Cherokee Indian Tribe

Published on October 26, 2010 by John

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Cherokee Indian Dance
Cherokee Indian Dance

The Trail of Tears occupies a special place in Native American history. Many tribes have similar incidents from their history, as this book shows, such as the CHICKASAW, CHOCTAW, CREEK, and SEMINOLE. Yet this event, the name of which originally was applied to the Cherokee, has come to symbolize the land cessions and relocations of all Indian peoples, just as the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, involving the SIOUX (DAKOTA, LAKOTA, NAKOTA), has come to represent the numerous massacres of Indian innocents.

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When Europeans first arrived in North America, the Cherokee occupied a large expanse of territory in the Southeast. Their homeland included mountains and valleys in the southern part of the Appalachian chain. They had villages in the Great Smoky Mountains of presentday western North Carolina and the Blue Ridge of present-day western Virginia and West Virginia, as well as in the Great Valley of present-day eastern Tennessee. They also lived in the Appalachian high country of present-day South Carolina and Georgia, and as far south as present-day northern Alabama. Cherokee people also probably lived in territory now part of Kentucky. At one time, they had more than 60 villages. In Native American studies, this region of North America is classified within the Southeast Culture Area (see SOUTHEAST INDIANS). The Cherokee were the southernmost Iroquoian-speaking people. Their ancestral relatives, the IROQUOIS (HAUDENOSAUNEE), as well as most other Iroquoians, lived in what is defined as the Northeast Culture Area. The Cherokee Native name is Ani-Yun’wiya, meaning “principal people.” The name Cherokee, pronounced CHAIR-uh-kee, probably is derived from the Choctaw name for them, Tsalagi, meaning “people of the land of caves”. The LENNI LENAPE (DELAWARE) version of the same name is Tallageni. Some linguists theorize, however, that Cherokee is derived from the Creek name for them, Tisolki, or Tciloki, meaning “people of a different speech.”


The Cherokee placed their villages along rivers and streams, where they farmed the rich black soil. Their crops included corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, sunflowers, and tobacco. They grew three different kinds of corn, or maize—one to roast, one to boil, and a third to grind into flour for cornbread. They also took advantage of the wild plant foods in their homeland, including edible roots, crab apples, berries, persimmons, cherries, grapes, hickory nuts, walnuts, and chestnuts. The rivers and streams also provided food for the Cherokee, who used spears, traps, and hooks and lines to catch different kinds of fish. Another method included poisoning an area of water to bring the unconscious fish to the surface.

The Cherokee were also skilled hunters. They hunted large animals, such as deer and bear, with bows and arrows.To get close to the deer, they wore entire deerskins, including antlers, and used deer calls to lure the animals to them .The Cherokee hunted smaller game, such as raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, and turkeys, with blowguns made from the hollowed-out stems of cane plants. Through these long tubes, the hunters blew small wood-and-feather darts with deadly accuracy from as far away as 60 feet. The products of the hunt were also used for clothing. In warm weather, Cherokee men dressed in buckskin breechcloths and women in buckskin skirts. In cold weather, men wore buckskin shirts, leggings, and moccasins; women wore buckskin capes. Other capes, made from turkey and eagle feathers along with strips of bark, were used by Cherokee headmen for ceremonial purposes. Their leaders also wore feather headdresses on special occasions. Ceremonies took place inside circular and domed council houses or domed seven-sided temples. The temples were usually located at the summit of flat-topped mounds in the central village plaza, a custom inherited from the earlier MOUND BUILDERS of the Southeast. Cherokee families, as is the case with other people of the Southeast, typically had two houses—a large summer home and a smaller winter home. The summer houses, rectangular in shape with peaked roofs, had pole frameworks, cane and clay walls, and bark or thatch roofs. The winter houses, which doubled as sweathouses, were placed over a pit with a cone-shaped roof of poles and earth. Cherokee villages were usually surrounded with walls of vertical logs, or palisades, for protection from hostile tribes. The Cherokee practiced a variety of crafts, including plaited basketwork and stamped pottery. They also carved, out of wood and gourds, Booger masks, representing evil spirits. And they shaped stone pipes into animal figures, attached to wooden stems. Among the many Cherokee agricultural, hunting, and healing rituals, the most important was the Green Corn Ceremony. This annual celebration, shared by other tribes of the Southeast, such as the Creek, took place at the time of the ripening of the last corn crop. Another important event for the Cherokee, shared with other Southeast peoples, was the game of lacrosse. This game was played between clans from the same villages as well as between clans from different villages. Chunkey, or chenco, a game played by throwing sticks at rolling stones, also was popular. With regard to political and social organization, the many Cherokee villages, about 100, were allied in a loose confederacy. Within each village, there were two chiefs. The White Chief, also called the Most Beloved Man, helped the villagers make decisions concerning farming, lawmaking, and disputes between individuals, families, or clans. He also played an important part in religious ceremonies, along with the Cherokee shamans. The Red Chief gave advice concerning warfare. One such decision was choosing who would be the War Woman, an honored woman chosen to accompany warriors on their war parties. The War Woman did not fight but helped feed the men, offered them council, and decided which prisoners would live or die. The Red Chief also was in charge of the lacrosse games, which the Cherokee called the “little war.”

