“It was a spirit of survival and perseverance that carried the Cherokee to Indian Territory on the Trail of Tears. Today, it is the same spirit leading the Cherokee.”~The Cherokee Nation~Date Unknown-
The Cherokee people are believed to have settled into their ancestral homeland in the southeastern United States sometime before 1,500 years ago. Linguists classify the Cherokee language as Iroquoian, but it is a distant cousin of the Iroquoian languages, suggesting that the Cherokee people gradually split off from the northern Iroquois a long time ago.
They slowly developed an extensive system of villages covering much of present-day western North and South Carolina, north Georgia, and eastern Tennessee, with a population estimated at 22,500 by 1650.
Villages scattered across this region were typically a hard day’s walk apart. The economy of the Cherokee inhabitants was based on agriculture supplemented with hunting and gathering of natural foods. But the economy also involved creation of clothing, decoration, baskets, pottery, tools, and weapons, together with trade for these items, often over long distances. Houses evolved from early woven branches and mud to substantial log cabins with smoke holes and doors.
The first contact between the Cherokee and Europeans occurred in the 1540s when Hernando De Soto, the Spanish conqueror of Peru, led an army of exploration and conquest from Florida up through Cherokee territory and into the central United States, primarily searching for gold and other riches.
De Soto died of fever on the banks of the Mississippi River in 1542. Other Spanish expeditions entered the territory at long intervals over the next 100 years, and the fact that much of the Cherokee territory lay in the Appalachian Mountains tended to minimize the contact between the Cherokee and the Spanish.
During the 1600’s, contact and conflict grew between the Cherokee and the English settlers growing outward from the Virginia colonies. During this period the Cherokee and tribes acquired firearms, and also substantially fortified their towns.
This period was a tangled web of wars and alliances between Indian tribes including the Cherokee, Tuscarora, Creeks, Chickasaw, and Shawnee. There were also conflicts between the Indians, the British, the French, and the American colonists. Then the first smallpox epidemic, probably brought to Carolina by slave ships, broke out about 1738, and had a devastating effect on the Cherokee as well as other tribes because they had no natural immunity. During the American Revolutionary War of 1775–1783, the Cherokee and many of the other tribes sided with the British against the colonists.
Following the British defeat, some groups of Cherokee moved west of the Mississippi River to reside in Spanish territory, primarily in present-day Arkansas. This territory was ceded by Spain to France, and shortly thereafter, Napoleon sold it to the new United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. Immediately from that time, President Thomas Jefferson and the Congress put steadily increasing pressure on all of the eastern tribes to move west of the Mississippi river into the new territory.
Even during this difficult time, Cherokee culture continued to grow and flourish. Between 1809-1821, the deservedly famous Cherokee scholar *Sequoyah, after observing a book for the first time and referring to it as Talking Leaves invented a syllabic alphabet (a “syllabary”) for the spoken Cherokee language, and used that to establish a system of writing Cherokee. Within several years, it was in wide use in the Cherokee nation, and a newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, began publication using Sequoyah’s syllabary in 1828. This was the first American Indian newspaper published in the United States.
The pressure to move west increased, and only became worse when gold was discovered on Cherokee lands in North Georgia in 1828. The U.S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, but the U.S Supreme Court ruled that the Cherokee were a sovereign nation and removal could only be archived via negotiated treaties. Unfortunately, political divisions among the Cherokee led to the signing of just such a document by a small minority of Cherokee. Despite the fact that the Cherokee had fought with him in the Creek War (1813-14) and reputedly saved his life, then-President Andrew Jackson exploited this signing to use the U.S Army to force the removal of the Cherokee people from the east to new territories in Oklahoma. This episode has become known as the infamous Trail of Tears. More than 17,000 Cherokee were forced to move over 2,200 miles, and more than 4,000 died in the process.
The Indian Removal Act applied to Cherokees living on communally owned tribal land. Cherokees who lived on private land along with some others who had evaded the army, continued living in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, and their descendants today constitute the Eastern Band Cherokees. The Western Band Cherokees, located in Oklahoma, derive from those who made the march. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the western group was still plagued by conflicts with settlers for lands, and both bands suffered from misguided government policies, including the forced education of Indian children in government boarding schools away from home, and from attempts to discourage use of the Cherokee language.
Today, the majority of the Cherokee Nation reside in western Oklahoma. They have their own schools and an excellent educational system. The tribe also does well in business and economic development. They are the second largest tribe in the United States, with over 200,000 tribal members. They have the sovereign right to exercise control over all tribal assets.
Tribalpedia’s Questions for Comprehension and Discussion
1. What evidence was there that the Cherokee people originated from the Northern Iroquois?
2. What did the early Cherokee economy consist of?
3. Describe the first dwellings of the Cherokee.
4. Was finding the Cherokee people the primary reason for De Soto’s expedition?
5. After the death of De Soto, what factor contributed to the minimal contact between the Cherokee and the Spanish?
6. In 1828 what discovery led to the increased pressure on the eastern Cherokees to move?
Cherokee Culture Then
The Cherokee depended primarily on hunting and farming for their survival. They hunted mainly deer, and the people used every part of the animal. Nothing went to waste. Some of their farming produce included beans, melons squash, pumpkin and corn. The men also fished to supplement their food supply. They made bows and arrows, nets, spears, blowguns and farming instruments. The women were responsible for maintaining the home, and farming.
