AskDefine | Define Cherokee

Dictionary Definition



1 the Iroquoian language spoken by the Cherokee people
2 a member of an Iroquoian people formerly living in the Appalachian Mountains but now chiefly in Oklahoma

User Contributed Dictionary


Proper noun

  1. An indigenous North American people.
  2. Iroquoian language spoken in Oklahoma and North Carolina in North America.
  3. syllabary for the Cherokee language invented by Sequoyah.


See also

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Extensive Definition

The Cherokee (ᎠᏂᏴᏫᏯ, ah-ni-yv-wi-ya, in the Cherokee language) are a people native to North America, who, at the time of European contact in the sixteenth century, inhabited what is now the Eastern and Southeastern United States. Most were forcibly moved westward to the Ozark Plateau in the 1830s. They are one of the tribes referred to as the Five Civilized Tribes. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, they are the largest of the 563 federally recognized Native American tribes in the United States.
The Cherokee refer to themselves as Tsa-la-gi (pronounced "chaw-la-gee") or A-ni-yv-wi-ya (pronounced "ah knee yuh wee yaw", literal translation: "Principle People"). In 1654, the Powhatan were referring to this people as the Rickahockan. The word "Cherokee" may have originally been derived from the Choctaw trade language word "Cha-la-kee" which means "those who live in the mountains" – or (also Choctaw) "Chi-luk-ik-bi" meaning "those who live in the cave country". The Cherokee were called "Alligewi" by the Delawares. (Heckewelder) Iroquois called them Oyata’ge'ronoñ', "inhabitants of the cave country" (Hewitt).
The characteristics of the Cherokee people were described in the writings of William Bartram in his journey through the Cherokee lands in 1776;
"The Cherokee…are tall, erect and moderately robust; their limbs well shaped, so as generally to form a perfect human figure; their features regular, and countenance open, dignified, and placid, yet the forehead and brow are so formed as to strike you instantly with heroism and bravery; the eye, though rather small, yet active and full of fire, the iris always black, and the nose commonly inclining to the aquiline. Their countenance and actions exhibit an air of magnanimity, superiority, and independence. Their complexion is a reddish brown or copper colour; their hair, long, lank, coarse, and black as a raven, and reflecting the like lustre at different exposures to the light. The women of the Cherokees are tall, slender, erect and of a delicate frame; their features formed with perfect symmetry; the countenance cheerful and friendly; and they move with a becoming grace and dignity" (R. C. Pritchard, Researches into the Physical History of Mankind (Volume V, 1847), p.403-4)
The Cherokee Nation and United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians have headquarters in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is located at Cherokee, North Carolina. All three are federally recognized.


Prehistoric and protohistoric periods

In describing the history of Indians living in the interior of the American southeast, scholars use the term prehistory for the time before the mid-sixteenth century, when several Spanish expeditions journeyed through the southeast. After these expeditions the European historic record is silent until about 1700. The term protohistory is used for this period. The time after about 1700 is called the historic era.
Since historic documentation is generally lacking, Cherokee prehistory and protohistory has been studied via oral tradition, linguistic analysis, and archeology.
Unlike most other Indians in the American southeast at the start of the historic era, the Cherokee spoke an Iroquoian language. Since the Great Lakes region was the core of Iroquoian languages, it is theorized that the Cherokee migrated south from the Great Lakes region. Linguistic analysis shows a relatively large difference between Cherokee and the northern Iroquoian languages, suggesting a split in the distant past. Glottochronology studies suggest the split occurred between about 1,500 and 1,800 B.C.
The ancient settlement of Keetoowah or giduwa (Cherokee:), on the Tuckasegee River near present-day Bryson City, North Carolina, is frequently cited as the original Cherokee City.
Although selling alcohol to Indians was made illegal by colonial governments at an early date, rum, and later whiskey, were a common item of trade.