Colonial Years

Early explorers to encounter the Cherokee were impressed by their highly advanced culture. Hernando de Soto, the Spanish explorer who traveled throughout much of the Southeast, was the first European to come into contact with the Cherokee, when he arrived in their territory from the south in 1540. In later years, occasional French traders worked their way into Cherokee territory from the north. But English traders from the east began appearing regularly after England permanently settled Virginia, starting with the Jamestown colony of 1607 and then, before long, the Carolina colonies.

In the French and Indian wars, lasting from 1689 to 1763, the Cherokee generally sided with the British against the French, providing warriors for certain engagements. In these conflicts, they sometimes found themselves fighting side by side with other Indian tribes that had been their traditional enemies, such as the Iroquois. In 1760, however, the Cherokee revolted against their British allies in the Cherokee War. The precipitating incident involved a dispute over wild horses in what is now West Virginia. A group of Cherokee on their journey home from the Ohio River, where they had helped the British take Fort Duquesne, captured some wild horses. Some Virginia frontiersmen claimed the horses as their own and attacked the Cherokee, killing 12. Then they sold the horses and collected bounties on the Cherokee scalps, which they claimed they had taken from Indians allied with the French. On learning of this incident, various Cherokee bands, led by Chief Oconostota, began a series of raids on non- Indian settlements. The Cherokee warriors managed to capture Fort Loudon in the Great Valley of the Appalachians. The war lasted two years, before the British troops defeated the militant bands by burning their villages and crops. Even then, many insurgents continued to fight from their mountain hideouts for a period of time. Eventually, war-weary and half-starving, the holdouts surrendered. In the peace pact, the Cherokee were forced to give up a large portion of their eastern lands lying closest to British settlements. In spite of the Cherokee War, the Cherokee supported the British against the rebels in the American Revolution of 1775–83. Most of their support consisted of sporadic attacks on outlying American settlements. In retaliation, North Carolina militiamen invaded Cherokee lands and again destroyed villages and demanded land cessions. During the colonial years, the Cherokee also suffered from a number of epidemics of diseases passed to them by non-Indians. The worst outbreaks—from the dreaded smallpox that killed so many Native peoples—occurred in 1738 and 1750.

Tribal Transformation

Despite these various setbacks, the Cherokee rebuilt their lives. They learned from the settlers around them, adopting new methods of farming and business. They became faithful allies of the Americans, even fighting with them under Andrew Jackson in the Creek War of 1813. A Cherokee chief named Junaluska personally saved Jackson’s life from a tomahawk-swinging Creek warrior at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. In 1820, the Cherokee established among themselves a republican form of government, similar to that of the United States. In 1827, they founded the Cherokee Nation under a  constitution with an elected principal chief, a senate, and a house of representatives. Much of the progress among the Cherokee resulted from the work of Sequoyah, also known as George Gist. In 1809, he began working on a written version of the Cherokee language so that his people could have a written constitution, official records, books, and newspapers . Over a 12-year period, he devised a written system that reduced the Cherokee language to 85 characters representing all the different sounds. Sequoyah is the only person in history to invent singlehandedly an entire alphabet (or a syllabary, because the characters represent syllables). In 1821, he finished his vast project. In 1827, tribal leaders wrote down their constitution. And in 1828, the first Cherokee newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, was published in their language.