Like many of the aboriginal people the Cherokee wore clothing made from animal skins before the Europeans introduced cloth to the Cherokee. Even into the 1800’s the men wore leggings made of deer hide in order to protect their legs from thorns and underbrush. The men wore tops called hunting shirts with their leggings. Women wore tops, skirts and sometimes thick blankets in winter. Both men and women wore moccasins on their feet. The Cherokee made jewelry of shells, silver, and clay beads. They also made clay pots, baskets, masks and rattles, which were used in religious ceremonies.
They resided in villages with up to as many as 500 people in each. The homes in the winter were round in shape and made of wood covered with mud for insulation. Each house contained a hole in the top known as a smoke hole, the purpose of which was to allow smoke to escape from the fires within the homes. During the warmer weather, homes were cone shaped and made of bark. To keep out the heat and insects, they were covered with grass. They were fashioned to stay cool inside with plenty of light.
Traditionally the Cherokee were a matrilineal family organization, where the women had autonomy and authority in their homes. After marriage the man usually joined his wife’s household, and the offspring of the couple became members of their mother’s clan. Women also maintained their own property. Although Cherokee women might have participated somewhat in tribal affairs (some women even fought alongside the men in wars) they were not allowed to hold positions of power, such as those of chief or as council members. Neither were women allowed to become religious leaders.
The Cherokee political system in each village operated as follows. Each village had a red chief and a white chief. The function of the white chief was to rule during times of peace, while the red chief took over leadership during times of war. In this manner, the people were never without a leader in a time of crisis. Below the chiefs was the village council, whose function was to help make decisions for the tribe. The people as a whole believed in group cooperation as opposed to the needs of the individual.
For their religious functions, the Cherokee tribe had very special men known as Shaman or Medicine men, who were revered by the rest of the tribe. The medicine men served many important functions within the tribe. They presided over ceremonies including those centering around war, they took care of the sick, and created cures for many of the illnesses. Since the deer was the primary animal the Cherokee depended on for many of the necessities of life, one of the deities they worshiped was the Deer god. Like most aboriginal people, the Cherokee believed that everything (including inanimate objects) had a spirit. They especially believed in animal spirits.
Cherokee Culture Today
Today the Cherokee still hunt, but only during specified times of the year and some people still grow their own produce. Now, however they buy most of their food at supermarkets and grocery stores. During ceremonies, especially for religious ones, Cherokee people will wear their traditional regalia. Most people usually buy their daily clothes from department stores. Cherokees still practice the art of jewelry making, and the women are still known for their beautiful baskets, which they sell at festivals held on the reservation. Also, the people live in ordinary homes located on the reservation.
Within the family unit, men and women are considered equal to each other, although the matrilineal tradition is still observed. Women have jobs outside of their homes.
Politically, the Cherokee people made progress in 1987 when a Cherokee woman named Wilma Mankiller was the first female in modern history to win the position of Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Initially, there were people who opposed her candidacy because they objected to being led by a woman. During her campaign there were many people who openly spoke against her. She even received several death threats! Through hard work and dedication, Wilma eventually won the people over. Her programs provided improvement for the people in areas such as education, housing and employment. Through her leadership the tribe has gained autonomy within the Cherokee communities. Until her election, many females thought they could never attain the position of chief. Wilma Mankiller eventually retired due to illness. Today, women also work in the same fields as the men including industry, education, and business.
The religious practices of the tribe today vary, from clan to clan, and are too complex to write about in detail here. The Cherokee still have religious ceremonies in which the tribal members still dress in their regalia.
A Cherokee Myth:Possum Loses His Hair
Possum had a long bushy tail. He was very proud of it, combing it out every day. If anyone came over to his house, he would show off his tail right away. Coyote didn’t like this. Everyone laughed at Coyote’s tail. They said it was all scratchy and full of weeds and dirt.
One time the Animal People decided to have a council and a big dance. They told Coyote to spread the news. Coyote went by to see Possum. Possum said, “It must be where everyone can see my fine tail, I will dance with my tail if you give me a special place.”
“You come along then,” said Coyote. “We’ll have a special place for you. I will even send Cricket over to comb your tail out and dress it all up for the dance.” Possum was very pleased with this offer. Coyote went over to see Cricket and they had a talk. Cricket was the best haircutter anyone knew.
In the morning, Cricket went over to see Possum and told him he was there to fix up his tail for the dance. Possum stretched out and Cricket went to work. When he was all through combing and smoothing the hairs, he wrapped Possum’s tail in a bright red string.
Cricket said, “Possum, this string will keep all the hairs smooth until the dance. When you get to the council and it’s time to dance then you can take the string off.” When it was night Possum went to the lodge where the dance was to be and found that the best seat was ready for him. When it came his turn to dance, he loosened the string and stepped out into the middle of the floor.
The drummers began drumming and Possum began singing, “See my beautiful tail!” Everyone shouted and Possum danced around and around. “See how fine the fur is!” The people shouted more loudly than before and began laughing. “Look how it sweeps the ground!” All the people were laughing now and Possum was wondering what it meant.
He stopped dancing and looked around at the circle of animals. They were all laughing at him. Then he looked at his tail. There wasn’t any hair on it at all! His tail looked like Lizard’s tail. Cricket had cut off all the hairs at the root and now they were scattered all over the dance floor.
Possum was so astonished and ashamed that he didn’t say anything. He rolled over on his back and grinned at everyone. Possum still does this when he’s caught by surprise.
Eastern Band: Cherokee North Carolina
Western Band: Cherokee Oklahoma
Southern Band: Cherokee Georgia
Lee Sultzman Cherokee History Part 1
Cherokee Flag: Wikimedia Commons