Cherokee Nation History and Culture Near Tulsa, OK by Bonnie and Bill Neely

Just east of Tulsa, OK, at the town of Catoosa, the popular Cherokee Casino and Resort is now renamed Hard Rock Casino and Resort, with the opening of the new 17 floor tower hotel wing. The casually chic décor and comfort of the new tower is tops, with care for details in the clean red and gray color scheme, granite counters and showers, HD flat-screen TV’s, and extra good lighting in rooms. Suites are exceptionally luxurious also.

Although it now bears the Hard Rock logo and worldwide identity with Hard Rock enterprises, the casino and resort is still totally under the management and control of the Cherokee Nation. Hard Rock Casino has all state of the art slot machines and large non-smoking gaming areas. Even in the smoking areas of the casino, the air filter system is so effective you will not come away with clothes or hair smelling of cigarette smoke! Live music in several bars or dance floors is featured many nights each week and soon shows will be added.

The new theme décor features millions of dollars worth of famous name rock stars’ memorabilia including guitars, costumes, records, awards, photos, and signatures, in display cases throughout Hard Rock Casino. Casino restaurants include: the Sidewalk Café for inexpensive, fast food of many varieties; McGill’s Steakhouse with an atmosphere of fine dining in a quiet, get-away-from-it-all for rest and respite and perhaps romance; and the very popular Wild Potato Buffet, which even with its long lines at peak eating times, is surprisingly a brief wait because of the extreme efficiency of the very cheerful and accommodating staff, and the really delicious but moderately priced food. The three daily buffet meals at Wild Potato Buffet are all-you-can-eat (served around the clock) and feature many, many different choices to meet almost any palate’s desire. Everyone who eats at Wild Potato highly recommends it, especially Friday and Saturday evening fresh seafood buffet, which is popular with local residents also.

The Cherokee Nation’s Cherokee Enterprises is building its eighth Casino in West Siloam, Oklahoma. These are owned and operated entirely by the Cherokee Nation, as well as numerous gas and tobacco stations, and merchandise stores found within the area forming the Cherokee Nation. The mission of Cherokee Nation’s Cherokee Enterprises is to create jobs for Cherokee people and to enhance life of the entire area by supporting many organizations and helping with numerous needs. The billion dollar a year Enterprises have a billion dollar a year impact on the local community, and forty per cent of all profits are directly used for health services, education, housing and community services, supreme court and legal resources, and human services.

We have visited many Native American Reservations across the United States and been saddened by the system which apparently encourages laziness and dependency on hand-out checks. We were amazed at the difference in the way the Cherokee Nation is operated and the happy, prosperous lifestyle of its citizens. We learned that in the Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River the people of the five tribes, which were forced to re-locate from the southeastern area of the United States in 1839, were allotted individual plots of land to own in this northeastern part of Oklahoma encompassing 14 counties. The other tribes re-located into areas of Oklahoma were Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole.

The wise and experienced Chief John Ross, who had been a plantation owner in Virginia, led more than 16,000 Cherokee men, women and children on the Trail of Tears march west beginning in 1838. Once they finally arrived, Ross’s leadership helped them rebuild their lives and prosperity. Even though half of those on the march died along the seven to eight month march, much of the allotted land was later taken away through unfair bargaining and broken treaties. The Cherokees never gave up nor lost heart and pride and determination. They had had a system of law, Supreme Court, and education even before the white men arrived in the 1500’s.
In Oklahoma they built a stately brick courthouse and a Supreme Court building soon after arriving and set about to rebuild a strong and peaceful nation with the principle goals of helping each other succeed. Most of these people were and are today Christian in their beliefs and practices. As a Nation, they seek out their own who are in need of help and do not give handouts but support the needs until the people are self-sufficient and are then able to help others in need. For example, if a family needs a home and cannot afford one, the Cherokee government will do the ground and foundation work and supply the materials, but the family must do the building, with the help of other volunteers. Then when the home is complete this family, in turn, must help build three other homes to earn their own right to live in their new home. This system teaches all people to work for their living and to extend helping hands wherever there is a need.

