Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

March 25, 2013

Memories of Milam

Though his achievements as Cherokee chief were significant, not many people know who J.B. Milam was. A Cherokee Heritage Center exhibit could change that.


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.

Text Only
Local News
  • CN, UKB battle over trust land application

    Two Tahlequah-based tribes presented oral arguments Friday in a protracted fight over a land-in-trust application.

    Over the course of five hours, attorneys for the Cherokee Nation, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, Cherokee Nation Entertainment and the Department of the Interior made their cases before Northern District Judge Gregory Frizzell in a hearing that was originally scheduled for February.


    July 25, 2014

  • ts-NSU-Main-1-a.jpg No NSU pool, for now

    NSU experiencing delays in fitness center construction

    Earlier this month, Northeastern State University announced it is experiencing delays in the renovation of its fitness center and pool.
    The facility was officially shuttered Sept. 17, 2012, and at the time, the projected completion date for renovation was this fall.

    July 25, 2014 3 Photos

  • jn-Suspect-1.jpg Officials: Images of suspects may help nab church burglars

    Cherokee County investigators hope surveillance footage captured around the Crescent Valley Baptist Church in Woodall helps lead to the suspects accused of breaking into the complex and setting fire to one building this week.
    According to Undersheriff Jason Chennault, cameras captured footage of two suspects on bicycles early Tuesday morning, July 22.

    July 25, 2014 2 Photos

  • svw-movie-night.jpg Local library hosts family movie night

    Nova Foreman and her two daughters were about to leave the Tahlequah Public Library Thursday, when they saw the Family Movie Night flyer.
    The three decided to stay and enjoy a movie they had not yet seen at the free, theater-like event.

    July 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • svw-Keys.jpg Grant to fund stepped-up Keys PE program

    Kair Ridenhour’s new office is filled with pedometers.
    Ridenhour officially started his new position as assistant elementary principal at Keys Public Schools on July 1.
    But his other role at the school – that of physical education project coordinator – prompted the influx of pedometers.

    July 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • jn cvbc fire.jpg Church catches fire after burglaries

    Authorities are looking for the person accused of breaking into the Crescent Valley Baptist Church two times this week and likely causing a fire that damaged the youth building early Wednesday morning.

    July 24, 2014 2 Photos

  • svw Humane photo.tif More volunteers needed to house strays, help with spay-and-neuter

    Furry friends may seem like the perfect addition to round out a family.

    July 24, 2014 1 Photo

  • Marijuana, seeds lead to four arrests

    Four people were arrested on marijuana related charges early Wednesday morning after a traffic stop on South Muskogee Avenue.

    July 24, 2014

  • Sex offender found living in tent at river

    Cherokee County sheriff’s investigators arrested a convicted sex offender this week when they discovered he has been living in a tent along the river.

    July 24, 2014

  • ts-NSU-MAIN.jpg Fledgling RiverHawks arrive

    Over 200 incoming freshmen took part in orientation class at Northeastern State University

    July 23, 2014 1 Photo


Do you believe school administrators and college presidents in Oklahoma are paid too much?

Strongly agree.
Somewhat agree.
Somewhat disagree.
Strongly disagree.
     View Results
Tahlequah Daily Press Twitter
Follow us on twitter
AP Video
Raw: Air Algerie Flight 5017 Wreckage Virginia Governor Tours Tornado Aftermath Judge Faces Heat Over Offer to Help Migrant Kids Kerry: No Deal Yet on 7-Day Gaza Truce Kangaroo Goes Missing in Oklahoma More M17 Bodies Return, Sanctions on Russia Grow Gaza Residents Mourn Dead Amid Airstrikes Raw: Deadly Tornado Hits Virginia Campground Ohio State Marching Band Chief Fired After Probe Raw: Big Rig Stuck in Illinois Swamp Cumberbatch Brings 'Penguins' to Comic-Con Raw: Air Algerie Crash Site in Mali Power to Be Restored After Wash. Wildfire Crashed Air Algerie Plane Found in Mali Israel Mulls Ceasefire Amid Gaza Offensive In Case of Fire, Oxygen Masks for Pets Mobile App Gives Tour of Battle of Atlanta Sites