Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

June 8, 2012

Landmark preservation keeps culture alive

TAHLEQUAH — Preservation of an historical landmark not only keeps culture alive, it also helps bridge gaps in perception, while building economic relationships with community businesses and organizations through tourism.

To provide insight on preserving a National Historic Landmark and its ensuing effects, Cherokee Nation Cultural Tourism Planning and Development Manager Travis Owens and Sikes Abernathie Architects President Mike Sikes presented a lecture on the Cherokee National Capitol building during Oklahoma’s 24th Annual Statewide Preservation Conference at the Tahlequah Armory Municipal Center.

“There are some major issues going on with the building,” said Owens. “Other than its serving as an historic site, we hope to eventually use the building as a museum.”

Owens said the Cherokee Nation started its cultural tourism project around 2007, eyeing developments for historical site-use to establish sustainable Cherokee communities. This would be achieved through creation and expansion of commercial travel and site visitation opportunities that would promote and maintain the tribe’s culture and heritage.

“In the past 10 years, Native American people have started looking at their historical sites [to determine how these sites can best represent their respective cultures],” he said. “Native American stories have been told from a tribal perspective or from a community view or from the view of another group that’s telling Native American stories in a museum or at historical sites, but in the last 10 years tribes – and you can see this all across Oklahoma – have been able to, because of diversified existences, reinvest in their cultures to tell their stories for themselves. And that’s what the Cherokee Nation’s Cultural Tourism program started doing. We’ve been looking at our historical assets and deciding on what stories do we want to tell.”

Construction of the Cherokee National Capitol building was completed after the end of the Civil War in 1869. C.W. Goodlander designed the brick building using an Italianate style. The Cherokee National Capitol building, erected to commemorate the tribe’s achievements in surpassing hardships during removal, still houses the judicial branch of the Cherokee Nation. And because it represents significant achievement for Cherokees, the building’s presentation and delivery of tribal history and heritage help ensure proper understanding of historical events and how these events connect to contemporary achievement and activity, said Owen.

“There are some things for the Cherokee Nation that have become important and corporate-driven and support the positive image of the Cherokee Nation,” he said. “Whether you’re coming into learn about Cherokee history and culture, or if you’re a legislator who’s going to be important in dealing with the Cherokee Nation on a government-related issue, they can see the Cherokee Nation as something more than just a casino, which a lot of people tend to relate tribal entities with casinos now. That stigma is there, but if they can understand who the Cherokee people are, who we have been and where we come from, it creates a better image of the Cherokee people. It also helps improve the Cherokee identity not only for visitors coming in who learn that perspective, but also for Cherokee citizens who are learning who they are and where they come from.”

The process to provide this level of effectiveness for a National Historical Landmark is a lengthy one, said Sikes.

“We started in 2008 and we are now in 2012,” he said. “It’s been quite a long process, and we haven’t even started construction yet. So you can imagine how long a process like this takes. We’ll be finished, I suspect, with the first phase of the work in the spring of next year. After that first phase, then we’re talking about probably another phase or two after that. If you break it all down, you’re probably talking about a five to six year process. So anytime you tackle a National Historical Landmark, and you start to put all of the components together, you’re really starting to break down a large budget and a very complicated process. One of the things we did very early on is decide this process would be broken down to immediate needs, moderate-term needs and long-term needs.”

The immediate needs, the 31-year Tulsa architect said, include cosmetic and logistical details.

“The building had really been neglected over the past few years, and we need to take care of these immediate needs,” said Sikes. “The immediate needs are we’re going to take care of windows, we’re going to take care of water problems and structure safety issues. The next time you see the building, hopefully, you’ll see a little bit of improvement, but it will be stable, and that’s the key.”

According to Sikes’ biographical narration listed in the conference’s brochure, he has been a principal in his own firm since 1994 and has been involved in preservation since the early 1980s. Sikes’ firm is involved in projects throughout the Midwest region of the country, from Wisconsin to Louisiana, and employs architects with experience in historic restoration and rehabilitation – a key criteria when the Cherokee Nation sought help in preserving its National Capitol building.

“Besides investing specifically in culture, culture tourism is a huge economic development,” said Owens. “In the past three years, our cultural tourism – indirectly through preservation and visitors to our Cherokee Nation sites – has generated a $17 million impact, and that’s money that flows back into the local community. It also encourages partnerships with our communities, local businesses and organizations. Tourists are coming in and shopping at local businesses and eating at local restaurants. And the most important thing it does is it helps the Cherokee story. We’re able to share our story the way the Cherokee people want it to be shared.”

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