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Flag of the Cherokee Nation

The seal of the United Keetoowah Band

Total population: 729,533 (2000)
Significant populations in: Enrolled members:

Cherokee Nation, Oklahoma (f):

United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, Oklahoma (f):

Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, North Carolina (f):

(f) = federally recognized
(s) = state recognized
(n) = non-recognized

Language: Cherokee, English
Religion: ?
Related ethnic groups: ?
For other uses, see Cherokee (disambiguation).

The Cherokee (ah-ni-yv-wi-ya in Cherokee) are a people native to North America who at the time of European contact in the 16th century inhabited what is now the eastern and southeastern United States before most were forcefully moved to the Ozark Plateau. They were one of the tribes referred to as the Five Civilized Tribes.


Bands and naming

Bands recognized by the United States government, but representing only 250,000 Cherokees, have headquarters in Tahlequah, Oklahoma (the Cherokee Nation), and United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians and at Cherokee, North Carolina (Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians). State-recognized Cherokee tribes have headquarters in Georgia and Alabama. Other large and small non-recognized Cherokee organizations are located in Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, and other locations in the United States.

A 1984 KJRH-TV documentary, "Spirit of the Fire" called the Keetoowah Nighthawk Society the "spiritual core" of the nation in reference to the traditional ceremonies and rituals practiced and maintained by the Keetoowah. Redbird Smith was an influential Nighthawk member and the group revitalized traditional spirituality among Cherokees, beginning in the 19th century. Today there are seven ceremonial dance grounds in Oklahoma and these either belong to the Keetoowah tradition or the Four Mothers Society.

The spelling "Cherokee" is likely due to the Cherokee language's name, "Tsalagi" - this then may have been rendered phonetically in Portuguese (or more likely a barranquenho dialect, since de Soto was Extremaduran) as chalaque, then in French as cheraqui, and then by the English as cherokee.

The Cherokee language does not contain any "r" based sounds, and as such, the word "Cherokee" when spoken in the language is expressed as Tsa-la-gi (pronounced Jah-la-gee or Cha-la-gee) by native speakers, since these sounds most closely resemble "Cherokee" in the native language.

The word "Cherokee" is a derived word which came originally from the Choctaw trade language. It was derived from the Choctaw word "Cha-la-kee" which means "those who live in the mountains" or "those who live in the caves." The name which the Cherokees originally used for themselves is Ah-ni-yv-wi-ya (literal translation "these are all the human people"). Most native American tribes have a name for themselves which means approximately this. However, modern Cherokee call themselves Cherokee, or Tsalagi.

Language and writing system

Main article: Cherokee language

The Cherokee speak an Iroquoian language which is polysynthetic and is written in a syllabary invented by Sequoyah. For years, many people wrote transliterated Cherokee on the Internet or used poorly intercompatible fonts to type out the syllabary. However, since the fairly recent addition of the Cherokee syllables to Unicode, the Cherokee language is experiencing a renaissance in its use on the Internet. It is now believed that a more ancient Syllabary that predated Sequoyah and may have inspired his great work for the Cherokee people was handed down through the Ah-ni-ku-ta-ni, an ancient priesthood of the Cherokee people. There is now a Cherokee-language Wikipedia.


U.S. Population1
Year Population
1650 22,000
1808 13,000
1835 21,500
1850 16,000
1890 28,000
1910 31,500
1970 66,000*
1980 232,000*
1990 308,132*
2000 729,533*
*new counting methods used

Beginning at about the time of the American Revolutionary War (late 1700s), divisions over continued accommodation of encroachments by white settlers, despite repeated violations of previous treaties, caused some Cherokee to begin to leave the Cherokee Nation. These early dissidents would eventually move across the Mississippi River to areas that would later become the states of Arkansas and Missouri. Their settlements were established on the St. Francis and the White Rivers by 1800. Eventually, there were such large numbers of Cherokees in these areas the US Government established a Cherokee Reservation located in Arkansas, with boundaries from north of the Arkansas River up to the southern bank of the White River. Many of these dissidents became known as the Chickamauga. Led by Chief Dragging Canoe, the Chickamauga made alliances with the Shawnee and engaged in raids against colonial settlements. Other Cherokee leaders who lived in Arkansas were The Bowl, Sequoyah, Spring Frog and The Dutch.

By the late 1820s, the Territory of Arkansas had designs on acquiring the land held by the Arkansas Cherokee. A delegation of Arkansas Cherokees went to Washington, D.C., and were forced to sign a treaty to vacate the Arkansas Reservation. Arkansas Cherokees had two choices: cooperate with the US government and move to Indian Territory (later Oklahoma), or defy the US Government and refuse to leave the Arkansas Reservation area. Around 1828, the tribe split, some going to Indian Territory. Others disobeyed the US Government and stayed on the old Reservation lands in Arkansas. Those who stayed on the old Arkansas Cherokee Reservation lands have lobbied the US Government since the early 1900s to be considered a Federally recognized Cherokee tribe. The US Government has ignored their pleas. Today, there are thousands of Cherokee living in Arkansas or Southern Missouri who are relatives of these pre-Trail of Tears Cherokee. (see "We Are Not Yet Conquered" by Beverly Northrup, "The Cherokee People" by Thomas E. Mails, "Myths of The Cherokee" by James Mooney, and The Lost Cherokee Nation)

Chief John Ross, c. 1840
Chief John Ross, c. 1840

John Ross was an important figure in the history of the Cherokee tribe. His father emigrated from Scotland prior to the Revolutionary War. His mother was a quarter-blood Cherokee woman whose father was also from Scotland. He began his public career in 1809. The Cherokee Nation was founded in 1820, with elected public officials. John Ross became the chief of the tribe in 1828 and remained the chief until his death.