The Trail of Tears

Despite the new Cherokee way of life, the settlers wanted the Indians’ lands. The discovery of gold near Dahlonega, Georgia, helped influence government officials to call for the relocation of the Cherokee, along with other eastern Indians. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act to relocate the eastern tribes to an Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. Despite the fact that the principal chief of the Cherokee, the great orator John Ross, passionately argued and won the Cherokee case before the Supreme Court of the United States; despite the fact that Junaluska, who hadsaved Jackson’s life, personally pleaded with the president for his people’s land; despite the fact that such great Americans as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and Davy Crockett supported the Cherokee claims; still, President Jackson ordered the eastern Indians’ removal. And so began the Trail of Tears.

The state of Georgia began forcing the Cherokee to sell their lands for next to nothing. Cherokee homes and possessions were plundered. Whites destroyed the printing press of the Cherokee Phoenix because it published articles opposing Indian removal. Soldiers began rounding up Cherokee families and taking them to internment camps in preparation for the journey westward. With little food and unsanitary conditions at these hastily built stockades, many Cherokee died. In the meantime, some tribal members escaped to the mountains of North Carolina, where they successfully hid out from the troops. The first forced trek westward began in spring 1838 and lasted into the summer. On the 800-mile journey, travelers suffered because of the intense heat. The second mass exodus took place in the fall and winter of 1838–39 during the rainy season; the wagons bogged down in the mud, and then came freezing temperatures and snow. On both journeys, many died from disease and inadequate food and blankets. The soldiers drove their prisoners on at a cruel pace, not even allowing them to bury their dead properly. Nor did they protect Cherokee families from attacks by bandits. During the period of confinement, plus the two separate trips, about 4,000 Cherokee died, almost a quarter of their total number. More Cherokee died after arrival in the Indian Territory because of epidemics and continuing shortages of food. During the 1830s, other Southeast tribes endured similar experiences, including the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole.

The Indian Territory

The Indian Territory was supposed to be a permanent homeland for various tribes. Originally, the promised region stretched from the state boundaries of Arkansas, Missouri, and Iowa to the 100th meridian, about 300 miles at the widest point. Nonetheless, with increasing non-Indian settlement west of the Mississippi in the mid1800s, the Indian Territory was reduced again and again. In 1854, by an act of Congress, the northern part of the Indian Territory became the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, which later became states. Starting in 1866 after the Civil War, tribes living in those regions were resettled on lands to the south, supposedly reserved for the Southeast tribes, now known as the “Five Civilized Tribes.” During the 1880s, the Boomers arrived—white home-seekers squatting on Indian reservations. Various white interests—railroad and bank executives, plus other developers—lobbied Congress for the opening of more Indian lands to settlement.

Assimilation and Allotment

In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act (or the Dawes Severalty Act). Under this law, certain Indian reservations held by tribes were to be divided and allotted to heads of Native American families. Some politicians believed that the law would help motivate individuals to develop the land. They also believed it would bring about the assimilation of Indians into the mainstream American culture. But others acted in their own interest, since it was much easier to take advantage of individuals than of whole tribes. Many of the same people advocated stamping out Indian culture and religion and sending Indian children to white-run boarding schools. This period in United States Indian policy sometimes is referred to as the Assimilation and Allotment period. By 1889, 2 million acres had been bought from the Indians, usually at ridiculously low prices, and thrown open to non-Indian settlement.

