Cherokees are the Native Americans of the southeast area belonging to Iroquoian language family group. Major portions of the south east area are controlled by Cherokees before the arrival of Europeans in Northern America. However, “The Cherokee called themselves “Ani-Yun-wiya” (First European Contact).
The Cherokee comprise perhaps the largest tribal group in the United States of America and prior to the advent of the Europeans in North America they were masters of a large region of the Southeast. In extent the territory controlled was so vast that it covered what are at present eight Southern states. In colonial America the importance of the role enacted by several Cherokee bands in their contribution to the history of the United States of America, cannot be underestimated. The extent of their prevalence, at one time, can be estimated from the fact that several Americans from different and diverse backgrounds assert that they are descendants of the Cherokee (Waldman, Carl).
Cherokee Indians have records of their history that go back a more than a thousand years in time and their main occupations were hunting, trading, and agriculture. They lived in towns in comparative isolation to the outside world. All this changed with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors led by Hernando de Sota in 1540. He passed through the Cherokee territory as a marauder looking for copper and gold. The Spanish were notorious for seeking women and slaves from amongst the native Indians (First European Contact).
The dwellings of the Cherokee Indians, who lived in small communities, were in general to be found in fertile river bottoms. Their houses were fashioned out of wooden frames, which were enclosed in wicker vines and saplings covered with mud. The villages that these people used to live in used to comprise of around fifty huts made of logs and mud.
These huts were constructed around the town square, called the Council House, which was the venue for ceremonial and public meetings that were held regularly. These council houses were seven-sided and this was in order to represent the Bird, Paint, Deer, Wolf, Blue, Long Hair, and Wild Potato or in other words the seven clans that comprise the Cherokees. The tribe was led by two chiefs, one during peace time and one during times of war. This rule of the chiefs was not total and the decision making process was such that members of the tribe were permitted to express their opinions.
The structure of the Cherokee Indians was matriarchic, with children taking the clan name of their mother. The relationship was based solely on the mother’s family. Women had an equal voice in the affairs of the tribe. Marriage was permitted only between members of different clans and property was inherited according to clan association.
The late 18th century was witness to the influx of a large number of European settlers. Initially, the Cherokee Indians tried to drive out these people and conducted several fierce battles with these Carolina settlers, but were forced to retreat to the Blue Ridge Mountains due to failure to defeat these settlers. In accordance with the adage, “if you can’t beat them join them”; the Cherokee Indians took to the customs, weapons and tools that had been introduced by these European settlers.
Subsequently, the Cherokee Indians felt a sudden desire to possess these wonderful things introduced by the Europeans and due to this drastic changes came into their lives. For instance, the Cherokee began to hunt animals not merely for food like before, but for their pelts which they traded with the settlers for weapons and tools. The increasing white population engendered escalating conflicts.
The Indians were severely reduced in numbers due to these wars and the diseases that the settlers were afflicted with. After this the Cherokee Indians were compelled to surrender the major portion of their land holdings to these settlers. The European settlers in 1818, established themselves in Cades Cove Tn, which was part of Cherokee Nation, who had termed it as Tsiyaha or “place of the river otter.” The Cherokee Indians used to hunt river otters, elk and bison in this place.
The Cherokee tribe and the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole were known as the Five Civilized Tribes, because they could adapt to Western institutions. In the year 1820 the Cherokee established a system of governance similar to that of the U.S. It now had a democratic government in which there was a Chief assisted by a Vice-Chief and 32 Council Members. All of these people were elected representatives of the members of the tribe. Further, the Cherokee put in place a constitution and a code of law in respect of this nation. Its economy, akin to that of the southeastern tribes, was mainly agrarian and its mainstays were corn, beans, and squash. They took a leaf from the European system of the settlers and incorporated their methods of animal husbandry, farming and plantations for growing cash crops. They also resorted to hunting deer, bear and elk in order to trade them with the settlers.
