On the Road: Working together in the community of Tahlequah, capital of the Cherokee Nation

Gadugi means “working together” in Cherokee, explained Paul Martinez, a proud, out Native American who serves as project director of HIV/AIDS services for the Cherokee County Health Services Council (CCHSC) in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. “Elders occasionally adopt modern terminology to keep our native language relevant.”

Martinez and his team in rural Oklahoma in the Cherokee Nation are doing just that—working together—Gadugi. CCHSC is part of the Cherokee Nation and has been building strong partnerships for over 20 years and is a partner of the Emory COMPASS Coordinating Center, part of the Gilead COMPASS Initiative.

Celebrating the unveiling of a newly acquired Pride flag, CCHSC brought together community stakeholders, public officials and allied professionals on June 26 a day ahead of National HIV Testing Day. The program also highlighted disparities in health.

Drag performer and health care advocate Porcelynn Turrelle

Drag performer and health care advocate Porcelynn Turrelle

Carden Crow, founding member and president of Tahlequality, opened the program, which featured a Monday morning drag show. Porcelynn Turrelle, a local pageant queen shared heartfelt glimpses of her past to help normalize and destigmatize the valuable lives of the LGBTQ+ community. She offered a caring and confidential ear to anyone in the community needing unconditional love. 

Testing [and health equity] are critical, said Ellen Wolfe, who lost her brother Michael to AIDS-related illness in 1990. Looking back at the early days, Wolfe wished she had had that conversation with him to get tested prior to his diagnosis. 

With a Native population of 16,301, according to the 2020 U.S. Census, Tahlequah is the capital of both the Cherokee Nation and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians situated in the Lakes Country of Cherokee County in northeastern Oklahoma. Tahlequah is the oldest municipality in Oklahoma.

The name Tahlequah, according to one legend, derives from the Cherokee word Ta’ligwu, meaning “just two” or “two is enough.” referring to a meeting between elders that supposedly took place shortly after the Trail of Tears, the forced displacement of indigenous tribes by the federal government from 1830 to 1850. Three tribal elders had planned to meet to decide on the location of the Cherokee Nation’s permanent capital. Two elders arrived and waited for the third, who never arrived. As dusk approached, they decided that “two is enough.”

On a day celebrating the LGBTQ+ community, another Cherokee expression, conveying love, came to mind: “I see green all around you.”