Cherokees updating village at Heritage Center

Park Hill, Oklahoma (AP) April 2011

Tucked away amid the hundreds of tall trees surrounding the Cherokee Heritage Center, the Tsa-La-Gi village purports to show visitors what life might have been like for Cherokees before the American Indian tribe first encountered Europeans during the mid-16th century.

That was the plan when the village was built back in 1967. But archaeological finds during ensuing decades have indicated there are historical errors in the village’s construction. Now, the tribe is going back and trying to fix the problems.

The new exhibit, set to open in June 2012 on four acres adjacent to the museum, “is designed to introduce audiences to the Cherokee people and to help them understand the Cherokee culture as having a distinct history that was already ancient when their own written history began,” said the museum’s executive director, Carey Tilley.

About $640,000 has been raised so far for the project, enough to proceed in earnest, Tilley told The Associated Press.

Officials with the Heritage Center, run by the historical arm of Oklahoma’s largest tribe, have spent three years researching and planning for the massive $1.2 million renovation to what they call the museum’s “ancient village.” They have one advantage their predecessors in the 1960s did not – four extra decades of research into the life of the early Cherokees, a people who lived in parts of what are now North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

Thousands of Cherokees were forced in 1838 to move to what is now Oklahoma, following what is now called the Trail of Tears.

The information used to build the village that now stands at the museum came mostly from writings of European explorers that encountered the Cherokees, because archaeological evidence of the tribe from the 1500s “is very slim,” Tilley said. Those who worked on the 1967 project did the best they could, he said.

But a wealth of knowledge about the Cherokees has been unearthed in recent decades and indicated the village’s construction process might not have been as accurate as once thought. As the village began to age, Tilley knew its structures would need to be replaced and he thought a wholesale change would be good, to update what’s been learned.

Officials at the museum also made another key decision. Instead of using the village to depict Cherokee life from the 1500s, they chose to have it depict the tribe’s life during the late 1600s and early 1700s – a time frame for which more comprehensive archaeological evidence exists.

“We could do a very informed reconstruction if we used that timeline,” said Brett Riggs, a University of North Carolina anthropology professor who has worked on Cherokee site excavations and is assisting the Cherokee Nation on the Tsa-La-Gi project.

Much of the recent knowledge of Cherokee life during that time frame came from archaeological digs that took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s, before the Tennessee Valley Authority formed reservoirs by damming the Little Tennessee River, Riggs said. Federal laws required that archaeological digs had to be done before the land affected would be placed underwater, and the area proved to be replete with ancient Cherokee town sites.

Other digs in the region from then up until the late 1990s have revealed still more about how the Cherokee lived their lives during a key period in the tribe’s history – “when you had strong representation of traditional material life but you also begin to get the influx of European trade goods,” Riggs said. “The village could show both, a full range of traditional crafts and participation in what was becoming the larger world economy.”

The new discoveries indicated to Tilley that while those who originally built the museum’s village had some details right, they also made mistakes. For example, the village’s council house – a key structure in any tribal town – had seven sides, with one side containing an entrance. But the new discoveries indicated that such a structure would have had eight sides – seven, for each of the tribe’s seven clans, and an eighth for the entrance.

“That is important to history,” Tilley said.

Also, while it previously was known that Cherokee families would each have a summer house and a winter house, the original winter houses built at Tsa-La-Gi were much smaller than what archaeological finds have indicated.

The most challenging part of building the first two pilot houses for the new project proved to be figuring out exactly how to do so, because “nobody has built a house to these specs in at least 200 years,” Tilley said. The construction work involves packing clay on river cane, branches or saplings that are woven in and out of upright wall posts.

“How do you work leather work around the poles?” Tilley said. “Until you do it you can’t figure out how it would work. Cribbing on the roof – we had to make sure how to do it so it wouldn’t fall in on people.”

They have made a few concessions to modern times, such as using nails and modern drainage techniques and mixing cement with clay to give the latter some consistency, he said.

Eventually, Tilley said, the village will feature 20 such structures, 14 interpretive stations – where people dressed in Cherokee period clothing demonstrate crafts from that era – and a detailed historic landscape. All of the original structures will come down and the village will have a new yet-to-be-determined name.

“We don’t want to leave the Cherokees at the Trail of Tears or at statehood,” Tilley said. “The Cherokees have continued to evolve their culture even to this day. If you meet a Cherokee today, they would be proud of this history that goes back so far.

“We tend to freeze cultures in the moment of time that is most familiar. This is a culture that has changed and each time has its significance.”