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  • Lani Hansen

"Missing Pieces" exhibit to fill in gaps of Keetoowah history



TAHLEQUAH – Hundreds of documents telling the history of the Keetoowah people, once readable only in the Cherokee syllabary, have now been translated into English and will be on display for visitors during the “Missing Pieces: Rediscovering Keetoowah Law, Language, Literature” exhibit. It is set to open March 30 at 6 p.m. at the John Hair Cultural Center and Museum.

“It’s very gratifying because it’s kind of been a dream of mine for many years to be able to share this history,” said Ernestine Berry, JHCCM director. “I don’t mean just the history you might have heard somebody talk about, but to actually have that history verified by your documents. You can tell somebody something, but when you actually have the documentation for it, that really validates you.”

The exhibit is free and will be divided into separate sections and focus on government happenings, stories and personal letters. Binders with the documents in both Cherokee and English will be available for viewing, as well as digital files on computers that visitors can browse.

The exhibit’s contents are the culmination of two years of work for Berry, who views it as an “absolute necessity” to filling in critical gaps of Keetoowah history.

“That has been a real desire I think of a lot of people, to know their history and to know who they are,” she said. “It’s not just a desire, I think it’s an absolute necessity that people know who they are and where they came from and in order to do that, you have to know where your people have been. I think sometimes it’s hard for our young people to really have a sense of confidence in who they are because they don’t know their history.”

The project was made possible in part by a two-year grant with the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, an independent federal agency that provides library grants, museum grants, policy development, and funding for research.

Through the grant, Berry was able to locate, travel and collect several Keetoowah documents scattered throughout the U.S., including in Washington D.C.

“When we went to the Washington D.C. archives, we got a microfilm roll actually of Western Cherokee letters. The first ones on the roll, which I transcribed into type so it would be more easily read, those were from 1824 and are the oldest thing in our new exhibit,” said Berry.

She explained that the letters highlight a period of uncertainty in Keetoowah history and express dissatisfaction with land they were given after signing away lands in the east to relocate into Arkansas.

“Some people say, ‘oh, they left willingly.’ Well, you might say that, but didn’t they feel forced out? Even though there was no military there to make them leave, they still felt like there was so many changes and so much upheaval in their culture and in their communities that they didn’t want,” said Berry. “At one time, in one of those letters it expresses their desire to return to the east because of all the hardships they were going through, but they knew that they couldn’t. They had already given up that land and taken land in Arkansas so they had to stick with it. Now we can show the documents from 1824 and say, ‘this is how they felt about that.’”

The Western Cherokees, known today as Keetoowahs, would eventually be forced to relocate to Indian Territory beginning in 1828.

In addition to visiting the University of Tulsa and the Newberry Library in Chicago for documents, Berry also visited the University of Oklahoma in Norman for one of the exhibit’s most important pieces.

“There we got the digital copy of the Keetoowah Nighthawk Constitution from 1925,” said Berry. “They have the original there and I got to touch it with gloved fingers. It’s 32-pages long and it took quite, quite a bit of time to translate that one. I think we got that down to 22 or 23-pages typed.”

The Keetoowah Nighthawks were an early 1900s society of traditionalists who believed in Cherokees going back to the “old ways” of living and did not believe in the Dawes Commission or breaking apart land into allotments after removal to Indian Territory.

Berry even found a letter with personal ties to her own family at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

“I found some letters from my great-grandmother in the Beinecke Library Collection. I was amazed,” said Berry. “You see it and think, ‘Wow, my great grandmother actually wrote this.’ Hopefully there will be some ‘wow’ moments for a lot of other people who read these letters. It might be that there’s other people who will find letters or references to their people, too.”

Working alongside Berry to translate the documents from the syllabary into English were Keetoowah members Clara Proctor, Oleta Pritchett and Opal Foreman.

“We’ve been working on this for about two years and I had basically three translators. They’re the ones that stuck with it,” said Berry. “They were very good, very enthusiastic and they really wanted to sharpen their skills at reading and writing in the syllabary. They learned a lot while they were doing it.”

Translators had a difficult task, which was made even more complicated by the age of some of the documents.

“There were a number of words in there that are not even in usage anymore,” said Berry. “Clara has an aunt who is 93-years-old and she’s very good with the language. She helped Clara a lot with some of those words that we don’t use anymore. It was a real challenge and we still have some documents that could be translated.”

Visitors to the exhibit will also get an insight into how the Keetoowah people lived through various documents including community announcements, death notices and New Echota Church minutes.

Berry said the three translators also had the opportunity to translate personal letters from as recently as the 1960s.

“There were Keetoowahs still using the syllabary in the 1960s for personal letters and so forth, writing to their friends or family. We have some of those,” said Berry. “It’s something that is very surprising to a lot of people, that it was still being used in the 1960s. Of course now today, it’s not. It’s just about all fallen away. We have a few people who speak the language and we did a survey and there were 474 respondents, and of those respondents there was only like 118 that could speak the language fluently. The people who read and wrote was far less, like 58 who can read and write. It puts into perspective at how close we are to losing our language.”

The exhibit will be open to the public until March 2020, after which some documents will be added into the museum’s permanent displays.

“It’s going to be up for at least a year. I would like to encourage people just to come and take their time,” said Berry. “Sometimes we have people that come in here and they just want to sashay right through and hurry and you don’t really get the full impact when you do. I’d like to encourage people to linger and plan to stay a little while and to come back. If you didn’t get it all the first time, come back. Cherokees are always welcome here.”

The JHCCM is located at 18627 W. Keetoowah Circle in Tahlequah.



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