Cherokees were displaced from their ancestral lands in North Georgia and the Carolinas because of rapidly expanding white population, as well as a Gold Rush around Dahlonega, Georgia in the 1830's. See: Indian Removal, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, and Trail of Tears.

Samuel Carter, author of Cherokee Sunset, writes, "Then ... there came the reign of terror. From the jagged-walled stockades the troops fanned out across the Nation, invading every hamlet, every cabin, rooting out the inhabitants at bayonet point. The Cherokees hardly had time to realize what was happening as they were prodded like so many sheep toward the concentration camps, threatened with knives and pistols, beaten with rifle butts if they resisted."2 In the terror of the forced marches, the Cherokee were not always able to give their dead a full burial. Instead, the singing of Amazing Grace had to suffice. Since then, Amazing Grace is often considered the Cherokee National Anthem.

Once the Cherokees reached Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), tensions ran high and the suspension of the Cherokee Blood Law was ignored. On June 22, 1839, after the adjournment of a tribal meeting, some of the prominent signers of the Treaty of New Echota were assassinated, including the drafter of the Blood Law, Major Ridge, along with John Ridge and Elias Boudinot. This started 15 years of civil war amongst the Cherokees. One of the notable survivors was Stand Watie, who became a Confederate general during the American Civil War. The Cherokees were one of the five "civilized tribes" that concluded treaties with, and were recognized by, the Confederate States of America.

In 1848 a group of Cherokee set out on an expedition to California looking for new settlement lands. The expedition followed the Arkansas River upstream to Rocky Mountains in present-day Colorado, then followed the base of mountains northward into present-day Wyoming before turning westward. The route become known as the Cherokee Trail. The group, which undertook gold prospecting in California, returned along the same route the following year, noticing placer gold deposits in tributaries of the South Platte. The discovery went unnoticed for a decade, but eventually became one of the primary sources of the Colorado Gold Rush of 1859.

Other Cherokees in western North Carolina served as part of Thomas' Legion, a unit of approximately 1,100 men of both Cherokee and white origin, fighting primarily in Virginia, where their battle record was outstanding. Thomas' Legion was the last Confederate unit to surrender in North Carolina, at Waynesville, North Carolina on May 9, 1865.

Map of the present-day Cherokee Nation Tribal Statistical Area
Map of the present-day Cherokee Nation Tribal Statistical Area

The Dawes Act of 1887 broke up the tribal land base. Under the Curtis Act of 1898, Cherokee courts and governmental systems were abolished by the US Federal Government. These and other acts were designed to end tribal sovereignty to pave the way for Oklahoma Statehood in 1907. The Federal government appointed chiefs to the Cherokee Nation, often just long enough to sign a treaty. However, the Cherokee Nation recognized it needed leadership and a general convention was convened in 1938 to elect a Chief. They choose J. B. Milam as principal chief, and as a goodwill gesture Franklin Delano Roosevelt confirmed the election in 1941.

W. W. Keeler was appointed chief in 1949 but as federal government adopted the self-determination policy, the Cherokee Nation was able to rebuild its government and W. W. Keeler was elected chief by the people, via a Congressional Act signed by President Nixon. Keeler, who was also the President of Phillips Petroleum was succeeded by Ross Swimmer, Wilma Mankiller, Joe Byrd and Chad Smith who is currently the chief of the Nation.

The United Keetoowah Band took a different track than the Cherokee Nation and received federal recognition after the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. They are descended from the Old Settlers, or Cherokees that moved west before Removal, and the tribe requires a quarter blood quantum for enrollment.

The modern Cherokee Nation

The Environment

Today the Cherokee Nation is a leader in the environmental protection field. Since 1992 the Nation has served as the lead for the Inter-Tribal Environmental Council (ITEC).The mission of ITEC is to protect the health of Native Americans, their natural resources, and their environment as it relates to air, land, and water. To accomplish this mission ITEC provides technical support, training and environmental services in a variety of environmental disciplines. Currently, there are thirty-nine (39) ITEC member tribes in Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas.

Gay marriage

On June 14, 2004, the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council voted to officially define marriage as a union between man and woman, thereby outlawing gay marriage. This was a decision made in response to an application for a union of a lesbian couple that was submitted on May 13. Furthermore, the decision kept Cherokee law in line with Oklahoma state law, which outlawed gay marriage as the result of a popular referendum on a constitutional amendment in 2004. Numerous elders were consulted and no one could find concrete examples of same-sex marriage in Cherokee traditions, although same-sex cohabition occurred and both polygamy and divorce were common in pre-contact times.

Famous Cherokees

There were several famous Cherokees in American history, including Sequoyah, who invented the Cherokee writing system. Sequoyah may be the only known person in history to invent a widely used writing system singlehandedly. Sequoyah never learned to speak, read or write the English language.

Famous Cherokee politicians include Chad "Corntassel" Smith, Wilma Mankiller and Ross Swimmer. The American blues-rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix was of Cherokee descent via his paternal grandmother, Nora Rose Moore. Oral Roberts, a Pentecostal evangelist in the 1950's through the 1990's, is also of Cherokee descent.

Others who have identified aspects of their bloodline as Cherokee, while not wholly ethnic Cherokee, include:

See also


  • Note 1: Population figures (rounded off) from Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987), p. 115.; 1990 population figure from the Encyclopedia of North American Indians; 2000 population from a USA Today news story, which explains that the 2000 population figure increased so dramatically because of a greater effort to count everybody, and because multi-racial people were, for the first time, able to identify themselves as belonging to more than one group.
  • Note 2: From Samuel Carter III, Cherokee Sunset: A Nation Betrayed (New York: Doubleday, 1976, ISBN 0385067356), p. 232.

Further reading

External links

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