The Cherokee Nation

“According to tribal history, Cherokee people have existed since time immemorial. Our oral history extends back through the millennia. It’s recorded that our first European contact came in 1540 with Hernando DeSoto’s exploration of the southeastern portion of our continent. Trade and intermarriage with various European immigrants soon followed, most notably with the English, Scots and Irish. Treaties were made between the British and the Cherokee Nation as early as 1725, with Cherokee Nation being recognized as inherently sovereign through those nation-to-nation agreements. Cherokees took up arms in various sides of conflicts between the European factions, in hopes of staving off further predations of Cherokee land and sovereign rights.

In time, missionaries and European influences created a strong educational and spiritual framework, with many Cherokees becoming Christians and sending their children to missionary schools to be educated in English. By the time gold was discovered in the Cherokee Nation in 1828 near Dahlonega, Georgia, the Cherokee Nation had a written language, a newspaper that published in both Cherokee and English and a Constitutional government. A few Cherokees had even emulated their southern U.S. counterparts by building plantations worked by slaves.

Despite this assimilation, by 1835 a number of treaties with the U.S. had ceded away all but a small area of Cherokee Nation’s once vast lands. Under mounting pressure to give up what land remained, a small group of Cherokee leaders signed the Treaty of New Echota that year, agreeing to relocate the entire Cherokee Nation to western lands where some of the tribe (who became known as Old Settlers) had already moved. Principal Chief John Ross refused to sign the Treaty of New Echota and urged the Cherokee people to stay in their homelands, in hopes he could get the treaty rescinded.

Despite many efforts to defeat the New Echota Treaty, measures to remove Cherokees from their homes and farms got underway in 1838. Cherokees, intermarried whites and even slaves were summarily rounded up and placed into more than a dozen stockades to await their departure. It’s estimated that 16,000 Cherokees eventually were forced to undertake the six to seven month journey to “Indian Territory” in the land beyond Arkansas. Between the stockades, starvation and sickness, and the harsh winter conditions, some 4,000 Cherokees perished, never reaching their new land.

Ever resilient, the Cherokee people rebuilt their lives in Indian Territory, along with other tribes who had also been similarly driven away from the southeast. Cherokee Nation’s government unified the Old Settlers with the Cherokees recently immigrated from the east, ratifying a new Cherokee Nation Constitution on September 6, 1839. A new Supreme Court building quickly followed in 1844, along with the resurgence of the tribe’s newspaper, schools, businesses and other entities. The Cherokee people thrived until the advent of the Civil War once again pulled the tribe apart.

Although Cherokee Nation was not technically part of the U.S., it was forced to take sides in the War Between the States. While two-thirds of Cherokee men fought on the side of the Union, another third was actively part of the Confederate effort. When the Union abandoned nearby Ft. Gibson, which had up to then provided some measure of protection from southern troops, Principal Chief Ross felt he had no choice but to sign in support of the Confederacy. Upon the Union victory, Cherokee Nation signed its last treaty with the U.S., the somewhat punitive Treaty of 1866.

Cherokee Nation barely had time to rebuild after the war before another threat loomed—allotment. Cherokees owned their land collectively and the concept of individual land ownership was foreign. By the late 1800s, sentiment in the U.S. turned towards moving Indians to reservations and opening their lands for occupation and westward expansion. The Cherokee Nation had been promised by treaty they would not be bothered in their new home and would never be removed again. Instead, the U.S. chose to create a new state and allot tribes’ land out to individual owners. With Oklahoma statehood in 1907, Cherokees suddenly became land owners and state citizens. Much of the Cherokee Nation’s infrastructure was dissolved, including schools, courts and most of its government.

A dark period of great poverty ensued for many Cherokees, who suddenly had a new government and laws to navigate, as non-Indians quickly acquired former tribal lands. Tribal government trickled but never halted entirely. With the 1960s civil rights movement, a resurgence in tribal efforts took hold. The Principal Chief’s Act of 1970 paved the way for certain tribes including the Cherokee Nation to take back their government and popularly elect tribal officials once again. In 1971, the first Cherokee Nation election in nearly 70 years was held and a new Constitution ratified in 1975.