The Oklahoma Land

Run took place that year, with settlers lining up at a starting point to race for choice pieces. Those who cheated and entered the lands open for settlement were called “sooners.” In 1890, Oklahoma Territory was formed from these lands. Cherokee and Choctaw leaders refused allotment and took their case to federal courts, as John Ross had done years before. In reaction, Congress passed the Curtis Act of 1898, designed to dissolve their tribal governments and tribal courts and extend land Allotment policy to them against their wishes. Piece by piece, the Indian lands continued to be taken. In 1905, the Five Civilized Tribes proposed the creation of a separate Indian state known as Sequoyah to the federal government. Legislation was submitted to Congress but was not enacted. Oklahoma, all of which had once been Indian land, became a state in 1907. During this period, in 1924, the federal government passed the Citizenship Act, conferring citizenship on all Native Americans. Two states—Arizona and New Mexico—delayed giving Indians voting rights until much later.

Restoration and Reorganization

In 1934, with the Indian Reorganization Act (or the Wheeler-Howard Act), the policies of Assimilation and Allotment ended. This was the start of what is sometimes referred to as the Tribal Restoration and Reorganization period, sponsored by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his commissioner of Indian affairs, John Collier. The Cherokee and other Native peoples began to rediscover their cultural heritage, which the assimilationists had tried to take away, and to reorganize their tribal leadership into vital and effective governing bodies. Yet those tribes who underwent allotment never regained the lands lost to whites. Remaining Indian lands in Oklahoma are not called reservations, as most tribally held pieces are in other states, but rather Indian trust areas. Some are tribally owned and some are allotted to families or individuals. Yet by an act of Congress in 1936, the lands are protected from outside speculators.

Termination and Urbanization

The federal government went through other phases in its policy toward Indians. In the 1950s, some politicians sought to end the special protective relationship between the government and Indian tribes (see MENOMINEE). Indians in Oklahoma and elsewhere were encouraged to move to cities in order to join the economic mainstream. This phase of federal Indian policy is referred to as the Termination period.


Termination as a policy failed. The Cherokee and other tribes knew that their best hope for a good life in modern times was tribal unity and cultural renewal as called for in the earlier policy of Restoration and Reorganization. Since the 1960s, the federal Indian policy has been one of tribal Self-Determination, which means Indian self-government and strong tribal identity.

Two Homelands

The Cherokee who make their home in the West are centered at Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Some of the western Cherokee have made money from oil and other minerals found on their lands. A famous American humorist by the name of Will Rogers was a western Cherokee. He gained a wide audience in the 1920s and 1930s through radio, movies, books, and newspapers. He was called the “cowboy philosopher.”

Cherokee still live in the East too, in North Carolina, descendants of those who hid out in the mountains during the relocation period. They presently hold rights to the picturesque Cherokee Reservation in the Great Smoky Mountains in the western part of the state. The eastern Cherokee operate a cooperative artists’ and craftspeoples’ organization known as Qualla; its members make crafts sold in stores all over North America. The Cherokee also run a lumber business, motels, and shops and programs for tourists. The Cherokee lease some of these businesses to whites. In 1984, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and the Eastern Band of Cherokees held a joint council for the first time in almost 150 years. The groups now meet in council every two years.

In 1985, after having served as deputy chief, Wilma Mankiller became the first modern-day woman to become principal chief of a major Native American tribe, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, when Ross Swimmer resigned. She completed the remaining two years of his term, then won reelection in 1987 and again in 1991. Mankiller since has become a spokesperson and author on both Native American and women’s issues. She wrote Mankiller: A Chief and Her People (with Michael Wallis; 1993), and she coedited The Reader’s Companion to the History of Women in America (1998). Because of health problems, Mankiller decided not to run for reelection in 1995. In September 2005, the Cherokee Nation hosted the State of Sequoyah Centennial History Conference at the Cherokee Casino and Resort in Catoosa, Oklahoma. Wilma Mankiller was one of the five commissioners hosting the event. Numerous other Cherokee groups maintaining tribal identity are located in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Missouri, and Oregon.

Based on the collective work of, © 2015 Native American Encyclopedia.
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