I asked if the new Casino and resort had a recycling program. I was impressed with the further explanation of how the Cherokees help each other. Yes, there is and extensive recycling program in the Hard Rock Casino and Resort, which was begun in earnest in early 2008. Instead of hiring a large commercial organization to handle it for them, the Enterprise hired a Cherokee couple who had a small, self-operated recycling business. Because the couple had never handled such a large job, the Enterprise said, “We have never had a complete recycling program either, so we will learn how together, and your business will grow so that you can take on other large contracts.” Now many new practices are underway to cut waste and recycle: drink machines are changing from plastic bottles to cans; bottles in kitchens and bars are recycled; soon the drinks served on the Casino floor will be glass instead of disposable; buffet preparation and serving containers are smaller portions to prevent waste and keep food always fresh; and many other practices are changing to become green. In guest rooms signs encourage water-saving practices such as suggesting that guests re-use towels when possible, and energy efficient lighting is throughout the new hotel.

The Cherokee Nation requires any business that spends over a half million dollars on facilities, new construction or improvements, must spend a minimum of one percent of the total to purchase art by Cherokee artists to use in the décor of the buildings. This amazing support of the indigenous artists has helped keep Cherokee artistic ability and traditional skills and handcrafts alive as a thriving success…an example all industry everywhere would do well to follow to support the local artists.
About 45 minutes’ drive from Hard Rock Casino and Resort we attended the first annual June Art of Living Festival on Capitol Square in Tahlequah, the town, which has always been the capital of the Cherokee Nation. Native American art and handicrafts by women and men, cultural demonstrations, as well as delicious typical foods were for sale up and down the main street, and a festival of live music with well-known bands was popular in Norris Park , turned into a wine and beer garden. The Nation sponsors other art festivals, with the largest being on Labor Day weekend in September and a weekend in mid-October. These draw huge crowds of locals and tourists, further supporting the arts.
These festivals feature amazing Story Telling in the park, and adults and children alike can learn the oral tradition of the Cherokee people in which stories of fascinating animal adventures were repeated captivatingly to children. As these boys and girls grew up, they remembered these stories and began to understand the Wisdom and moral teachings they incorporate. Passed from generation to generation, these stories are treasured and others are created new to keep the practice alive and to help children appreciate and enjoy the wisdom and contact with their revered elders. Robert Lewis, an actor with repertoire in Hollywood and Cannes, is the local talented and treasured story teller, who delights everyone at these events and in many other settings. In Tahlequah be sure to allow time to take one or more of the four tours: Cherokee History Tour, Old Settlers Tour, Civil War History Tour, Will Rogers History Tour. Each tour features different aspects of this most interesting history, of which the Cherokee people are proud.
We enjoyed a day in the community of Park Hill at the Cherokee Heritage Center, where visitors through the summer can experience the history of the early Cherokees in the Indian Territory before Oklahoma became a state. We went into a log cabin (they were not nomadic or hunter-gatherers and did not use teepees) to see the simple furnishings; into the small wood Christian church; the smoke house where the embers preserved their meats; the general store, where we could purchase some old-fashioned items; and many other buildings which we normally associate with pioneer life instead of Indian ways. At many of the buildings you can see arts and crafts and skills necessary for living demonstrated by Cherokees in period costumes. Make history come alive for yourself and your children at this important place in the beautiful wooded setting. Spend a half-day in the museum, which has excellent and heart-rending explanations and life-size figures depicting the Trail of Tears. Enjoy the story telling under the trees or in the education room of the museum. The gift shop has lovely Cherokee items and books for sale. Stay into the evening on Friday and Saturday for a really delicious, authentic Cherokee-style dinner and the open-air theater production “Under the Cherokee Moon,” which is a beautiful story dealing with a significant event in the history of the Cherokee Nation. (For tickets call 888 999 6007, late May through August.)
Within a decade of relocating to Indian Territory, these brave and determined people built a large Seminary (college) for women! It opened in 1852 but burned to the ground a few years later. You can still see the remaining brick columns and photos of the graduating class. Sad but undaunted, the Nation, encouraged and led by their Chief John Ross whose own son attended Princeton, they rebuilt the Seminary in a beautiful red-brick gothic style on the hill overlooking Tahlequah, and the women’s Seminary re-opened in 1889. This picturesque building is still the beloved centerpiece of what has become the co-ed Northeastern State University. Be sure to see the clock tower whose east side has Cherokee writing. The Cherokee Nation has had a written language since 1819, when the respected leader Sequoyah created the 86 character, phonetic syllabery (alphabet). Tahlequah published the first newspaper west of the Mississippi, The Advocate, in both Cherokee and English. This weekly newspaper began soon after the re-location of the tribes and is still published today as a monthly. The original moveable type printing press will be demonstrated within the completely restore Supreme Court Building on Capitol Square for tours beginning in 2010.

