The Cherokee Nation's network of museums just got a little bigger, as the tribe held a ribbon-cutting and grand opening for the new Cherokee National History Museum Thursday.
Over the past year, the tribe has been renovating the Cherokee National Capitol building, which was originally built in 1869, to restore the structure to its original appearance. The interior of it, however, has been decked out with new flooring, restrooms, an elevator and additional stairwell. Featured within the new museum are ancient artifacts, paintings, and exhibits that share the history and culture of Cherokee Nation.
Beneath the Peace Pavilion across from the capitol, tribal officials gathered to celebrate the museum's opening. A rush of applause accompanied Principal Chief Bill John Baker as he walked to the podium to tell a story about his relationship with the 149-year-old building.
"This building behind us, I have a long and storied history with," said Baker. "My grandfather had a barbershop right across the street, and I would sit in the front window with my grandmother. She would describe it to me the way it was when she was growing up."
Baker said he would listen to his grandmother as she detailed the cupola that originally sat on top of the building, as well as all the events and affairs that occurred inside the building.
His great-grandmother's house also sat on the hill overlooking the capitol building, and he remembered how the Cherokee National Prison Museum could be seen from her front porch.
"I played on that lawn many times," Baker said. "I don't know if it was my vision or my grandmother's vision that it is where it is today. That's one of the things I told myself - that we would have the cupola on top of the building before I left office."
What started as an idea to restore its outward appearance to the original makeup turned into a plan to have it tell the story of the tribe inside. The Cherokee National History Museum includes 4,000 square feet of permanent exhibit space that features a timeline of Cherokee lifestyle from pre-European contact, all the way to the tribe's position today.
Tribal Council Speaker Joe Byrd said he was blown away by the design and layout when he got a chance to tour the new space.
"To me, one of the most important issues illustrated is that our story doesn't end with the Trail of Tears," said Byrd. "This space carries our narrative into the present, as Chief said, celebrating our art, our government, the process of which we educate our people, our ways of maintaining our faith, and our advances in business and our commitment to preserve our language."
Visitors who walk through the second story of the capitol building will see artifacts on loan from the Smithsonian Institution, Gilcrease Museum, Oklahoma Historical Society, and the Cherokee National Archives. Among the items guests might see include: a Cherokee basket, recorded as having been carried by a Cherokee family on the move from their eastern homelands during the period of Removal; the bowie knife of Stand Watie, the last Confederate general to surrender in the Civil War; and various tools that date prior to the 1900s, such as a blowgun, wooden bow, arrows and much more.
The first floor features a 1,000-square foot rotating gallery, which currently pays tribute to Cherokee Nation artist Cecil Dick, known as the father of traditional Cherokee art.
Many of his paintings have been purchased by museums across the country, including the Smithsonian.
Also, visitors can pick up an iPad at the entrance and immerse themselves in an interactive, augmented reality.
Molly Jarvis, senior vice president of cultural tourism for Cherokee Nation Businesses, said the stories inside the museum are "powerful and inspiring."
"This museum is truly one of a kind, and what makes it so special is our ability to share our story, using our voice," said Jarvis.