Long before Oklahoma was recognized as state, this area was governed by Cherokee Nation laws and a judicial system, including a prison.
On Tuesday, Cherokee Nation Cultural Tourism opened the doors to a completely renovated Cherokee National Prison, the third historic site to be renovated since the group’s inception in 2007.
CN Cultural Tourism Vice President Molly Jarvis welcomed speakers and guests, including CN Deputy Chief Joe Crittenden, Secretary of State Charles Head, Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols, and Northeastern State University president Dr. Steve Turner.
Crittenden gave a brief history of the site.
“It was more than 137 years ago that the Cherokee National Prison opened as the first correctional facility in Indian Territory,” said Crittenden. “The Cherokee National Prison was the only penitentiary building in Indian Territory from 1875 to 1901. It housed sentenced and accused prisoners from throughout the territory. Build of sandstone, the prison was made to hold the most hardened and dangerous prisoners. Now, going off-script a little, I noticed when I toured the site the other day, some of these folks they call ‘outlaws’ were from [Adair County] where I live. I don’t know why that is.”
Guests to the Cherokee National Prison Museum will experience an interactive kiosk to learn the stories of the Cherokee “outlaws.”
Visitors will learn the story of Ned Christie, who was falsely accused of murdering U.S. Deputy Daniel Maples in May 1887, through an audio interpretation of his last stand inside his fort against U.S. Marshals; engage in a searchable database of Indian Territory’s most notorious outlaws; and review an authentic copy of the New York Times featuring a story of infamous outlaw Henry Starr.
Cherokee Nation Marshal Service Commander Scott Craig pointed out the tribe’s affinity for law and justice throughout history.
“We have always had laws and a specific judicial system, including clan laws and blood laws,” said Craig. “After arriving in Indian Territory we set up a court system and laws, and on Oct. 13, 1845, an act was passed authorizing the Lighthorsemen.”
After statehood, law enforcement fell to states and municipalities, until 1986.
“The modern formation of our marshal service began on April 4, 1986, in Adair County, at Greasy Ball Park, which is protected land,” said Craig.
According to Craig, Billy Jack McLemore tried to arrest Cherokee Ronnie Ross at the ballpark for being drunk, and an altercation ensued, resulting in Ross being shot in the leg.
“A lawsuit followed and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals said [McLemore] had no jurisdiction over Indians on Indian Land,” said Craig.
“Shortly after the ruling, Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller formed an exploratory team which resulted in the formation of the modern-day marshal service.”
The museum site includes the Interpretive Center, the two-story prison, a restored gallows area outside in the back, along with a blacksmith’s station.
Preservation of cultural heritage sites is a priority of the Cherokee Nation. The 1844 Cherokee Supreme Court building – the oldest government building still standing in Oklahoma – was restored and opened as the Cherokee National Supreme Court Museum featuring exhibits in three historic aspects, including the Cherokee National Judicial System, the Cherokee Advocate and Cherokee Phoenix newspapers and the Cherokee language with a variety of historical items, including photos, stories, objects and furniture.
The John Ross Museum highlights the life and leadership the principal chief, and is established in a former rural school.
Restoration of the Cherokee National Capitol Building is set to begin in spring 2013.
Built in 1870, the historic building – set amid the historic Cherokee square in mid-town Tahlequah – currently houses the tribe’s judicial branch.
The Cherokee National Prison Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free throughout the month of May.
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