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History caretakers want facility to save ‘sacred’ Cherokee documents

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Cherokee Heritage Center Executive Director Charles Gourd studies the original Cherokee Nation land patent on July 23rd in the center's basement. The patent, which was signed by President Martin Van Buren, resides in a drawer in the center's basement. - Chad Hunter / Cherokee Phoenix

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The Cherokee National Archives are located in a basement room at the Cherokee Heritage Center in Park Hill. - Chad Hunter / Cherokee Phoenix

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A glass negative, circa 1862, shows Capt. James McDaniel (1818-68), far left, a Cherokee who fought with both the Confederacy and the 2nd regiment, Indian Home Guard. This image is stored with other historical documents in the basement of the Cherokee Heritage Center in Park Hill. - Chad Hunter / Cherokee Phoenix

PARK HILL – To protect aging records that include the Cherokee Nation’s most significant documents, an effort is afoot to fund and construct an archival building on tribal land.

The CN’s national archives are stored in the basement of the Cherokee Heritage Center, which is the official repository for tribal documents. However, storage conditions “don’t pass muster,” said CN archivist Jerrid Miller, who pointed to a lack of resources to properly care for the estimated 1.2 million records.

“We have a water pipe running through it,” he said. “It’s a travesty. I can run the best archives in Indian Country if I have available staff, technology, budget, and a facility. I have none of these right now.”

CHC Executive Director Charles Gourd is advocating for a dedicated archival facility.

“We’re kind of at the beginning stages of starting that whole conversation to find out what the best options are, what the levels of interest are,” he said. “Since it’s a long-term commitment and expensive endeavor, we need to start looking at how much all of this is going to cost, not only to put up a building but to staff the building, to pay the utilities. You can’t think about this as getting a rate of return on your investment. It’s an investment for a whole different purpose.”

Preliminary plans call for a 10,000-square-foot building on tribal land, next to the CHC’s 44 acres, to preserve the oldest and most significant documents such as the original CN land patent signed by President Martin Van Buren in 1838. The patent resides in a drawer in the center’s basement.

“That’s the deed that gave us our 14 counties,” Miller said.

Gourd said the building’s estimated construction cost of $2 million to $2.5 million is worth it “just to preserve” the deed, called a fee simple patent.

“If you hold the fee simple patent, in Western land law, that’s the ultimate, final ownership of that property,” he said. “The fee simple patent, to me, is the most sacred object anywhere. To be in the basement of a 50-year-old building with water pipes running overhead causes me concern constantly.”

Miller said the archives are in dire need of proper shelving and temperature control.

“We’re dehumidifying things, but at the same time, it’s not enough,” he said. “For the short term, a few months, it would be great, but we’re going on years and time’s ticking. Documents are like sponges. They just suck up all this moisture. The end result is we’re probably losing hundreds of years on the life of these documents in the long term.”

A fire-proof safe is used to store what Miller called the “crown jewels,” such as a rare photograph of Stand Watie, a principal chief from 1862-66. While the CHC is the official repository of governmental records, modern documents are stored in a warehouse.

“The warehouse is where our contemporary records go after the departments are done with it,” Miller said. “There is a transition point where those records are supposed to come over here, but we don’t have space here.”

Miller said he would like to one day digitize the historical collection.

“The whole objective of an archive is that institutional memory for the tribe,” he said. “What I envision is for our documents to be digitized and out there for our Cherokee Nation citizenry.”

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