Touring Native Oklahoma: ‘The Land of ‘Red People’

Patti Jo King

Touring Native Oklahoma: ‘The Land of ‘Red People’

Oklahoma is one of the most interesting states in the union for historic Native American tourism, steeped in the rich traditions and diverse cultures of many Native American tribes. Oklahoma’s name is derived from Choctaw words; “okla” meaning people, and “humma” meaning red. Together they identify the state as the land of “red people.”

Between 850 and 1450, Spiro Indians, with cultural links to the Aztecs, inhabited the region now called Spiro, Okla. The state’s only archaeological park, Spiro Mounds, is considered one of the most important prehistoric Indian sites east of the Rockies. The diversity and vitality of art forms found at Spiro reveals that the mound builders had links to the “Southern Cult,” an association of mound sites built during the Mississippian Period.

An important center of commerce, Spiros controlled trade between the vast reaches of the plains and fertile southeast woodlands. Spiro Mounds Park and Interpretive Center allows visitors an opportunity to learn about the culture of these Indians through artifact and interpretive displays, reconstructed home sites and mounds, and walking tours. Camping is available nearby. The park is located about two miles east and three miles north of Spiro, Okla.

Oklahoma’s first recorded history actually began when Spanish explorer Coronado carved his name on a rock near the Cimarron River. The inscription is on Castle Rock, 20 miles from Kenton, where the old Santa Fe Trail crossed the Cimarron. The inscription is dated 1541. Its authentic Castilian style and spelling (Coronatto), and the remote area it’s located, speak strongly for its authenticity. The region known now as Oklahoma was under the control of Spain until 1803, when ownership was transferred to France. France then sold the region to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase.

After the War of 1812, the regions of Georgia and Tennessee were overrun with white settlement, so a few Cherokee families elected to leave the South and move to the southwestern area. As white demand for gold and farmland intensified, President Andrew Jackson forced the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks and Seminoles out of their homelands to the area west of the Mississippi. The region became “Indian Territory,” and the story of the tragic removals of these tribes is known as the Trail of Tears.

The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail passes through the present-day states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee and Oklahoma. Each year, thousands of visitors make their way along the trail. An auto tour route, marked along major highways in Oklahoma, closely follows the original route. Following the signs inscribed with the Trail of Tears logo, visitors can walk in the footsteps of the exiled tribes.

A number of interesting shops and exhibits are accessible from the trail. TheCherokee Heritage Center, located three miles south of Tahlequah, is nestled in the Cherokee community of Park Hill. In the center complex sits the Cherokee Nation Museum, a natural-stone building that contains exhibits, a gift shop, archives and a library. The museum building, designed by Cherokee architect Charles Chief Boyd is reminiscent of a traditional Cherokee dwelling, built low to the ground and illuminated on both ends by natural lighting. The museum serves five main functions: it houses the permanent “Trail of Tears” exhibit, temporary exhibits, two major annual art shows and a genealogy center.

The permanent exhibit explores the forced removal of the Cherokees from their indigenous territory to the “Indian Territory.” The exhibit is staged in six galleries, each of which, through documentation and artifacts, concentrates on specific aspects of Cherokee history and culture.

Gallery 1 discusses the pre-removal era and Cherokee life before the Trail of Tears. Gallery 2 presents the court battles, events and legal issues that led to forced removal. Gallery 3 details the plight of Indians imprisoned in stockades before the removal. Gallery 4 is devoted to the stories of the forced removals of all the indigenous tribes. Most interesting are the geographical routes in Gallery 5 taken by the exiles, and events that transpired along the journey. Gallery 6 focuses on the rebuilding of the Indian nations and celebrates the ability of Indian people to adapt, thrive and excel.

First opened in 1967, adults and children alike will enjoy investigating the reconstructed 17th-century Cherokee village community. Visitors are encouraged to join in a game of Stickball, similar to the historic game of lacrosse. Visitors may also view demonstrations of basketry. Cherokee baskets were once used for storing goods and food and as strainers, creels for fishing and for storing small game. Visitors can watch a dugout canoe being carved from hardwood, and blowgun and flint knapping demonstrations.