We have never looked back.”

Cherokee Nations website and other sources.


Traditionally, the people now known as Cherokee refer to themselves as Aniyunwiya (ah nee yun wee yah), a name usually translated as “the Real People,” sometimes “the Original People.”

▪The Cherokee never had princesses. This is a concept based on European folktales and has no reality in Cherokee history and culture. 

In fact, Cherokee women were very powerful. They owned all the houses and fields, and they could marry and divorce as they pleased. Kinship was determined through the mother’s line. 

Clan mothers administered justice in many matters. Beloved women were very special women chosen for their outstanding qualities. As in other aspects of Cherokee culture, there was a balance of power between men and women. Although they had different roles, they both were valued. 

▪The Cherokee never lived in tipis. Only the nomadic Plains tribes did. 

The Cherokee were southeastern woodland natives, and in the winter they lived in houses made of woven saplings, plastered with mud and roofed with poplar bark. In the summer they lived in open-air dwellings roofed with bark. 

▪The Cherokee have never worn feathered headdresses except to please tourists. 

These long headdresses were worn by Plains Natives and were made popular through Wild West shows and Hollywood movies. 

Cherokee men traditionally wore a feather or two tied at the crown of the head. In the early 18th century, Cherokee men wore cotton trade shirts, loincloths, leggings, front-seam moccasins, finger-woven or beaded belts, multiple pierced earrings around the rim of the ear, and a blanket over one shoulder. 

At that time, Cherokee women wore mantles of leather or feathers, skirts of leather or woven mulberry bark, front-seam moccasins, and earrings pierced through the earlobe only. 

By the end of the 18th century, Cherokee men were dressing much like their white neighbors. Men were wearing shirts, pants, and trade coats, with a distinctly Cherokee turban. 

Women were wearing calico skirts, blouses, and shawls. Today Cherokee people dress like other Americans, except for special occasions, when the men wear ribbon shirts with jeans and moccasins, and the women wear tear dresses with corn beads, woven belts, and moccasins.  

▪The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) are descended from Cherokee people who had taken land under the Treaty of 1819 and were allowed to remain in North Carolina; from those who hid in the woods and mountains until the U.S. Army left; and from those who turned around and walked back from Oklahoma. 

By 1850 they numbered almost a thousand. Today the Eastern Band includes about 11,000 members, while the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma claims more than 100,000 members, making the Cherokee the largest tribe in the United States. 

▪Cherokee arts and crafts are still practiced: basket-weaving, pottery, carving, finger-weaving, and beadwork. 

▪The Cherokee language is spoken as a first language by fewer than a thousand people and has declined rapidly because of the policies of federally operated schools. However, since the tribe has begun operation of their own schools, Cherokee language is being systematically taught in the schools.

▪Traditional Cherokee medicine, religion, and dance are practiced privately.

▪There have never been Cherokee shamans. Shamanism is a foreign concept to North America. The Cherokee have medicine men and women.

▪”aho” is not a Cherokee word and Cherokee speakers never use it. Most are actually offended by the misuse of this word. It’s not some kind of universal Native word used by all tribes, as many believe. Each individual tribe have their own languages. We can respect these languages by using them correctly or not at all.

▪In order to belong to one of the seven Cherokee clans, your mother had to have been/be Cherokee and her clan is passed on to you. If the maternal line has been broken by a non Cherokee or someone had all sons, you have no clan, which is the case with many today.

▪There is only one Cherokee tribe that consists of three bands. 

The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, United Keetoowah Band of Oklahoma and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of North Carolina. 

All others who claim a different band than one of the three above are not considered Cherokee and are a direct threat to Cherokee tribal sovereignty. 

In fact, to be Cherokee, one must be registered with the tribe, as Cherokee is a citizenship granted through documentation. One can have Native DNA but is not considered Cherokee until they are a registered tribal”

Comments from N. Bear 

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