Oklahoma's Indian tribes are telling their own stories

American Indian tribes in Oklahoma are boosting tourism by showcasing their history.
BY PETER WRIGHT Modified: December 28, 2013 at 6:00 pm •  Published: December 28, 2013
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PEOPLE have traveled to American Indian destinations for years, but in the past couple of decades more tribes have built tourist attractions and banded together in a single category of cultural tourism.

Some of the Oklahoma tribes told their stories during a recent American Indian Tourism Conference in Tulsa.

Organized by the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association, the conference featured people involved in tribal tourism who shared advice on the challenges and opportunities of attracting travelers while also teaching them.

Native Oklahoman Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian and a member of the Pawnee tribe, said history often starts by leaving American Indians out and depicting an unoccupied “wilderness” before settlement. Yet today, streets, schools, states, sports teams and many other things are named for Indians.

“In the United States, at least, Indians are everywhere but nowhere,” Gover said.

The story of America includes Indians, but they often don't have much of a voice, he said. Even in historical legend, Indians are depicted as noble or savage, respectable but irrelevant.

“The myth is really important. It is the myth that plays, and myths are true, by the way, because that's what people believe,” he said.

When tribes create their own tourism destinations they can tell their own stories in their own voices.

In Oklahoma, those destinations are on the rise as tribes become more financially successful.

New attractions

Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation Bill John Baker said cultural tourism is a natural way to preserve his tribe's heritage.

It educates nonmembers about their culture, and it can inspire Cherokee youth to take more of an interest in tradition.

The Cherokee Nation hosted the tourism conference in Tulsa's Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.

Although the more specifically cultural destinations are farther east, the casino, which opened in 2009, is part of what made those possible.

“As the tribe grows and succeeds and gets more affluent, then obviously we can tell our story better,” Baker said.

During the summer, the Cherokee Heritage Center opened Diligwa, a reconstruction of a 1710 Cherokee village, on the grounds of the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah.

“Although it's not old, the recent archaeology makes it the most historically correct village that currently is in existence,” Baker said.

The Cherokee Nation Courthouse in Tahlequah has been a focal point for the tribe since it opened in 1869. This year, it was fully restored.

If something as small as a railing couldn't be replaced, they hired master craftsmen to re-create it, he said.

Another Cherokee courthouse is being restored in Atoka.

Cherokee festivals and events happen year-round, he said.

In September, the Heritage Center hosted an art show with Cherokee artists from across the country.

International travelers are regular visitors to cultural attractions.

Recently, an entrepreneur visited the Heritage Center to see about replicating its village at his park in Russia, Baker said.

Re-branding Chickasaw Country

At the Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur, 211,800 visitors from at least 17 countries have come since it opened in 2010.

About half were from outside Oklahoma.

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