Published on July 16, 2014 by Amy
Cherokee–more properly spelled Tsalagi–is an Iroquoian language with an innovative written syllabary invented by a Native Cherokee scholar. 22,000 people speak the Cherokee language today, primarily in Oklahoma and North Carolina. Though it is one of the healthier Indian languages of North America and the one in which the most literature has been published, the Cherokee language is still in imperiled condition because of government policies as late as the fifties which enforced the removal of Cherokee children from Cherokee-speaking homes, reducing the number of young Cherokees being raised bilingually from 75% to less than 5% today.
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‘Cherokee’ is Creek for ‘people with another language’. (It’s amazing how white settlers always managed to learn another tribe’s name for any group of Indians. They learned the Creek word for the Cherokee tribe, but not the Creek word for themselves.) Anyway, our original name for ourselves was Aniyunwiya, but Cherokee is fine too (though we say it Tsalagi). There are 350,000 Cherokee people today, mostly in Oklahoma and North Carolina.
The best-known episode in Cherokee history was also the worst: the Trail of Tears, which was the forced relocation of the Native Cherokee Indians from their ancestral home in the southeast to Oklahoma. The Cherokee people were an urban, Christian, agricultural, intermarried society who had supported the United States against other tribes. In the end this was all for nothing. Though prominent Americans like Davy Crockett and Daniel Webster spoke against Removal, and though the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional, President Andrew Jackson sent in the army. Fifteen to twenty thousand Cherokee Indians (along with Choctaw, Creek, and other tribes) were rounded up and herded to Oklahoma in the winter of 1838-1839. Driven from their homes without being allowed to collect their possessions first, even their shoes, the Cherokees were no better equipped for an 800-mile forced march than people today would be. Between four and eight thousand Cherokee people died of exposure, starvation, disease, and exhaustion along the Trail of Tears. If you understand this, both the extent to which the Cherokees had adopted American standards of civilization before the Removal and the ultimate futility of it, you will go a long way towards understanding the Cherokee mentality today and also the attitudes of other Indian peoples towards us.
The original tribal name of the Cherokees is Aniyunwiya (also spelled Aniyvwiya, Ahniyvwiya, Aniyuwiya, or Yunwiya.) Alternate spellings of “Cherokee” include Tsalagi, Tsa-la-gi, Jalagi, Chalaque, Cheroqui, Cheraqui, Tsa’lagi’, Tsa’ragi’, and Tslagi. The Cherokee language is called Tsalagi Gawonihisdi.