Although the United States is one nation stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, there are other nations within our borders. One of these is the Cherokee Nation, located in eastern Oklahoma. With nine traditional districts, the Cherokee Nation is a nation within the United States. Although residents remain U.S. citizens, they are part of the Cherokee Nation. Tahlequah Oklahoma is the Cherokee nation’s capitol.
Located among the rugged Cookson Hills, the Cherokee Nation includes the beautiful Illinois River and Lake Tenkiller. At the national headquarters, a Principal Chief heads the executive branch of government. Other branches include the judicial and legislative. The Cherokee government provides services that include education, housing, health, human, career and community services to tribal members. Tribal police enforce the law throughout the nation. Cherokees who are tribal members can obtain Cherokee Nation licenses for their vehicles.
Since the arrival of the Cherokees into what is now Eastern Oklahoma in the late 1830’s, Cherokee traditions and culture have become part of the area. Throughout the year visitors come to the Cherokee Heritage Center, a facility that offers an on-site museum, a reconstructed ancient village, and Adams Corner Rural Village, a rebuilt turn of the century settlement. More than 90,000 Cherokee arrive each year for the National Holiday over Labor Day weekend.
The National Holiday
The Cherokee National Holiday commemorates the signing of the Cherokee constitution on September 6, 1839, just before the majority of Cherokees were forced to relocate to the West. Their forced march is called the Nuna-da-ult-sun-yi or Trail of Tears and brought them to the region.
The Cherokee Holiday has been celebrated for more than fifty years, since 1953. It has become more than just a historical observance but a homecoming and holiday. Events run for all three days of the Labor Day weekend and offer something for all ages.
Cherokees from across the country return home to their nation’s capitol for the holiday. Famous Cherokees such as actor Wes Studi join the festivities. A large parade is held at 9am on the Saturday and features bands, floats, and more. Other events include a softball tournament, blow gun competitions, archery competitions, quilt contests, Miss Cherokee and Little Mr. And Miss Cherokee pageants, arts and crafts, a Cherokee fair, Elder Events, Children’s events, a children’s fishing derby, performances by the Cherokee National Youth Choir, bingo games, Cherokee food, and the Trail of Tears drama that is enacted nightly during the festival. The drama is also performed during the summer at the Cherokee National Heritage Center.
Other events that take place during the annual National Holiday include a state of the nation address by the current Principal Chief, a Veterans reunion, a cornstalk shoot, dances, pow-wows, and traditional games.
Family members who live away return for the holiday so there are often family reunions as well. It’s a gathering time for a scattered nation, a time to reflect on the past and to celebrate the Cherokee heritage.
Event times may vary from one year to another but the National Holiday is always held over Labor Day Weekend.
The Cherokee National Heritage Center
At the Cherokee National Heritage Center, events are on tap year round. The center is built on the grounds of the first Cherokee female seminary although only three columns remain. The Center includes a heritage museum, genealogy center, tribal archives, and Native American art along with a gift shop. In the Tsa-La-Gi ancient village, visitors have an opportunity to see the way Cherokees lived before Europeans arrived in North America. Skills such as flint knapping, dug out canoe making, story telling, and other traditional practices are displayed. The Adams Corner Rural Village offers a look at a settlement in the Old Cherokee Nation between 1875 and 1890.
The Cherokee National Heritage Center is open to the public year round and many special events take place including monthly Usdi or children’s activities. The Trail-of-Tears drama is performed during summer months in an outdoor amphitheater on the site.
Road signs on all major roads leading into the nation will inform new arrivals that they are entering the Cherokee Nation. Although it is a separate nation, visitors will find that Tahlequah, the capitol city, has modern amenities like any other small town in America. Tahlequah was named the 55th best small town in America and ranks as the 4th most popular retirement city in the nation. Modern lodging, restaurants, and shopping can be found in Tahlequah. The larger city of Muskogee, Oklahoma is nearby with more retail options.
Make plans to attend the Cherokee National Holiday or to visit the Cherokee Nation. The trip is well worth the distance and offers a unique, accurate view of the history of one of the Native American tribes in America.