The History of the Cherokee Indians
The Cherokee Nation is today the largest Native American tribe with over 300,000 members. According to the Nation’s 2010 annual report, the tribe has a $1.3 billion economic impact, and has seen job growth even during the recent economic recession, especially in the Cherokee Nation Entertainment and Cherokee Nation Industries. Despite a history of suffering injustices from the hands of the U.S. Federal Government and white settlers, the Cherokee have also recovered and prospered. As the Cherokee Nation’s current Principal Chief, Chief Chad Smith, has stated, “In the late 1800s there was not a family in the whole Nation that did not have a home of its own.”
The following sections focus on the history of the Cherokee, both in recent years and in the distant past, and how this history led to the dissolution and reformation of the tribe as a cohesive political entity on many different occasions. This page is meant to serve as a primer on the topic, providing frequent hyperlinks to additional resources that delve into more detail. The primary aim of the text below is to draw the attention of students and researchers who wish to learn more about the Cherokee Nation and its storied past. Websites linked here were selected for their credibility and depth.
Overview and Organization
Although the Cherokee Nation is by far the largest tribe that bears the name, there are two others that are recognized by the U.S. government: the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, whose capital is in Tahlequah, Oklahoma along with the main Cherokee Nation, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee. The latter were those who either escaped the forced removal of 1830 perpetuated by Andrew Jackson or were able to use North Carolina’s Reservation Act of 1819 to legally stay behind in that state, according to the Band’s website. Over 14,000 live in North Carolina today, while nearly all other Cherokee reside in Oklahoma.
The Cherokee Nation was established in 1976 after a series of reorganizations, some enforced by the U.S. federal government, although the tribe itself has a history stretching back long before written records. The current Cherokee Constitution was adopted in 2006 and drawn up in 1999 as a replacement for the older document. The new Constitution, like that of the United States, establishes three branches of government: an executive, legislative, and judicial branch. The Principal Chief and Deputy Principal Chief serve roles that are similar to the president and vice president of the U.S., respectively. Citizenship in the Nation can be attained by proving that one is a descendant from an individual listed on the Dawes Roll, a census of the Five Civilized Tribes from 1899 to 1906.
The Museum of the Cherokee Indian states that the earliest evidence of peoples living in the southern Appalachians comes from around 5,000 B.C. These were the original hunting grounds of the Cherokee, who in the earliest histories were divided into a handful of clans: the Blue, Deer, Long Hair, Paint, Bird, Wolf, and Wild Potato, and had largely matriarchal societies as per the Eastern Band of Cherokee’s website. The museum goes on to explain that permanent villages sprang up around 1,000 B.C. to which some of the earliest pottery is dated and around 500 A.D. their settlements started to take on a distinctive appearance: a town hall perched atop a central, man-made hill.
The Cherokee’s first encounter with Europeans was around 1540 (Donald E. Sheppard provides details of De Soto’s encounters with the Cherokee during the conquistador’s trek through the Carolinas), but regular contact did not begin until the 1700s when the tribe established trade relationships with Europeans and, in the 1750s, allied with the British against the French (see the French and Indian War). However, distrust between the allies eventually escalated into an all-out rebellion in the 1760s, since called the Anglo-Cherokee War. Hostilities with European settlers continued in 1776 when Chief Dragging Canoe, furious about the land the Cherokee tribe willingly gave up to white settlers after the American Revolution, broke away from the Cherokee to form the Chickamauga Tribe. The series of raids and skirmishes they engaged in were later called the “Second Cherokee War” and the “Chickamauga Wars.”
The Cherokee shortly thereafter began to adopt European customs, establishing formal education, a police force, a newspaper, and a written alphabet, which led them to be included as one of the Five Civilized Tribes. Nevertheless, the aggressive anti-Native American policies of the Andrew Jackson administration in the 1820s and 1830s, summarized in his 1829 address to Congress, culminated in the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the tribe’s forced relocation to present-day Oklahoma. Of the 15,000 to 17,000 who set off for Indian Territory in the 1830s during the Trail of Tears, roughly 4,000 did not make it. In Oklahoma, the Cherokee slowly rebuilt the infrastructure of their society over the course of the 19th century, but the federal government broke up most of its governing institutions around the turn of the 20th century in order to make Indian Territory a part of Oklahoma. The tribe finally reestablished itself as a Nation in the 1970s.
Culture of the Cherokee
The central beliefs of the Cherokee, according to the Nation’s website, center on the numbers four (the cardinal directions) and seven (the number of clans), and hold special reverence for the owl, the cougar, rivers, the circle, and certain types of trees. Keeping sacred artifacts separate from the rest of the world, by wrapping them in cloth for instance, is also distinctive of traditional Cherokee culture. Six major holidays, including the First New Moon of Spring and the Green Corn Ceremony, are observed by some Cherokee, although these festivals were practiced more consistently before the forced removal of the 1830s.
One of the largest cultural contributions of the Cherokee is linguistic: the Cherokee language’s syllabic alphabet was either invented or popularized by Chief Sequoyah (George Guess), and by the time of the Indian Removal Act, 90% of Cherokee were literate in the writing system. A brief history of the language can be found on the Cherokee Nation Entertainment website, while a more detailed biography of Sequoyah from a 1930 issue of the Chronicles of Oklahoma is also available. Finally, the Cherokee Heritage Center provides more information about traditional Cherokee practices: basket weaving, flintknapping, canoe building, and stick ball.
Image is from Wikimedia Commons.