It all started because of a crown.
Three years ago, the Miss Cherokee Committee asked about a former Miss Cherokee crown within the Heritage Center’s collection, according to Cherokee Heritage Center Curator Mickel Yantz. After the inquiry, a conversation started between the two groups about the history of the Miss Cherokee.
“This has never been done before, the history of Miss Cherokee,” said Yantz. “Miss Cherokee has been around for 60 years and I don’t think many people know the history.”
Dresses, crowns and capes of former Miss Cherokees line the exhibit space, along with pictures and stories from the women. Yantz said none of the information had been compiled before they put the exhibit together – even photographs of the women had to be found, often by contacting the former Miss Cherokees.
CHC worked with former Miss Cherokees and five other organizations to put together an exhibit and all of the information about the pageant. Much of the information, pictures and newspaper clippings came from scrapbooks of the pageant winners.
“It was this huge detective research and we haven’t done an exhibit like that for a while,” said Yantz.
Many modern Cherokee symbols began with the Miss Cherokee pageant, including tear dresses. The first Miss Cherokee tear dress, copper crown and turkey feather cape was worn by Virginia Stroud in 1969.
Before then, Miss Cherokees had to create their own outfits with commercial beaded crowns and either buckskin clothes – similar to what is seen in the Heritage Center’s historic village – or dresses and skirts, sometimes even aprons.
“1969 is kind of when everything changed for Miss Cherokee,” said Yantz.
Stroud had been named Miss Cherokee for the 1969-’70 year and had recently won the Miss Indian Oklahoma pageant.
“Because of her close family ties with the Ahtone Family, Kiowa, she competed for the state title in a Kiowa buckskin dress complete with Plains style beadwork, moccasins and fan,” the exhibit states next to her outfit.
She would soon compete in the Miss Indian America pageant but she did not feel her outfit for the pageant represented the Cherokee tribe. Stroud told Chief W.W. Keeler that Miss Cherokees needed an outfit that would be truly Cherokee, while still being formal enough to wear to the capitol building.
Keeler put together a committee of women to come up with a dress style. One of the women had a dress that was believed to have crossed the Trail of Tears. Stroud’s sister took the dress and used it as a prototype when making the dress her sister wore when she won the Miss Indian America pageant later that year.
“All tear dresses originate with this dress,” said Yantz. “It just became that staple, but its origin has never been understood.”
He said many dress-makers and Miss Cherokees have walked around the exhibit and pointed out which dresses were made by which seamstresses based on the various cuts and variations.
“Each dress is made for that person,” said Yantz. “It’s a combination of that artist making the dress and the person the dress is made for.”
Tonia Weavel, a Cherokee National Treasure in Cherokee Clothing and the education director for the Heritage Center, helped ensure each of the dresses was properly displayed.
“This is the largest ever display of historic tear dress, which we didn’t know at the time,” said Yantz.
Yantz said displaying the dresses was a challenge to the center. There are 40 dresses, but the center initially had only 14 mannequins. The rest were built for the exhibit.
Stroud also first wore a copper crown, which was commissioned from Willard Stone, and a turkey feather cape. She told Yantz people used to pluck feathers out of her cape as a souvenir, so she was forced to travel with extras she could glue on as replacements.
One section of the exhibit details how turkey feather capes have evolved over time. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, many of the capes were not made with turkey feathers and used vellum-like fabric. Recently, actual feathers have once again been used, along with various ways of making the capes.
“It’s evolved, but it’s become more Cherokee,” said Yantz.
Moccasins have also changed over time. The moccasins were originally more like Plains moccasins, but those now worn by Miss Cherokees use a pucker-toe design and have more traditional beading.
The crown has also evolved, and a number of Miss Cherokee crowns are on display from several eras. Each have unique details, with some containing the name of the Miss Cherokee who wore the crown carved into the back.
The Glass family has made several copper Miss Cherokee crowns. Bill Glass Sr. made the second of the crowns displayed, and his grandson, Demos Glass, has made two others. Miss Cherokee 1992-1993 Geri Gayle Glass was actually able to wear the crown her father made.
The crown has become a Cherokee symbol, and is one Demos Glass would like to see continue.
“He likes the evolution of the crown,” said Yantz. “He thinks each new generation has a look and each new crown should represent each generation of Miss Cherokee.”
Miss Cherokee outfits now contain pins on the sashes – a modern change. Yantz said former Miss Cherokee Kristen Smith-Snell Thomas was the first to start wearing pins, which she received during her travels, on her sash.
Each Miss Cherokee travels around the state and around the country as an ambassador of Cherokee culture, while still maintaining their studies.
“They kind of wear it as pride for where they’ve shared Cherokee culture,” said Yantz. “Each year the amount of pins keeps growing. They’re still putting their own modern flair on the outfit; it is kind of a nice combination.”
While he enjoyed researching the pageant and learning more about its history, Yantz said his favorite part of the exhibit was working with the Miss Cherokees themselves. At least 30 former Miss Cherokees attended the grand opening reception of the exhibit on May 29, along with their families.
“It was basically a family reunion, coming together and sharing their items with the public,” said Yantz. “I didn’t realize how much Miss Cherokee does. I don’t think people understand how much they do and how they do it proudly.”