The Cherokee Indians, a branch of the Iroquois nation, can trace their history in this region back more than a thousand years. The Cherokee used forest resources to create food, shelter, medicine, clothing, tools, and trade goods while sustaining and renewing those resources. By the time European explorers and traders arrived, Cherokee lands covered a large part of what is now the southeastern United States.
Archival image of Cherokee People NPS
Principal Chief Michell Hicks
Organization and Culture
The Cherokee lived in small communities, usually located in fertile river bottoms. Homes were wooden frames covered with woven vines and saplings plastered with mud. These were replaced in later years with log structures. Each village had a council house where ceremonies and tribal meetings were held. The council house was seven-sided to represent the seven clans of the Cherokee: Bird, Paint, Deer, Wolf, Blue, Long Hair, and Wild Potato. Each tribe elected two chiefs—a Peace Chief who counseled during peaceful times and a War Chief who made decisions during times of war. However, the Chiefs did not rule absolutely, decision making was a more democratic process, with tribal members having the opportunity to voice concerns.
Cherokee society was a matriarchy. The children took the clan of the mother, and kinship was traced through the mother’s family. Women had an equal voice in the affairs of the tribe. Marriage was only allowed between members of different clans. Property was passed on according to clan alliance.
The Cherokee readily adopted the tools and weapons introduced by Europeans. Desire for these items changed Cherokee life as they began to hunt animals, not just for food, but also for skins to trade. As the white population expanded, conflicts arose. War and disease decimated the tribe. The Cherokee were eventually forced to sign over much of their land, first to the British and then to the United States.
Growth and Development
In the early 1800s, the Cherokee began a period of change. The Cherokee Nation was established with a democratic government composed of a Chief, Vice-Chief, and 32 Council Members who were elected by the members of the tribe. A constitution and code of law were drawn up for the nation. During this time, Sequoyah invented a system for writing the Cherokee language. There are 86 characters in Sequoyah’s syllabary, and each is based on individual syllables in Cherokee works. Any person who could speak Cherokee could also read and write it after learning the 86 symbols. The Cherokee Council passed a resolution to establish a newspaper for their nation. A printing press was ordered, the type cast for the cherokee syllabary, and the Cherokee Phoenix was in business.
Unfortunately, the Cherokee did not enjoy prosperous times for long. Gold was discovered on Indian lands in Georgia. Political pressure was exerted by President Andrew Jackson to confiscate Indian lands and remove the Cherokee to the West. Numerous injustices against the Cherokee Nation culminated in the signing of the Treaty of New Echota. Those who signed the treaty did not have the authority to represent the entire Cherokee Nation. Nevertheless, the treaty stood. The Cherokee were taken from their homes, held in stockades, and forced to move to Oklahoma and Arkansas. Almost 14,000 Cherokee began the trek westward in October of 1838. More than 4,000 died from cold, hunger, and disease during the six-month journey that came to be known as the “Trail of Tears.”
Eastern and Western Bands
Prior to the “Trail of Tears,” a small group of Cherokee in western North Carolina had already received permission to be excluded from the move west. Those individuals, often called the Oconaluftee Cherokee, did not live on Cherokee Nation land and considered themselves separate from the Cherokee Nation. Permission for the Oconaluftee Cherokee to remain in North Carolina had been obtained in part through the efforts of William H. Thomas, a successful business man who had grown up among the Cherokee. For more than 30 years he served as their attorney and adviser.
To avoid jeopardizing their special status, the Oconaluftee Cherokee reluctantly assisted inthe search for Cherokee Nation Indians who had fled to the mountains to avoid capture. Among those in hiding was Tsali, who had become a hero to many Cherokee for his resistance to forced removal. Tsali was being sought because of his role in the deaths of several soldiers. To prevent further hardships for the Cherokee still in hiding, Tsali eventually agreed to surrender and face execution. Due in part to Tsali’s sacrifice, many of those in hiding were eventually allowed to settle among the Cherokee of western North Carolina. This was the beginning of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee.
The Eastern Cherokee Today
Today there are about 13,000 members of the Eastern Tribe, most of whom live on the Cherokee Indian Reservation, or the “Qualla Boundary” as it is often called. The communities of Yellowhill, Birdtown, Snowbird, Painttown, Big Cove, and Wolftown are within the 56,000 acre boundary which covers parts of five western North Carolina counties.
Unlike some reservations in the western United States, this one is entirely open to visitors. In fact, the tourism industry has been very profitable. Hotels, motels, restaurants, campgrounds, amusement parks, a casino, and shops flourish in and around the town of Cherokee. Museums here help preserve and interpret Cherokee history and culture. While the people have adopted lifestyles more modern than those of their ancestors, traditional craft skills continue to be passed on to younger generations. The speaking of the Cherokee language has also seen a resurgence in recent years.
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