18th century

Of the southeastern Indian confederacies of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, etc), the Cherokee were one of the most populous and powerful, and were relatively isolated by their hilly and mountainous homeland. A relatively small-scale trading system was established with Virginia in the late seventeenth century. A much stronger and important trade relationship with the colony of South Carolina, based in Charles Town, began in the 1690s and overshadowed the Virginia relationship by the 1700s.
Although there was some trading contact, the Cherokee remained relatively unaffected by the presence of European colonies in America until the Tuscarora War and its aftermath. In 1711 the Tuscarora began attacking colonists in North Carolina after diplomatic attempts to address various grievances failed. The governor of North Carolina asked South Carolina for military aid. Before the war was over several years later, South Carolina had mustered and sent two armies against the Tuscarora. The ranks of both armies were made up mostly of Indians, with Yamasee troops especially. The first army, under the command of John Barnwell, campaigned in North Carolina in 1712. By the end of the year a fragile peace had been established, and the army dispersed. No Cherokee were involved in the first army. Hostilities between the Tuscarora and North Carolina broke out soon after, and in late 1712 to early 1713 a second army from South Carolina fought the Tuscarora. This army consisted of about 100 British and over 700 Indian soldiers. As with the first army, the second depended heavily on the Yamasee and Catawba. This time, however, hundreds of Cherokee joined the army. The army's campaign ended after a major Tuscarora defeat at Hancock's Fort. All told, over 1,000 Tuscarora and allied Indians were killed or captured. Those captured were mainly sold into the Indian slave trade. Although the second army from South Carolina disbanded soon after the battle, the Tuscarora War continued for several years. Some previously neutral Tuscarora turned hostile, and the Iroquois confederacy entered the dispute. In the end a large number of Tuscarora moved north to live among the Iroquois.
The Tuscarora War altered the geopolitical context of colonial America in several ways, including a general Iroquois interest in the south. For the many southeastern Indians involved, it was the first time so many had collaborated in a military campaign and seen how different the various English colonies were. As a result the war helped to bind the Indians of the entire region together, enhancing Indian networks of communication and trade. The Cherokee became much more closely integrated with the region's various Indians and Europeans. The Tuscarora War marked the beginning of an English-Cherokee relationship that, despite breaking down on occasion, remained strong for much of the 18th century. The Tuscarora War also marks the rise of Cherokee military power, demonstrated in the 1714 attack and destruction of the Yuchi town of Chestowee (in today's southeastern Tennessee). The English traders Alexander Long and Eleazer Wiggan instigated the attack through various deceptions and promises, although there was a pre-existing conflict between the Cherokee and Yuchi. The traders' plot was based in the Cherokee town of Euphase (Great Hiwassee), and mainly involved Cherokee from that town. In May 1714 the Cherokee destroyed the Yuchi town of Chestowee. Inhabitants not killed or captured fled to the Creek or the Savannah River Yuchi. Long and Wiggan had told the Cherokee that the South Carolina government wished for and approved this attack, which was not true. The governor of South Carolina, having heard of the plot, sent a messenger to tell the Cherokee not to continue and attack the Savannah River Yuchi. The Cherokee attack on the Yuchi ended with Chestowee, but it was enough to catch the attention of every Indian tribe attack Chestowee. The messenger arrived too late to save Chestowee but played a role in the and European colony in the region. Thus around 1715, after the Tuscarora War and the attack on Chestowee, the Cherokee emerged as a major power.
In 1730, at Nikwasi, Chief Moytoy II of Tellico was chosen as "Emperor" by the Elector Chiefs of the principal Cherokee towns. He unified the Cherokee Nation from a society of interrelated city-states in the early 18th century with the aid of an unofficial English envoy, Sir Alexander Cuming. Moytoy agreed to recognize King George II of Great Britain as the Cherokee protector. Seven prominent Cherokee, including Attacullaculla, traveled with Sir Alexander Cuming back to England. The Cherokee delegation stayed in London for four months. The visit culminated in a formal treaty of alliance between the British and Cherokee, the 1730 Treaty of Whitehall. While the journey to London and the treaty were important factors in future British-Cherokee relations, the title of Cherokee Emperor did not carry much clout among the Cherokee and eventually passed out of Moytoy's direct avuncular lineage. The unification of the Cherokee nation was essentially ceremonial, with political authority remaining town-based for decades afterward. In addition, Sir Alexander Cuming's aspirations to play an important role in Cherokee affairs failed. In 1735 the Cherokee were estimated to have sixty-four towns and villages and 6000 fighting men. In 1738 - 39 smallpox, introduced to the country onboard slave ships, broke out among the Cherokee and killed nearly half their population within a year. Hundreds of others committed suicide due to the disfigurement.
Beginning at about the time of the American Revolutionary War in the late 18th century, 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. 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. Some of these early dissidents eventually moved 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.


