The Cherokee Nation is restoring the historic Cherokee Supreme Court Building. The original courthouse was built in 1844 and is the only Cherokee government structure to survive the Civil War. It will be restored to its 1875 period when it burned, but was immediately rebuilt at the same location utilizing surviving walls. The facility hosted supreme and district court sessions, housed the Cherokee Advocate – the first newspaper published in Oklahoma. The building was sold in 1911 as a part of statehood-induced dissolution policies and provided office space for Cherokee Country until 19769 when the Cherokee Nation regained ownership.
Phase one of the restoration tackles the exterior restoration which includes extensive masonry work, window and woodwork restoration, adding stone lintels, landscaping, and upgrading to ADA standards. This phase also includes the demolition of an adjacent non-historic building, which shares the original lot of the Supreme Court. Phase two will include the interior restoration. After the building is fully restored it will operate as a museum and interpretive center to focus on the judicial system of the Cherokee Nation and the history of the Cherokee Advocate.
A Brief History of the Cherokee Nation
It is told that the Cherokee People came from islands to the south of their later homelands in the Southeastern section of North America. From this origin place, traveling groups embarked by canoe as their island began to tremble and spew fire. They traveled for many days and great distances and several of the canoes were lost.In the end, seven groups remained when they reached the shores of an unfamiliar land. These groups would become the Seven Cherokee Clans: Wolf, Blue (or Bear), Longhair (or Twister or Wind), Paint, Bird, Deer and Wild Potato (or Holly or Blind Savannah).
The seven clans moved northward across the new lands to the "Long Man," now called the Mississippi River, and encountered other native tribes before migrating and settling in the region of the southeastern United States. As the clans settled the area that is now encompassed by the states of Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, they began to develop governments and societies; a way of life that endured for many generations.
In the spring of 1540, explorer Hernando De Soto brought the first encounter with Europeans to the Cherokees. By the late 1600’s, they were entering more extensively into trade relationships with the Europeans, primarily with the English. The 1700s were the first century of intensive contact between Europeans and Americans with the Cherokee People and, on the whole, it was disastrous for the Cherokees. The increased exposure brought wave after wave of adversity – disease, warfare, decimation of populations, towns and land. The prosperity that had once belonged to the Cherokee People and the balance they experienced in their lives was gone. As their contact with Europeans increased, so did their exposure to new diseases and in 1738 a terrible smallpox epidemic hit the Cherokee towns. In eighteen months the Cherokees lost as many as half of the tribe.
In the late 1700’s, the Cherokee people were facing war between the Europeans and the white settlers of the United States, first in the French and Indian Wars of the 1750s and then again during the American Revolution between Britain and the US. The Cherokees allied with the British in both wars and were brutally attacked by both the French and the American settlers. As a result, over two-thirds of the Cherokee towns were wiped out by the early 1780s.
In 1821, Sequoyah developed and wrote a syllabary, a written version of the Cherokee language. Sequoyah desired that his people should have an advantage over Americans by having their own written language, so he spent twelve years studying the structure and syntax of his language. The written language was so logical to the Cherokee speaker, that upon learning the 86 character syllabary, he could become literate in a week. Within a year of its introduction, 90% of the Cherokee people could both read and write in the syllabary, a rate of literacy unparalleled in the United States at that time, or today. As a result of the developed written language, the Cherokees began publishing a newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix, in 1828.
The 1800s were also a time of treaties between the Cherokees and the American citizens and government. During these years, the Cherokee People had to face many political and legal battles to save their homeland and continued existence. These battles ultimately led to the forced relocation of the Cherokee people along the Trail of Tears route that took them to Indian Territory, present day Oklahoma. On that 850 mile march in the middle of winter, 4,000 Cherokees were lost.
After the Trail of Tears, the Cherokees settled into their new lands and rebuilt a government to serve their needs. In 1839, they adopted an “Act of Union and a Constitution.” In 1844, the National Supreme Court Building was erected in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. A National Capital Building, Prison and nine district courthouses followed. In 1849, the Cherokees built the first institution for higher education for women west of the Mississippi River, the Cherokee Female Seminary. They also built a Male Seminary, as well as 150 day schools throughout the Cherokee Nation.
With the arrival of the American Civil War, two thirds of the Cherokee people fought for Union forces while the other third fought for the Confederates. Over 900 men were lost in the war and the Nation suffered great property loss. The United States enacted a retribution treaty against the Cherokee Nation that ultimately led to the allotment of Cherokee lands in Indian Territory.
Concurrently, tremendous strife arose within the tribe as bands of Cherokees began attacking other Cherokees for their loyalties. By 1920, the Cherokees had lost 90% of their lands and became dependent on a cash economy. Between 1930 and 1940, half of the Cherokee population left Oklahoma for Texas and California during the Dust Bowl that decimated the land.
In 1975, The Cherokee Nation adopted a new constitution and in 1976, a federal judge ruled that the Bureau of Indian Affairs policy of "bureaucratic imperialism" that had been practiced since 1906 had wrongfully kept the Cherokee Nation from exercising it’s governmental rights. The Cherokee people began to revive their Nation and create a legacy to carry on and give future generations an enriching cultural identity.
Today, the Cherokee Nation is thriving, both financially and culturally. The Cherokee people are again a proud population and welcome visitors to come experience the people, places and culture of their great Nation.