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The Of the Earth exhibit showcases Cherokee Nation’s relationship with the planet


  • Jeremy Charles

Head northeast out of Oklahoma City for about two and a half hours, across Interstate 40 to U.S. Highway 62 and you’ll find yourself in Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation.

This is a place loaded with cultural history. The Cherokee National Prison Museum’s special Of the Earth exhibit examines the tribe’s relationship with the planet.

“The Cherokee National Prison Museum is a modern museum in a historic building,” said Cady Shaw, exhibit architect and interpretive manager for Cherokee Nation cultural tourism.

The structure was the sole Indian Territory penitentiary in Indian Territory 1875 to 1901. As part of its rehabilitation efforts, it also had a 40-acre garden.

“This was a place of reformation,” she explained. “Prisoners were taught trades and gardening so they could make a better life for themselves when they got out.”
The garden also is a broad tie-in for the exhibit. The exhibit covers a lot of ground, too. It begins with hunting and gathering traditions that predate Europeans arriving in what is now Oklahoma.

“It takes us through plantations to homesteading after removal and to the Cherokee heritage seed project today,” Shaw said.

Visual panels filled with images describe how plants were used medicinally, and an interactive section of the exhibit has old-fashioned general store-type bins filled with various seeds and beans: pinto beans, watermelon and pumpkin seeds and corn. Another interactive element is a kitchen table set up with the tools needed to make cornmeal.

The exhibit includes an examination of the crops known as the Three Sisters — corn, squash and beans — along with a history of Cherokee agricultural practices and crops like pumpkins, grapes, peaches, wild onions and apples.

“Cherokees have always been very connected to the earth,” Shaw said. “Even when removed, it was important to them to keep their community ties, and we wanted to talk about and explore that.”

Permanent exhibits and interpretive features are also part of the museum. Features include a working blacksmith area and reconstructed gallows, and visitors will leave having gained a better understanding of what law and order looked like in Indian Territory in the late 1800s.

Of the Earth runs through Dec. 31. The museum is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday at 124 E. Choctaw St. in Tahlequah. Admission is $3-$5 per adult, student tickets are $3 and children under age 5 are admitted free.

Print Headline: Capital delight, Of the Earth exhibit in Tahlequah showcases the Cherokee Nation’s long relationship with the planet.

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