Much of what is known about pre 19th century Cherokee history, culture, and society comes from the papers of American writer John Howard Payne. The Payne papers describe the memory Cherokee elders had of a traditional societal structure in which a "white" organization of elders represented the seven clans. This group, which was hereditary and described as priestly, was responsible for religious activities such as healing, purification, and prayer. A second group of younger men, the "red" organization, was responsible for warfare. However, warfare was considered a polluting activity which required the purification of the priestly class before participants could reintegrate in normal village life.
This hierarchy had faded by the time of the Cherokee removal in 1838. The reasons for the change have been debated and may include: a revolt by the Cherokee against the abuses of the priestly class, the massive smallpox epidemic of the late 1730s, and the incorporation of Christian ideas, which transformed Cherokee religion by the end of the eighteenth century.
Ethnographer James Mooney, who studied the Cherokee in the late 1880s, traced the decline of the former hierarchy to the revolt. By the time of Mooney, the structure of Cherokee religious practitioners was more informal and based more on individual knowledge and ability than upon heredity. In addition, separation of the Eastern Cherokee, who had not participated in the removal and remained in the mountains of western North Carolina, further complicated the traditional hierarchies. However there is ample evidence that the Cherokee were adapting modern farming techniques, and a modern analysis shows that the area was in general in a state of economic surplus.
Despite a Supreme Court ruling in their favor, many in the Cherokee Nation were forcibly relocated West, a migration known as the Trail of Tears or in Cherokee Nunna Daul Tsunny (Cherokee:The Trail Where They Cried). This took place during the Indian Removal Act of 1830, although as of 1883, the Cherokee were the last large southern Indian tribe to be removed. Even so, the harsh treatment the Cherokee received at the hands of white settlers caused some to enroll to emigrate west.
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."

Ridge opposition

Among the Cherokee, John Ross led the battle to halt their removal. Ross's position was in opposition to a group known as the "Ridge Party" or the "Treaty Party". This was in reference to the Treaty of New Echota, which exchanged Cherokee land for land in the west and its principle signers John Ridge and his father Major Ridge.
On June 22, 1839, the prominent signers of the Treaty of New Echota were executed, including Major Ridge, John Ridge and Elias Boudinot by Cherokee extremists.
In the early 1860s, John Ridge's son, novelist John Rollin Ridge, led a group of delegates to Washington, D.C. as early as the 1860s in a failed attempt to gain federal recognition for a Cherokee faction that was opposed to the leadership of Chief John Ross.


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 or the Rocky Mountain Trail, starting from Fort Smith, Arkansas that also extended northward to Montana all the way to the Canadian border near Cut Bank, Montana.
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 Pike's Peak Gold Rush of 1859 and other gold rushes across the western U.S. in the 1860s.
Not all of the eastern Cherokees were removed on the Trail of Tears. William Holland Thomas, a white store owner and state legislator from Jackson County, North Carolina, helped over 600 Cherokee from Qualla Town (the site of modern-day Cherokee, North Carolina) obtain North Carolina citizenship. As citizens, they were exempt from forced removal to the west. In addition, over 400 other Cherokee hid from Federal troops in the remote Snowbird Mountains of neighboring Graham County, North Carolina, under the leadership of Tsali (ᏣᎵ) (the subject of the outdoor drama Unto These Hills held in Cherokee, North Carolina). Together, these groups were the basis for what is now known as the Eastern Band of Cherokees.
Out of gratitude to Thomas, these Western North Carolina Cherokees served in the American Civil War as part of Thomas's Legion. Thomas's Legion consisted of infantry, cavalry, and artillery. The legion mustered approximately 2,000 men of both Cherokee and white origin, fighting primarily in Virginia, where their battle record was outstanding. Thomas's Legion was the last Confederate unit in the eastern theater of the war to surrender after capturing Waynesville, North Carolina on May 9, 1865. They agreed to cease hostilities on the condition of being allowed to retain their arms for hunting. This, together with Stand Watie The chief of the Southern Cherokee Nation.'s surrender of western forces on July 23, 1865, gave the Cherokees the distinction of being the very last Confederates to capitulate in both theaters of the Civil War. In Oklahoma, 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 U.S. Federal Government.

20th century

These and other acts were designed to end tribal sovereignty and 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. In reaction to this, the Cherokee Nation recognized that 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, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt confirmed the election in 1941.
W. W. Keeler was appointed chief in 1949. Because the federal government had adopted a 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 Richard Nixon. Keeler, who was also the President of Phillips Petroleum, was succeeded by Ross Swimmer and then Wilma Mankiller.