The Nation has plans for restoring the Court House to its original beauty, including re-creating the park, which extended to the river in back. They plan to replicate the large log building, which was the first Courthouse here. Plans are for tours of this historic area to begin in 2010, including the first jail in Indian Territory.
This area of Indian Territory was the wildest of the Wild West in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, and more lawmen were killed within 50 miles of Muskogee than any other place. Determined to keep law and order and keep their people safe in Tahlequah, the Cherokee leaders built this stone prison. They created their own Marshall and police force and had one cross-Marshal (who was deputized by the United States and the Cherokee Nation) who could enforce the laws. Prior to that white criminals could escape to the Cherokee Nation and hide out, continuing their killing spree. At first the Cherokees had no authority to arrest them. With the new system and jail they arrested them and held them in the prison until a US Marshall came for them. The prison will soon be restored for tours. For Cherokees who were jailed for over 10 years the gallows in back was used. For sentences of less than 10 years the prisoners were taught different skills in order to attempt to achieve some rehabilitation. The prison compound was a fenced area of about 40 acres on which were blacksmith shop, wagon-wheel shop, large garden and farm, and other activities, which taught the skills necessary for successful living once the prisoner was released.
We also visited a beautiful ante-bellum mansion, The Murrell House, in which the niece of Chief John Ross, Minerva Ross, lived with her husband George Michael Murrell until her death from malaria. Several years later Murrell married her sister, Amanda, and they raised a family here. We enjoyed demonstrations of the fiber and fabric arts in the sewing cottage behind the main house, which was an example of the homes of the average working class Cherokee in the middle to late 1800s. Carding of wool, spinning of thread, and other arts are explained or demonstrate by Mrs. Robert Lewis, who has a master’s degree in fiber arts and delights in the items she makes in the old-fashioned ways.
You can take all these tours from the Hard Rock Hotel, arranged by the concierge. You can try to find “Lady Luck” in the Casino, or you can swim in the lovely indoor-outdoor pool, or work out in the fitness room on state-of-the-art machines, or use the quiet business center for your computer needs. You also have the option of playing golf on the beautiful 18-hole Golf Ridge course adjacent to the hotel. IF you prefer to stay in your RV in the Casino parking lot (no hook-ups), free shuttles to the Casino can be arranged as you need them. You can also arrange ahead of time for a shuttle to pick you up at the Tulsa Airport, about a half-hour away. Other activities are available. If you have a car, drive about five miles to the Port of Catoosa, the farthest inland port in North America, where you can enjoy the displays and explanations at the Arkansas River Museum and the Maritime Education Center, where children are encouraged to go inside a dry-docked barge tug boat. This beautiful, clean busy port is an amazing surprise in mid-continent, with many industries thriving here. Museum hours are 9 – 4:30 weekdays. Ask the concierge about boat rentals for fishing along the Arkansas River also.
In the little town of Claremore, a pretty, fifteen minute drive from Hard Rock Resort, you MUST visit the excellent Will Rogers Memorial Museum (1720 West Will Rogers Blvd. 918 341 0719), which is open every day 8 – 5. Claremore is the not far from the birthplace of Will Rogers of Wild West Show and Film fame. Rogers was an “unspoiled child of the plains, cowboy, actor, humorist and world traveler whose homely philosophy and superior gifts brought laughter and tears to prince and commoner alike. His aversion to sham and deceit, his love of candor and sincerity, coupled with abounding wit and affable repartee, won him universal homage and an appropriate title, ‘Ambassador of Good Will’.” If Andy Hogan, is there, you will be very fortunate to enjoy his very accurate impersonations of Will Rogers, in costume and with the same Okey drawl and Western wit. What a treat! You’ll see films, memorabilia, paintings, sculpture, and in the theater enjoy a live performance…all commemorating one of America’s national treasures: Will Rogers. We highly recommend eating a meal nearby at the small restaurant Asiana, which is noted as one of the 100 best Chinese food restaurants in the United States. The vast buffet is delicious and reasonably priced. There are many fast food restaurants and a small mall here also, enabling one to avoid the traffic of Tulsa.
Whether you are visiting the Hard Rock Casino and Resort for a convention (they can accommodate up to 1,000 for a seated meal), a vacation, or just a few hours, or as your location to explore Native American history, you’ll find plenty to do.