By JEAN HAVENS
Press Special Writer
As Cherokee chief, J.B. Milam set the tone for future generations with several notable accomplishments. But few people – even tribal citizens – know much about him.
The Cherokee Heritage Center honors the legacy of Milam, who served as chief from 1941 until his death in 1949, in a historical exhibition that continues through April 14.
Mickel Yantz, Cherokee Heritage Center curator, said Milam served prior to W.W. Keeler, and by federal appointment
“What Keeler accomplished was because of the processes that Milam had begun in his efforts that eventually brought the Cherokee Nation to what it is today,” said Yantz.
Milam and Keeler were friends, and Keeler knew Milam’s agenda for strengthening the Cherokees.
In 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Milam as Cherokee leader during a time when there were no elections for tribal chiefs in the U.S. Milam’s term was for one year, which was monumental at the time because most chief appointments were for one or two days, just to sign some official document without argument.
Milam’s year-long appointment was needed because of issues with the Grand River Dam Authority. Milam accepted, for no pay, and took advantage of his position so he could try and help the Cherokee people any way he could.
A slur some people aimed at Milam, because of the presidential appointment, was “chief for a day,” according to Yantz. Milam didn’t like that, or the idea of going along with whatever the federal government wanted.
“Milam fought with the government to get more recognition for the Cherokee people,” said Yantz. “He was appointed chief three times by two presidents, Roosevelt and Truman.”
In 1938, at the National Council Meeting at Fairfield, Milam was elected permanent chairman, which was similar to the role of chief. A resolution gave him the ability, as permanent chair, to speak on behalf of the Cherokee people.
“Milam was the instrumental in setting up the first modern convention in order to establish tribal members,” Yantz said.
As chief, Milam wanted to reconstruct tribal government and renew tribal claims against the federal government.
He also wanted to improve county roads to help the Cherokees get to market and make postal service more efficient. He began purchasing land to put into trust for the Cherokee Nation and eventually bought more than 21,000 acres for the tribe.
According to Yantz, Milam was working on the process to purchase the land where the Cherokee Heritage Center now stands, as well as the Murrell Home.
Keeler, Milam’s successor, finished the project to help create the Cherokee Heritage Center at the exact location Milam had intended.
Milam’s passion was Cherokee history. Some of his goals were to restore culturally and historically significant items to the tribe. He wanted to create a Cherokee Memorial, and he worked to make Cherokee language part of classroom curriculum and to offer it in college courses.
With his focus on the language, Milam had obtained a copy of the Cherokee syllabary and sent it to the University of Oklahoma, hoping the institution could create a typeface. His goal was to publish in Cherokee as the tribe had done a century earlier.
Besides serving as Cherokee chief, Milam was also a successful businessman in banking and oil. He worked his way up from summer janitor at the Bank of Chelsea, to part-time teller during high school, and eventually became bank president when he and his father took control of the business in 1915. Milam was so successful as a bank president that in 1933, he was appointed to the Oklahoma State Banking Board.
Before he took the helm of the Bank of Chelsea, Milam and his friend, Woodley G. Phillips, started an oil company, which lead to the creation of the Phillips and Milam Oil Co. That venture controlled more than a thousand wells by the 1930s.
“A lot of Cherokee citizens didn’t realize that Milam did all these things,” said Yantz. “This was the reason for creating the J.B. Milam exhibition.”
Milam’s situation made him an ideal candidate for the museum’s spotlight.
“For our historical exhibits, we focus on history that has been forgotten or lost. We put them on to remind people of the importance that history has played into who the Cherokee were and are as a people,” Yantz said.
Putting together the exhibit has taken one to two years, including preliminary research, contacting family, and compiling information gathered.
“We’ve been working closely with the Milam family. The family let us into their homes and shared their lives. They’ve donated items throughout the year and have loaned us some artifacts,” Yantz said.
These artifacts include items that represent not only the chief, but the business and family man. Milam was a collector of Cherokee artwork, and some of his pieces are also included in the exhibit. Among them are a quiver and arrows, baskets, finger-weavings, beaded pipebags and moccasins. Some personal items include a Winchester rifle, Akdar Shrine fez and an autograph book.
Check it out
The J.B. Milam exhibit continues through April 14 at the Cherokee Heritage Center, 21192 S. Keeler Drive, Park Hill. The museum is currently open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Admission is free to Cherokee National Historical Society members, and to tribal citizens and a guest the first Saturday of the month. Otherwise, admission is $8.50 for adults, $7.50 for college students and seniors, and $5 for youth 5-18; children under 5 are free.