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The name “Tahlequah” means different things depending on whom you ask. Linguists trace it back to the Cherokee word for a red grain. Others interpret it as “plains.” Locals say it means “two is enough;” as the legend goes, tribal elders planned to meet to determine the location of the Cherokee Nation capital. Though three elders planned to attend, only two arrived, and decided “two is enough.”
Regardless of definition, the Cherokee capital of today is a town of great diversity.
Some people bypass Tahlequah on their way to the Illinois River, but there’s a lot to see. Muskogee Avenue is the main street, with its repurposed and restored buildings, retains its historic feel. A few old service stations have been converted into modern shops, and some of the traffic signs are printed in both English and Cherokee.
The Cherokee Capitol Building was built in the mid-1800s and currently houses the Cherokee Nation’s judicial branch. As the oldest government structure in the state, the Cherokee National Supreme Court building was built in 1844, holding court sessions and the printing press for the Cherokee Advocate, Oklahoma’s first newspaper and the official publication of the nation. Also, check out the Cherokee National Prison Museum. The sandstone penitentiary was the only one in Indian Territory from 1875 until the turn of the 20th century.
The town also is the setting for the 1961 children’s book “Where the Red Fern Grows.” On the last weekend of April, downtown Tahlequah holds the Red Fern Festival in honor of the popular coming-of-age story. There’s live music, a car show, an antique tractor show, tons of vendors, children’s activities and a fly-in at the Tahlequah Airport.
For non-festival visits, check out Sam and Ella’s Chicken Palace on the north end of Muskogee Avenue. Don’t let the name fool you; chickens are only part of the decor. It’s a pizza place, and theirs is excellent. The crust is thick, twisty and flavorful.
Should home cooking be more your style, Jincy’s Kitchen can’t be beat. It’s not in Tahlequah, but south of Highway 62 in Qualls. Jincy’s is in an old general store that was used as a set in the film version of “Where the Red Fern Grows.” The shelves are still stocked with antiques and other memorabilia. The comfort food menu, including pan-fried chicken, is varied, as are the hours. Check in advance so that you don’t drive out there just to be disappointed. Cash and check only.