The 1997 Cherokee Constitutional Crisis

The Cherokee Nation was seriously destabilized in May 1997 in what was variously described as either a nationalist "uprising" or an "anti-constitutional coup" instigated by Joe Byrd, their Principal Chief. Elected in 1995 Byrd's style of government had left him locked in a battle of strength with the judicial branch of the Cherokee tribe. The crisis came to a dramatic head when on March 22, 1997 Joe Byrd, Principal Chief, stated in a press conference that he would decide which orders of the Cherokee Nation’s Supreme Court were lawful and which were not. A simmering crisis continued over the creation by the Principal Chief of his own private, armed paramilitary force. The crisis came to a head on June 20, 1997 when his private army illegally seize custody of the Cherokee Nation Courthouse from its legal caretakers and occupants, the Cherokee Nation Marshals, the Judicial Appeals Tribunal and its court clerks, and to physically oust the lawful occupants at gunpoint. Immediately there were demands for the courthouse to be returned to the judicial branch of the Cherokee Nation but these requests were ignored by the Principal Chief
The Federal Authorities of the United States initially refused to intervene because this would constitute a breach of tribal sovereignty. However, the State of Oklahoma recognized that the activities of Joe Byrd were breaches in State Law and by August had sent in state troopers and specialist anti-terrorist teams. Joe Byrd was forced to attend a meeting in Washington DC with the Bureau of Indian Affairs where he was compelled to re-open the courts. He served the remainder of his elected term under supervision and remains a free man.
Joe Byrd lost the election in 1999 to Chad Smith who is currently the chief of the Nation.

The United Keetoowah Band

The United Keetoowah Band took a different track than the Cherokee Nation and received federal recognition after the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 . Members of the United Keetoowah Band are descended from the Old Settlers, Cherokees who moved west before the Removal. The tribe requires a quarter blood quantum for enrollment and UKB members must have at least one ancestor listed on the Final Dawes Roll of the Cherokee.

Customs and Ceremonies


In Indian Territory, for a white man to marry a Cherokee woman, he was required to petition the court with approval of ten of her blood relatives. Once married, the man became a member of the tribe, yet could not hold any tribal office. Yet he still remained under the laws of the United States. Many chose to live together and call themselves married. This was known as "common law" marriage.

Language and writing system

The Cherokee speak an Iroquoian language which is polysynthetic and is written in a syllabary invented by Sequoyah (ᏍᏏᏆᏱ). 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. As of January 2007, however, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma still officially uses a non-unicode font for online documents, including online editions of the Cherokee Phoenix.
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 Je-la-gee) by native speakers, since these sounds most closely resemble the English language. A Southern Cherokee group did speak a local dialect with a trill consonant "r" sound, after early contact with Europeans of both French and Spanish ancestry in Georgia and Alabama during the early 18th century (This "r" sound spoken in the dialect of the Elati, or Lower, Cherokee area – Georgia and Alabama – became extinct in the 19th century around the time of the Trail of Tears, examples are Tsaragi or Tse-La-gee). The ancient Ani-kutani (ᎠᏂᎫᏔᏂ) dialect and Oklahoma dialects do not contain any 'r'-based sounds.
Because of the polysynthetic nature of the Cherokee Language, new and descriptive words in Cherokee are easily constructed to reflect or express modern concepts. Some good examples are di-ti-yo-hi-hi (Cherokee:ᏗᏘᏲᎯᎯ) which means "he argues repeatedly and on purpose with a purpose". This is the Cherokee word for attorney. Another example is di-da-ni-yi-s-gi (Cherokee:ᏗᏓᏂᏱᏍᎩ) which means the final catcher or "he catches them finally and conclusively". This is the Cherokee word for policeman.
Many words, however, have been borrowed from the English Language, such as gasoline which in Cherokee is ga-so-li-ne (Cherokee:ᎦᏐᎵᏁ). Many other words were borrowed from the languages of tribes who settled in Oklahoma in the early twentieth century. One of the more humorous examples relates to an own on Oklahoma named "Nowata". The word "nowata" is a Delaware Indian word for "welcome" (more precisely the Delaware word is "nu-wi-ta" which can mean "welcome" or "friend" in the Delaware Language). The white settlers of the area used the name "nowata" for the township, and local Cherokee's, being unaware the word had its origins in the Delaware Language, called the town a-ma-di-ka-ni-gv-na-gv-na (Cherokee:ᎠᎹᏗᎧᏂᎬᎾᎬᎾ) which means "the water is all gone from here", i.e. "no water".
Other examples of borrowed words are ka-wi (Cherokee:ᎧᏫ) for coffee and wa-tsi (Cherokee:ᏩᏥ) for watch (which led to u-ta-na wa-tsi (Cherokee:ᎤᏔᎾ ᏩᏥ) or "big watch" for clock).

Language drift

There are two main dialects in Cherokee spoken by modern speakers. The Giduwa dialect (Eastern Band) and the Otali Dialect (also called the Overhill dialect) spoken in Oklahoma. The Otali dialect has drifted significantly from Sequoyah's Syllabary in the past 150 years, and many contracted and borrowed words have been adopted into the language. These noun and verb roots in Cherokee, however, can still be mapped to Sequoyah's Syllabary. In modern times, there are more than 85 syllables in use by modern Cherokee speakers. Modern Cherokee speakers who speak Otali employ 122 distinct syllables in Oklahoma.