Near Tahlequah, the George M. Murrell Historic House is open to visitors. Murrell built his two-story antebellum, plantation-style home in 1845. Murrell was married to Minerva Ross, niece of Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross, and the daughter of Lewis Ross. Both men played pivotal roles during the Cherokee removal. Today, the home represents the re-establishment of the Cherokee Nation after removal, as well as the lifestyle of some in the Cherokee Nation prior to the Civil War. The home is situated on 40 acres, and includes its original spring house, smoke house, picnic area, playground, creek and nature trail.

Along Oklahoma State Highway 80, visitors can tour historic Fort Gibson. The fort was active from 1824 – 1890. In its first years, it was the western-most U.S. military fort, and key to U.S. military strategy. In 1832, a commission created by Congress to deal with Indians removed from the Southeast, made its headquarters at Fort Gibson, and for the remainder of the decade negotiated treaties with the tribes. This was the dispersal site for the Seminoles and Creeks after their removal. Fort Gibson Historic Site, a National Historic Landmark, includes the fort, museum, gift shop and walking trail. Its log stockade is a reconstruction, but four stone buildings are original and restored. The museum contains interpretive exhibits relating to the fort’s role as a dispersal site.

Almost everyone remembers Will Rogers with a smile, and no visit to Oklahoma is complete without a tour of the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore. Rogers, Cherokee, dropped out of school to become a cowboy. In 1902 he began performing rope tricks with Texas Jack’s Wild West Show as “The Cherokee Kid.” His subsequent acting career took shape, first on Vaudeville, then in silent films and then in “talkies.” A national star, he was a friend of many world leaders and a frequent guest of Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt at the White House. The Museum houses many of his personal items, books, writings and memorabilia; Rogers’ films are shown daily. There is also a children’s museum filled with entertainment and activities.

In 1907, Theodore Roosevelt admitted Oklahoma to the union as the 46th state. The state flag, symbol of its Native roots, is emblazoned with an Osage shield. Eight percent of its population are members of 39 federally recognized nations. That makes historic touring in Native Oklahoma OK!

More places of historic interest in Oklahoma

Ataloa Lodge Museum, Muskogee: Kachinas dolls, artifacts, basketry and pottery, guided tours.

Washita Battlefield National Historic Site and Black Kettle Museum, Cheyenne: Battle and tribal history.

Chickasaw Council House Museum, Tishomingo: Log structure, built in 1856, that served as seat of tribal government. Photographs and artifacts, guided tours.

Choctaw Nation Historical Museum, Tuskahoma: Choctaw Nation capitol 1884 – 1907. Items brought on Trail of Tears and historic courtroom.

Creek Council House Museum, Okmulgee: Capitol of Muscogee (Creek) Nation 1878 – 1906. Tribal history, culture, guided tours.

Five Civilized Tribes Museum, Muskogee: Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole art, artifacts and special events, guided tours.

Fort Sill Cemeteries, Lawton: Located on grounds of historic frontier fort. Geronimo’s grave at Apache Prisoner of War Cemetery; Comanche Chief Quanah Parker and Kiowa Chief Kicking Bird at Old Post Cemetery.

Indian City USA, Anadarko: Authentically restored complex of Native American villages. Traditional ceremonies, dance, arts and crafts, museum and guided tours.

Museum of the Red River, Idabel: North and South American artifacts, Caddoan pottery, replica of early Choctaw house.

Peter Conser Home, Hodgen: Restored 1894 home of leader of the Choctaw light horsemen police force that patrolled Choctaw Nation during territorial days.

Potawatomi Tribal Museum, Shawnee: Headdresses, beadwork, birch baskets, artifacts produced prior to resettlement from Lake Huron area; 1885 Shawnee Friends Mission nearby.

Riverside Indian School, Anadarko: Oldest continuously active BIA boarding schools; established 1871 by Quakers.

Sequoyah Home Site, Sallisaw: 1829 home of inventor of Cherokee written language; Works Progress Administration building covers original structure; National Historic Landmark.

Southern Plains Indian Museum, Anadarko: Arts and crafts of local Native artists, Plains traditional regalia, dioramas and murals, adjacent American Indian National Hall of Fame, guided tours.

Betting on a great vacation in Oklahoma?

If gaming is your interest, Oklahoma ranks fifth out of 46 states in the number of casinos in operation there. A total of 86 casinos and gaming facilities can be found in 63 different places throughout the state. The location with the most casinos is the town of Miami, with four.