The year 1808 was witness to Sequoyah, a Cherokee silversmith’s, invention of a system of writing. The perseverance and intelligence of the Cherokee Indians can be estimated from the fact that by the end of two years this language could be read and written by almost all of the Cherokees. After this the Cherokee Council improved upon this great achievement by resolving to establish a newspaper. To further this endeavour they ordered a printing press, created the necessary type cast for the Cherokee syllabary and in this exemplary manner instituted the first Indian newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix.
However, this prosperity of the Cherokee Indians was short lived. Gold was discovered on Cherokee lands in 1828 and the American president Andrew Jackson ordered that these hapless Indians should be relocated. The 1830 Removal Act was specifically enacted in order to move all native peoples east of the Mississippi River to Oklahoma. Accordingly, the unfortunate Cherokees were made to trek westward in 1838. There were 14,000 Indians in this terrible and inhuman incident, which began in October of 1838 and of these nearly 4,000 died from cold, hunger and disease during the arduous and ruthless six-month journey. This came to be known as the “Trail of Tears” and speaks volumes for the greed of the people in power.
The number displaced by this act, very much reminiscent of the Balkanization by the Nazis in the 1900s, was around 100,000 natives, including Cherokee, Chickasaw, Seminole and Choctaw. Some of the Cherokees concealed themselves in the wastelands in order to escape this forced march. They took refuge in the wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountains. These Cherokees who are termed as the Eastern Band were given some of their lands in western North Carolina in the 1870’s and in 1889, this land was converted into an Indian reservation known as the Qualla Indian Reservation. It is home to almost 11,000 Cherokee Indians. After the American Civil War the black slaves of tribal members were freed. The General Allotment Act of 1887, which was vehemently opposed by the Cherokee, made available plots of tribal land to individual members.
This was the beginning of the downfall of these people as a separate nations, because subsequently, the government of the Cherokee Nation was disbanded and subsequent to Oklahoma achieving statehood in 1907, the Cherokee were made U.S. citizens. Wherever, the federal government decided that Indian land was surplus it was given to mainly white settlers. Consequently, in 1891 the Cherokee Strip or Cherokee Outlet, was appropriated by the U.S and made available to predominantly white settlers (Cherokee).
Oklahoma was witness to the severe decline in the culture and traditions of the Cherokee and these so called old ways, including traditional crafts find preservation only in the Eastern Band, a few of whose members reside in the Qualla Reservation. In Oklahoma the Cherokee live not only on the reservation but also in urban centers and rural areas. These Indians make a living from fishing, industrial labor and business management to name a few of such activities. In the state of North Carolina, they participate in farming, forestry, factory work and tourism in order to make a living.
At present, approximately, fourteen thousand people speak the Cherokee. As per the U.S census of 1990 there were 308,132 Cherokees. Moreover, in the 2000 census, 281,069 Cherokees were identified as direct descendants and another 729,533 contended that they had Cherokee blood in them. The members of this Indian tribe are so numerous that the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma has been recognized as the largest in the U.S. The Navajo tribe has been considered to be smaller than it. The United Band of Keetowahs is a group of Oklahoma Cherokee who united in the 1930s, they were granted recognition by the federal government in 1946. The Cherokee, whether they live on reservations, in urban areas or rural areas have entered the mainstream of the American life and are to be found in all strata of American society. They have also shared in the American dream and can stake a claim to having contributed to the growth of this great nation like any other community or grouping (CHEROKEE).
Cherokee Indians, “Cherokee Indians Smoky Mountains”. Smoky Mountain Mall. 05 Oct. 2006 ;http://www.smokymtnmall.com/mall/cindians.html;.
CHEROKEE, The History Channel web site, 05.Oct 2006
Cherokee, 05.Oct 2006, http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761577754/Cherokee.html
First European Contact, http://cherokeehistory.com/firstcon.html
Waldman, Carl, “Cherokee”. 2005, Microsoft Encarta Premium 2006.