Treaties, Government and Tribal Recognition

Treaty of Hopeville, 1785: Changed the boundaries between the U.S. and Cherokee lands. Known as the "Talking Leaves Treaty" since the Cherokee claimed that when the treaties no longer suited the Americans, they would blow away like talking leaves.
Treaty of Holston, 1791:Established boundaries between the United States and the Cherokee Nation. Guaranteed by the United States that the lands of the Cherokee Nation have not been ceded to the United States.
Treaty with the Cherokee, 1798: The boundaries promised in the previous treaty had not been marked and white settlers had come in. Because of this, the Cherokee were told they would need to cede new lands as an "acknowledgement" of the protection of the United States. The U.S. would guarantee the Cherokee could keep the remainder of their land "forever".
Treaties of Tellico, 1804 - 1806: Roads had been built on the Cherokee land, and the U.S. added that it's citizens should have "free and unmolested use and enjoyment of them", plus build a new road to deliver mail. Give the State of Tennessee some land for to convene an assembly. The U.S. wanted the Cherokee to become farmers. They began to send farming tools and spinning wheels as part of the treaties in place of some of the monies that were to be paid.
Treaties of Washington: 1819 - 1835
Resolution of Rattlesnake Springs, 1838: "Resolved, by the Committee and Council of the Cherokee Nation in General Council assembled, that the whole Cherokee territory, as described in the first article of the treaty of 1819 between the United States and the Cherokee Nation, and, also, in the constitution of the Cherokee Nation, still remains the rightful and undoubted property of the said Cherokee Nation; and that all damages and losses, direct or indirect, resulting from the enforcement of the alleged stipulations of the pretended treaty of New Echota, are in justice and equity, chargeable to the account of the United States. The inherent sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation, together with the constitution, laws, and usages, of the same, are, and, by the authority aforesaid, hereby declared to be in full force and virtue, and shall continue so to be in perpetuity, subject to such modifications as the general welfare may render expedient. The Cherokee people do not intend that it shall be so construed as yielding or giving sanction or approval to the pretended treaty of 1835; nor as compromising, in any manner, their just claim against the United States hereafter, for a full and satisfactory indemnification for their country and for all individual losses and injuries."
1822 A Cherokee supreme court was established
1823 National committee given power to review acts of national council.
1827 Cherokee Constitution
1839 Cherokee Constitution (after relocation)
1868 First declaration of a formal government of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
1888 Charter of Incorporation issued by the State of North Carolina to the Eastern Band
1975 Constitution of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma
The Moytoy ruled the Cherokee people through the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries culminating with the destruction of Chota-Tanasi by the American revolutionary forces fighting Oconostota in 1780. However Oconostota's successor, Hanging Maw, married a granddaughter of Moytoy I (and sister of Attacullaculla). During this time, inheritance was largely matrilineal. Kinship and clan membership was of primary importance until around 1820.
After being ravaged by smallpox, and pressed by increasingly violent land-hungry settlers, the Cherokee adopted a whiteman's form of government in an effort to retain their lands. They established a governmental system modeled on that of the United States, with an elected principal chief, senate, and house of representatives. On April 10, 1810 the seven Cherokee clans met and began the abolition of blood vengeance by giving the sacred duty to the new Cherokee National government. Clans formally relinquished judicial responsibilities by the 1820s when the Cherokee Supreme Court was established. In 1825, the National Council extended citizenship to the children of Cherokee men married to white women. These ideas were largely incorporated into the 1827 Cherokee constitution. The constitution stated that "No person who is of negro or mulatlo [sic] parentage, either by the father or mother side, shall be eligible to hold any office of profit, honor or trust under this Government," with an exception for, "negroes and descendants of white and Indian men by negro women who may have been set free." This feeling may have been more widely held among the elite than the general population.
Today the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma has judicial, executive and legislative branches with executive power vested in the Principal Chief, legislative power in the Tribal Council, and judicial power in the Cherokee Nation Judicial Appeals Tribunal.
The Principal and Deputy Principal Chief, and the council are elected to four-year terms by the registered tribal voters. The council is the legislative branch of government and represent the nine districts of the Cherokee Nation in the 14 county jurisdictional area.
The judicial branch of tribal government includes the District Court and Judicial Appeals Tribunal, which is comparable to the U.S. Supreme Court. The tribunal consists of three members who are appointed by the Principal Chief and confirmed by the council. It is the highest court of the Cherokee Nation and oversees internal legal disputes and the District Court. The District Judge and an Associate District Judge preside over the tribe’s District Court and hear all cases brought before it under jurisdiction of the Cherokee Nation Judicial Code.
The Congress of the United States, The Federal Courts, and State Courts have repeatedly upheld the sovereignty of Native Tribes, defining their relationship in political rather than racial terms, and have stated it is a compelling interest of the United States.This principle of self-government and tribal sovereignty is controversial. According to the Boston College Sociologist and Cherokee Citizen, Eva Marie Garroutte, there are upwards of 32 separate definitions of "Indian" used in federal legislation as of a 1978 congressional survey. The 1994 Federal Legislation AIRFA (American Indian Religious Freedom Act) defines an Indian as one who belongs to an Indian Tribe, which is a group that "is recognized as eligible for the special programs and services provided by the United States to Indians because of their status as Indians."
Race and blood quantum are not factors in CNO tribal eligibility. To be considered a citizen in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma , you need one Indian ancestor listed on the Dawes Rolls. The tribe currently has members who share African-American, Latino, Asian, white and other ancestry. The Eastern Band Cherokee and United Keetoowah tribes do require one quarter Cherokee blood quantum.
Tribal Recognition
Many groups have sought recognition by the federal government as Cherokee tribes, but today there are only three groups recognized by the government. Cherokee Nation spokesman Mike Miller has discussed that some groups, which he calls Cherokee Heritage Groups, are encouraged. Others, however, are controversial for their attempts to gain economically through their claims to be Cherokee, a claim which is disputed by the three federally recognized groups, who assert themselves as the only groups having the legal right to present themselves as Cherokee Indian Tribes.

