Visitors to the Ancient Village at the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah, Okla., have for more than 40 years been treated to life as it might have existed in a Southeastern Cherokee village in the 16th century. Time, though, has taken a toll on the reconstructed village, with its council house and demonstration areas.
Now, a team from the University of Georgia is taking the lead in designing and constructing an entirely new model Cherokee village in Tahlequah, which is the capital of the Cherokee Nation. The new village, which will depict life as it might have been lived among the Cherokees around 1710 in the U.S. Southeast, will likely open in the summer of 2010, according to the team.
“From the point of view of the Cherokee Nation Historical Society, we are on a mission to preserve, promote and teach Cherokee culture,” said Carey Tilley, executive director of the Society in Tahlequah. “Working with UGA has been a really positive experience in our work to get the story right.”
Jace Weaver, director of the UGA Institute of Native American Studies (part of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences) and a member of the UGA team, said that the timing is good for a new historic village to demonstrate to students and tourists the richness and heritage of Cherokee life in the early period of contact.
“The current village is frankly outmoded and decaying, and the Cherokee Nation wisely realized that they needed to update and rebuild the village,” Weaver said. “We’ve visited the site several times, and the Nation is pleased with the ideas we have presented.”
Others on the team from UGA are Ervan Garrison, professor and head of the department of anthropology, and Alfie Vick, an assistant professor in the UGA College of Environment and Design.
While the initial task before the team, which is working with persons from the Cherokee Nation, is to design and build the new village, an important an unexpected ancillary benefit presented itself when Garrison and his graduate student Jessica Cook Hale visited Tahlequah to perform a subsoil survey of an area near the site of the Cherokee Female Seminary, which burned to the ground on Easter Sunday in 1887.
Because the site of the new village is near the ruins of the old seminary, the team had to know the precise location of the old building’s ruins, if any, that still might lie underground. To their surprise, Garrison and Cook Hale discovered the massive remains of the seminary’s brick walls buried adjacent to the last vestiges of the school – three brick columns.
“The images we found were astounding,” said Garrison, “and now the site demands a lot more research. So it’s opening up an entirely unexpected avenue of study for UGA and local Cherokee students in the future.”
Meanwhile, Vick, an expert on preserving and enhancing the function of natural systems that integrate human use, began drawing plans for the new village, based on historical documents and while working closely with officials from the Cherokee National Historical Society. One of the first problems he faced was finding a proper site, because the current and outmoded village lies on a 6 percent slope that had caused many kinds of drainage problems. The search led them to a flat area near the ruins of the old seminary.
“Our entire effort in Tahlequah began with a May semester class I teach, which had in earlier years been called ‘Plant Communities of the Southeast,'” said Vick. “In the summer of 2008, we decided to change it to Plant Communities of the Trail of Tears,’ and we took 18 students on study trips, one of which was to Tahlequah.”
It was while Vick and his students, some of whom were from North Park University in Chicago, were in the Cherokee capital that they met with Principal Chief Chad Smith, a UGA graduate. Smith and Vick began talking about needs that the Cherokee Heritage Center might have involving plants, and, as it turned out, the Cherokee had for some time been thinking about starting over with a new model village.
As talks began, excitement grew among the UGA faculty, who realized this could be a marvelous project from a scientific point of view and for students in environmental design, archaeology, anthropology and perhaps other fields.
One major decision was to change the focus of the village from its current imagined date of 1540 to 1710, just before the world of the Cherokee changed forever by substantial contact with whites. Yet there are many other reasons for a new village, not the least of which is that scholarship on the Cherokee has dramatically increased in the past 40 years and vastly more is known about them now than in 1967 when the model village was first built.
Using design ideas by Brett Riggs of the University of North Carolina, Vick began to visualize an entirely new village, one screened from nearby areas with patches of cane, and with an artificial stream running through the structures. There will be a central plaza, ball ground, individual dwellings, a blow gun demonstration area, kitchen gardens and much more.
Just as important as historical accuracy in structures, however, is accuracy in the kinds of plants used in the new village, and the UGA team is working to ensure that plants native to the Southeast that will grow in that area of Oklahoma are used in the reconstruction. (According to Vick, two-thirds of plants from the Southeast will grow there.) This May, Vick and Weaver will again take students to Tahlequah to work on designs for plantings at the new village site.
The work in Tahlequah also provides a golden opportunity for faculty in the UGA Institute of Native American Studies, said Weaver.
“There are so many aspects to the project that we can work on in the future, that we’re truly delighted that the Nation showed confidence in our ability to assist them as they move forward on this,” he said. “They take the preservation of their history seriously, and UGA students and faculty look forward to helping them in that effort for some years to come.”