By SEAN ROWLEY
Cherokee County can boast a rich history, demonstrated in its citizenry, architecture and culture.
One repository of history is the county’s cemeteries, which memorialize people of bygone times. But many local graves and graveyards are suffering from neglect.
That could change, thanks to the efforts of two local men.
Bill Burkhart is a retired limnologist – a scientist who studies the life and characteristics of fresh water bodies, especially lakes and ponds. About five or six years ago, he was sitting with a friend, and they were bored.
“We drove up on a cemetery that was an absolute mess. We thought somebody should be keeping it up, and I felt I had found a calling,” he said.
Assisting Burkhart in his efforts is author, publisher and historian Gary D. Courtney, along with members of the Tahlequah Archaeological Society.
Courtney wants to enlist further help, and sent a letter to Principal Chief Bill John Baker on Oct. 9, asking if the Cherokee Nation would want to clean the Swimmer and Jumper cemeteries and a single marker near the Jumper yard.
“We also welcome assistance from interested individuals,” Courtney said. “At the very least, we would like to keep these cemeteries mowed, trimmed and cleared of debris.”
If enough funds and hands can be found, Courtney wants to address a particular problem at Swimmer Cemetery.
“Erosion is endangering a couple of graves near a slope,” he said. “It could use some riprap or stacked stones to prevent further damage.”
Courtney said many small cemeteries in the county could benefit from the installation of a surrounding low fence.
While researching cemetery sites in Cherokee County, Burkhart said he was astonished at the number not tended or lost entirely.
“I was looking at the listings,” he said. “They read ‘abandoned, abandoned, abandoned.’ The abandoned cemeteries may outnumber the active ones in Cherokee County. We have seen cases where people didn’t realize they had a cemetery on their property. Sometimes people discover cemeteries on their land.”
Swimmer Cemetery sits behind Swimmer Baptist Church, north of Fourteen-Mile Creek on North 440 Road. A visitor will see headstones placed after 2010 and before 1890. Some engravings are written in the Cherokee syllabary. As in many Oklahoma cemeteries of American Indian origin, some headstones are simply stones.
Erosion issues are apparent. The grass is not mowed in parts of the yard, and there are accumulations of litter from old memorial displays.
The TAS schedules cemetery cleanups. A visit is planned to the Turkey Lee Field in Adair County, which contains 21 grave sites and has not taken an interment in 73 years.
“There are just so many cemeteries that need attention,” Courtney said. “These cemeteries are important to the community because they are a link to the past. If there is any way I can help the community, I want to do it.”
Those wishing to assist with preservation of cemeteries - or to report a cemetery in need of care - can call Burkhart at (918) 315-5000.