Modern Cherokee Nation

The modern Cherokee nation, in recent times, has experienced an almost unprecedented expansion in economic growth, equality, and prosperity for its citizens. The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma (CNO), under the leadership of Principal Chief Chad Smith, has significant business, corporate, real estate, and agricultural interests, including numerous highly profitable casino operations. The CNO controls Cherokee Nation Enterprises, Cherokee Nation Industries, and Cherokee Nation Businesses. CNI is a very large defense contractor that creates thousands of jobs in eastern Oklahoma for Cherokee citizens.
The CNO has constructed health clinics throughout Oklahoma, contributed to community development programs, built roads and bridges, constructed learning facilities and universities for its citizens, instilled the practice of Gadugi and self-reliance in its citizens, revitalized language immersion programs for its children and youth, and is a powerful and positive economic and political force in Eastern Oklahoma.
The CNO hosts the Cherokee National Holiday on Labor Day weekend each year, and 80,000 to 90,000 Cherokee Citizens travel to Tahlequah, Oklahoma, for the festivities. It also publishes the Cherokee Phoenix, a tribal newspaper which has operated continuously since 1828, publishing editions in both English and the Sequoyah Syllabary. The Cherokee Nation council appropriates money for historic foundations concerned with the preservation of Cherokee Culture, including the Cherokee Heritage Center which hosts a reproduction of an ancient Cherokee Village, Adams Rural Village (a turn-of-the-century village), Nofire Farms and the Cherokee Family Research Center (genealogy), which is open to the public. The Cherokee Heritage Center is home to the Cherokee National Museum, which has numerous exhibitions also open to the public. The CHC is the repository for the Cherokee Nation as its National Archives. The CHC operates under the Cherokee National Historical Society, Inc., and is governed by a Board of Trustees with an executive committee.
The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma also supports the Cherokee Nation Film Festivals in Tahlequah, Oklahoma and participates in the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
The Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians in North Carolina led by Chief Michell Hicks hosts over a million visitors a year to cultural attractions of the 100-square-mile sovereign nation. This reservation, the "Qualla Boundary" has a population of over 8000 Cherokee consisting primarily of direct descendants of those Indians who managed to avoid “The Trail of Tears”. Attractions include the Oconaluftee Indian Village, Museum of the Cherokee Indian, and the country’s oldest and foremost Native American crafts cooperative. The outdoor drama "Unto These Hills" which debuted in 1950 recently broke record attendance sales. Together with Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel, Cherokee Indian Hospital and Cherokee Boys Club the tribe put over $78 million dollars into the local economy in 2005.


Today the Cherokee Nation is one of America's biggest proponents of ecological protection. Since 1992, the Nation has served as the lead for the Inter-Tribal Environmental Council. The mission of ITEC is to protect the health of American Indians, 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 over forty ITEC member tribes in Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas.

