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Village life as Cherokees knew it

Walking along taking notes, I was barely aware where I was until, looking up, I found myself in a passage formed by 12-foot poles tightly bound together. I turned to a huge Cherokee Indian walking behind me and said. "Hey, this looks like a trap."

"It is, paleface," he replied in a deep voice, which sent us both into guffaws.

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We were, in fact, walking down a type of trap. It was the long, narrow entrance to a Cherokee village in Oklahoma. There was room for only two abreast , so anyone attacking the village would have a tough time.

Pass through this passage and the centuries roll back to a time when no white people were in North America, revealing a re-created ancient Cherokee village, authentic in every detail. The 100 or so people in traditional dress are busy chipping flint arrowheads, making food from nuts, burning out a canoe from a tree trunk, and weaving baskets.

The entire village -- which is about five acres -- is surrounded by a 12-foot stockade. In addition to being authentic, it is very lovely, with large green trees, a winding stream, and two or three ponds. Scattered among the trees are some 20 homes, a dancing area, a council hall, and a stickball field.

The village is at Tsa-La-Gi, just southeast of the town of Tahlequah, an easy drive from Tulsa. Tour guides are young Cherokees with a wealth of knowledge about their ancient people.

The Cherokee never lived in tepees, rode horses, or chased buffalo across the plains. Even three centuries ago they had a developed social order and lived in homes made of poles, sticks, and clay.

They invented an ingenious way of keeping warm on bitter winter nights. It's called an Osci -- a small beehive hut with only a low, narrow door.A fire is built inside and when the Osci is warm, the fire is removed and the Indians crawl inside to sleep. The Osci retains the heat through the night.

Above the doorway of the homes are seven feathers representing the seven clans of a Cherokee village. Clanhood is received from the mother and retained through life. To marry within your clan was the gravest of crimes.

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As we walked down the path leading from one home to another we passed a woman making preservable food from nuts. She stomped the nuts in a hallowed out tree stump. Her stomping pole rose and fell with ancient, inscrutable patience, reminding us that the world was not always in a frantic rush.

We reached the stickball field where a man was hurling a leather ball, a bit larger than a golf ball, at a wooden fish on a 20-foot pole. "Here we have a demonstration of stickball by an amateur," said my guide.

In this game you have two sticks with cups on the end. The ball is held between the two cups and flipped at the fish. You get seven points for hitting the fish and one for striking the pole. there are sometimes 40 people in a game. 20 in each team. As the ball descended there was a mad scramble to retrieve it and hurl it at the fish.

Each team had older people with switches to strike their players if they were not energetic enough. Our guide said the game was sometimes called "the little war."

In the middle of every village is a flat area and in the center of this burns the eternal fire, which is never allowed to go out. It's around this fire that the people sometimes dance.

Just above, on a small man-made hill, is the council hall. It is not certain who sat in the hall. Some say it was only male representatives of each clan; others that all members of the clans were allowed.

Here the chief made his decisions with the help of those who sat with him. The Cherokee always had a "white-chief" and a "red chief." The white chief ruled in time of peace and the red chief when the village was at war.

We filed quietly into this impressive hall and sat around a fire that is put out and rekindled only once a year. It was dark, except for the fire, as the Indians believed if light could get in so could evil spirits. You could almost sense the ancient wisdom of the place.

Outside again I watched for a long while as a group of Indian children slid laughing down a sand bank and played in the crystal clear stream. For them this is a kind of nursery school.

None of the Indians actually live in the village; they come in every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (except Mondays) from May 2 through Aug. 20. Some are retired people.

If you visit the village, you'll be reluctant to leave it when the official tour is over; but from there you can go to Tsa-La- Gi's museum and open-air theater.

This is an enormously impressive amphitheater with 1,800 seats and they say you can hear perfectly from every one. There is no amplication, so good are the acoustics.

It was built in 1969 specifically for the drama "Trail of tears." Since then more than 300,000 people have seen nine versions of the play.

"TRail of Tears" refers to the fail and winter of 1838-39 when 16,000 Cherokees were forced to leave their ancient lands in Georgia and trek to Oklahoma. More than 4,000 died on a march that lasted almost a year and was known as The Trail Where They Cried.

However, the play, by Kermit Hunter, covers Cherokee life from the 1830s to 1907, when Oklahoma joined the United States of America.

The Cherokees are an intelligent and cultured people. By 1828 they were publishing two newspapers -- one in English and the older in Cherokee, the only native American written language.

They wrote and adopted a constitution with a fully republican form of government as early as 1822.

They were businessmen, traders, large and operators, and educators. Their homes rivaled the best of Southern tradition. they had a well-developed school system, and some Cherokee students went East or abroad for advanced learning.

The Cherokee nation suffered a severe setback during the Civil War when some sided with the North and some with the South. Principal Chief John Ross signed a treaty of alliance with the Confederacy which resulted in Cherokee land becoming a battlefield for Union and Confederate armies with disastrous results for the Indians.

All this is told in the drama "Trail of Tears" which is performed nightly from June 17 to Aug. 19, except on Sundays.

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