of our museums tell a specific story,” Tinnin said. “But the history museum is one that tells the entire story from an origin story all the way through, in chronological order, of where we are today. So if you visit the history museum, you’ll get that 30,000-foot look at the entire history of Cherokee Nation.”
The history museum is located in the Cherokee National Capitol building, described as “one of the tribe’s most iconic structures.”
According to the tribe, the museum opened in 2019 and features Cherokee lifestyle from pre-European contact through the Trail of Tears and the revitalization of the tribe following the American Civil War.
“It offers 7,000 square feet of timeless art and tribal heritage to explore,” the visitcherokeenation.com website states. “Visitors can take lessons in authentic arts and crafts, study the Cherokee syllabary and learn about the modern era of the Cherokee Nation.”
The current exhibit is “Sequoyah: An American Icon,” which shines a spotlight on Sequoyah, who introduced the Cherokee syllabary in 1821.
Other museums in Tahlequah include the Cherokee National Prison Museum at 124 E. Choctaw St., and Cherokee Nation Supreme Court Museum at 122 E. Keetoowah St.
The prison museum once served as the only penitentiary building in Indian Territory, housing hardened criminals from 1875-1901. Today, it is an interpretive site exploring the history of Cherokee crime and punishment, law enforcement, life at the National Prison and an overview of famous outlaws and their activity in the area. The museum grounds include a blacksmith shop that demonstrates trades taught to incarcerated prisoners, while a reproduction gallows stands as a reminder of the ultimate punishment.
Originally built in 1844, the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court Museum is Oklahoma’s oldest public building. Using vintage photos and historical items, exhibit areas tell the story of the Cherokee judicial system, the Cherokee written language and evolution of Cherokee journalism. The current exhibit is “Sovereignty on Trial: The Tragedy at Goingsnake.”
Located in nearby Park Hill is the John Ross Museum, which highlights the life and legacy of Ross, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1828-66 during some of the most critical times in Cherokee history. Housed in a former rural school built in 1913, the site at 22366 S. 530 Road. in Park Hill takes visitors on a journey into the former chief’s life and leadership. It also features exhibits and interactive displays about the Trail of Tears, Civil War, Cherokee Golden Age and the Cherokee Nation’s passion for education.
The current exhibit is “It Takes a Nation: Sequoyah Schools and the Roots of Excellence.”
Sequoyah’s Cabin Museum, at 470288 Highway 101 in Sallisaw, features the original log cabin constructed by Sequoyah in 1829. The site was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1966 and a National Literary Landmark in 2006. The homestead includes a one-room cabin and nearly 200 acres. The museum features displays that share the story of Sequoyah, his development of the Cherokee syllabary and the Cherokee language today. Additional displays showcase the history of the Cherokee Old Settlers and Cherokee Nation post-removal. The current exhibit is “Sequoyah’s Last Journey.”
The Saline Courthouse Museum at 55870 S. 490 Road. in Rose is the last of nine district courthouses built in the 1800s by the Cherokee Nation. After years of restoration work, Cherokee Nation reopened the site in 2020 as a cultural museum featuring galleries, a video presentation room, gift shop and public space. One gallery is dedicated to historical and cultural exhibits, while the other showcases different Cherokee artists. The current exhibit is “Perry and Kathy Vanbuskirk: A Treasured Union,” which includes traditional weapons and basketry demonstrations.
All of the museums are open from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is free. For more information about any of the Cherokee Nation museums, call 877-779-6977 or visit visitcherokeenation.com.
“I would highly encourage people to go to our visitcherokeenation.com website, and also to follow us on social media – Facebook and on Instagram and then on YouTube,” Tinnin said. “Information for upcoming events, we’ll do a lot of that on social media.”
Other sites of interest in Tahlequah include a Cherokee Nation cultural pathway downtown and the tribe’s new Cherokee National Research Center located at 3377 Cherokee Springs Road.