Cherokee Freedmen

The Cherokee Freedmen, descendants of African American slaves owned by citizens of the Cherokee Nation during the Antebellum Period, were first guaranteed Cherokee citizenship via treaty in 1866, in the wake of the American Civil War. Their citizenship was revoked in the 1980s. On March 7, 2006, the Cherokee Nation Judicial Appeal Tribunal announced that the Cherokee Freedmen were eligible once more for Cherokee citizenship. This ruling proved controversial; while the Cherokee Freedman had historically been recorded as "citizens" of the Cherokee Nation at least since 1866 and the later Dawes Commission Land Rolls, the ruling "did not limit membership to people possessing Cherokee blood". This ruling was consistent with the 1975 Constitution of the Cherokee Nation, in its acceptance of the Cherokee Freedmen on the basis of historical citizenship, rather than evidenced blood relation.
The Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Chad Smith, later announced that because of issues raised by the Cherokee people, the issue of Freedmen citizenship was being considered for a vote proposing amendments to the Cherokee Nation Constitution. These amendments were intended to restrict tribal membership exclusively to Cherokees by blood descent, thus excluding the Freedmen from tribal membership. The Constitution had always restricted governmental positions to persons of Cherokee blood.
In March 2007, the tribe voted on the constitutional amendment. 76.6% of voters affirmed the proposed amendment, revoking the tribal citizenship of the descendants of black slaves who had formerly been considered Cherokee citizens. The vote to oust the Freedmen provoked a firestorm of controversy, particularly from various political circles, including the Congressional Black Caucus. There were calls for the revocation of all federal funding for the Cherokee Nation.
The Cherokee Freedmen were reinstated as citizens of the Cherokee Nation by the Cherokee Nation Tribal Courts on May 15, 2007, while appeals are pending in the Cherokee Nation Courts and Federal Court.
On May 22, 2007, the Cherokee Nation received notice from the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs that the BIA and Federal Government had denied the amendments to the 1975 Cherokee Nation Constitution because it required BIA approval, which had not been obtained. The BIA also noted that the Cherokee Nation had excluded the Cherokee Freedmen from the amendment vote. The Cherokee Nation Supreme Court ruled that the Cherokee Nation could take away the approval authority it had granted the federal government. Principal Chief Smith has also argued against the requirement of BIA approval for constitutional amendments. Congresswoman Diane Watson responded by introducing a bill which would sever ties between the United States and the Cherokee Nation until the Freedmen issue is resolved.
As of August 9, 2007, the BIA has given the Cherokee Nation consent to modify their Constitution without approval from the Department of the Interior.

Relationship with the Eastern Band

The Cherokee Nation participates in numerous joint programs with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. It also participates in cultural exchange programs and joint Tribal Council meetings involving councillors from both Cherokee Tribes which address issues affecting all of the Cherokee People. Unlike the adversarial relationship between the administrations of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians and the Cherokee Nation, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians interactions with the Cherokee Nation present a unified spirit of Gadugi with the leaders and citizens of the Eastern Band. The United Keetoowah Band tribal council unanimously passed a resolution to approach the Cherokee Nation for a joint council meeting between the two Nations, as a means of "offering the olive branch", in the words of the UKB Council. While a date was set for the meeting between members of the Cherokee Nation council and UKB representation Chief Smith vetoed the meeting.

Marriage Law controversy

On June 14 2004, the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council voted to officially define marriage as a union between man and woman, thereby outlawing same-sex marriage. This decision came in response to an application by a lesbian couple submitted on May 13. 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.

Famous Cherokees

There have been many famous Cherokees in American history, including Sequoyah, who invented the Cherokee writing system. It was thought for many years that he was the only person to single-handedly invent a writing system, however it has been recently speculated that there was an ancient clan of Cherokee priests who had an older, mostly secret rudimentary written language from which Sequoyah may have gotten inspiration. Many historians speculate that Sequoyah never learned to speak, read or write the English language for various reasons.
Jimi Hendrix, lead singer, guitarist, revolutionist and frontman of Jimi Hendrix Experience, was of Cherokee heritage through his maternal grandmother, Nora Rose Moore. Musician Tori Amos also shares Cherokee ancestry.
Elias Boudinot, statesman, orator, and editor, wrote "Poor Sarah", the first Native-American novel. Stand Watie, Buck's younger brother, was a famous frontiersman and the last commander of Confederate forces to surrender in the American Civil War.
Ned Christie was a Cherokee patriot who became the subject of many books and magazine articles, including a fictional novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry (Zeke and Ned) and Ned Christie's War, a Western novel by author Robert J. Conley.
Will Rogers was of Cherokee heritage. Businessman and owner of the Tennessee Titans football team Bud Adams is an enrolled member of the tribe.
Tom Threepersons, an early 20th century cowboy, lawman, soldier, and Rodeo winner of the 1912 Calgary Stampede, was an Oklahoma born Cherokee. He was the subject of the biography, Tom Threepersons, the Legend of an Indian Cowboy, by author Hugh A. Dempsey.
U.S. Congressman Larry McDonald from Georgia was of Cherokee heritage, through his mother's side of the family. His father's family hailed from Scotland.
Other famous people who claim Cherokee ancestry include the actors Johnny Depp, Liv Tyler, Shannon Elizabeth, Burt Reynolds, James Garner, Chuck Norris, James Earl Jones, Lou Diamond Philips, David Carradine, Charisma Carpenter, Wes Studi, Stephanie Kramer and Christopher Judge ; the dancers Mark Ballas and Eve Torres ; the musicians Steven Tyler (Aerosmith), Nokie Edwards (The Ventures), John Phillips (The Mamas and the Papas), Eartha Kitt, Miley Cyrus;the actress, model, and singer Ashley Tesoro; the actress Megan Fox; the actress and singer Cher ; the singer, musician and actor Elvis Presley ; the actress and model Hunter Tylo; the singers Rita Coolidge and Tiffany ; the country music singers Billy Ray Cyrus, Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gayle; the boxer Jack Dempsey ; the painter Robert Rauschenberg ; the activists Rosa Parks and John Leak Springston, former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, Wilma Mankiller; and the writers Mitch Cullin and Alex Haley.

See also



  • Christensen, P.G., Minority Interaction in John Rollin Ridge's The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta MELUS, Vol. 17, No. 2, Before the Centennial. (Summer, 1991 - Summer, 1992), pp. 61-72.
  • Tahlequah: And the Cherokee Nation
  • Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation
  • Cherokee Americans: The Eastern Band of Cherokees in the Twentieth Century
  • Garroutte, Eva Marie. Real Indians: identity and the survival of Native America. University of California Press, 2003
  • Glenn, Eddie. "A league of nations?" Tajlequah Daily Press. January 6, 2006 (Accessed May 24, 2007 here).
  • Weaving New Worlds: Southeastern Cherokee Women and Their Basketry
  • Irwin, L, "Cherokee Healing: Myth, Dreams, and Medicine." American Indian Quarterly. Vol. 16, 2, 1992, p. 237
  • Friends of Thunder: Folktales of the Oklahoma Cherokees
  • Mankiller: A Chief and Her People
  • Mooney, James. "Myths of the Cherokees." Bureau of American Ethnology, Nineteenth Annual Report, 1900, Part I. Pp. 1-576. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.
  • Morello, Carol. "Native American Roots, Once Hidden, Now Embraced". Washington Post, April 7, 2001
  • Reflection on Cherokee Literary Expression
  • Perdue, T. "Clan and Court: Another Look at the Early Cherokee Republic." American Indian Quarterly. Vol. 24, 4, 2000, p. 562
  • Russell, Steve. "Review of Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America" PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review. May 2004, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 147-153
  • Fire and the Spirits: Cherokee Law from Clan to Court
  • Sturm, Circe. Blood Politics, Racial Classification, and Cherokee National Identity: The Trials and Tribulations of the Cherokee Freedmen. American Indian Quarterly, WInter/Spring 1998, Vol 22. No 1&2 pgs 230-258
  • Thornton, Russell. The Cherokees: A Population History. University of Nebraska Pres, 1992
  • Chiefs of Nations First Edition: The Cherokee Nation 1730 to 1839: 109 Years of Political Dialogue and Treaties
  • Wishart, David M. "Evidence of Surplus Production in the Cherokee Nation Prior to Removal." Journal of Economic History. Vol. 55, 1, 1995, p. 120
  • Buyer Beware, Only Three Cherokee Groups Recognized Official Statement Cherokee Nation, Oklahoma, Monday, November 13, 2000 (Accessed May 21, 2007 here)
  • "Census 2000 PHC-T-18. American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes in the United States: 2000" United States Census Bureau, Census 2000, Special Tabulation (Accessed May 27, 2007 here)

External links


Historical documents
Cherokee in Catalan: Xerokee
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Cherokee in Italian: Cherokee
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Cherokee in Simple English: Cherokee
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Cherokee in Finnish: Cherokeet
Cherokee in Swedish: Cherokeser
Cherokee in Tamil: செரோக்கீ
Cherokee in Cherokee: ᏣᎳᎩ
Cherokee in Turkish: Cherokee (kabile)
Cherokee in Chinese: 切羅基人
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