Cherokee is an Iroquoian language. The lower towns spoke the Elati dialect; the middle towns spoke the Kituhwa dialect; the upper (overhill and valley) towns spoke the Atali dialect. The dialects were mutually intelligible with difficulty.
The tribe's chief deity was the sun, which may have had a feminine identity. The people conceived of the cosmos as being divided into three parts: an upper world, this world, and a lower world. Each contained numerous spiritual beings that resided in specific places. The four cardinal directions were replete with social significance. Tribal mythology, symbols, and beliefs were complex, and there were also various associated taboos, customs, and social and personal rules.
Many ceremonies revolved around subsistence activities as well as healing. The primary one was the annual Green Corn ceremony (Busk), observed when the last corn crop ripened. Medicine people (men and women) could, by magical means, influence events and the lives and fortunes of people. Witches, when discovered, were summarily killed. Learning sorcery took a lifetime. Medicine powers could be used for good or evil, and the associated beads, crystals, and formulas were a regular part of many people's lives.
The various Cherokee villages formed a loose confederacy. There were two chiefs per village: a red, or war, chief, and a white chief (Most Beloved Man or Woman), who was associated with civil, economic, religious, and juridical functions. Chiefs could be male or female, and there was little or no hereditary component. There was also a village council, in which women sat, although usually only as observers. The Cherokee were not a cohesive political entity until the late 18th century at the earliest.
There were seven matrilineal clans in the early historic period. The Cherokee regularly engaged in ceremonial purification, and they paid careful attention to their dreams. Both men and women, married and single, enjoyed a high degree of sexual freedom. Divorce was possible; men who were thrown out returned to their mothers. Children were treated gently, and they behaved with decorum. In general, the Cherokee, valuing harmony as well as generosity, tried to avoid conflict.
Intraclan, but not interclan, murder was a capital offense. Names were changed or added to frequently. As with chiefs, towns may also have been considered red and white. Women owned the houses and their contents; this custom, along with matrilineal descent and the clan system, weakened with increasing exposure to non-Native society. People did not address each other directly. In place of public sanctions, Cherokee used ostracism and public scorn to enforce social norms.
Towns were located along rivers and streams. They contained a central ceremonial place and in the early historic period were often surrounded by palisades. People built rectangular summer houses of pole frames and wattle, walls of cane matting and clay plaster, and gabled bark or thatch roofs. The houses, about 60 or 70 feet by 15 feet, were often divided into three parts: a kitchen, a dining area, and bedrooms. Some were two stories high, with the upper walls open for ventilation. There was probably one door. Beds were made of rush mats over wood splints, and animal skins served as bedding.
Cherokee were primarily farmers. Women grew corn (three kinds), beans, squash, sunflowers, and tobacco, the latter used ceremonially. Wild foods included roots, crab apples, persimmons, plums, cherries, grapes, hickory nuts, walnuts, chestnuts, and berries. Men hunted various animals, including deer, bear, raccoon, rabbit, squirrel, turkey, and rattlesnake. They fished occasionally, and they collected maple sap in earthen pots and boiled it into syrup. Hunting gear included the bow and arrow, stone hatchet, and flint knife. Smaller animals and birds were shot with darts blown out of hollow nine- to ten-foot-long cane stems; these blowguns were accurate up to sixty feet.
Cherokee pipes were widely admired and easily exported. The people also traded maple sugar and syrup. They imported shell wampum that was used as money. Their plaited cane baskets, pottery, and masks carved of wood and gourds were especially fine.
Men built 30- to 40-foot-long canoes of fire-hollowed pine or poplar logs. Each canoe could hold between 15 and 20 people. Women made most clothing of buckskin and other skins and furs as well as of mulberry-bark fibers. Men wore breechclouts; women wore skirts. In the winter, both wore bear or buffalo robes. Men also wore shirts and leggings, and women wore capes. Both sexes wore moccasins as well as nose ornaments, bracelets, and body paint.
Each village had a red (war) chief as well as a War Woman, who accompanied war parties. She fed the men, gave advice, and determined the fate of prisoners. Women also distinguished themselves in combat and often tortured prisoners of war. The people often painted themselves, as well as their canoes and paddles, for war. The party carried an ark or medicine chest to war, and it left a war club engraved with its exploits in enemy territory.
The Cherokee probably originated in the upper Ohio Valley, the Great Lakes region, or someplace else in the north. They may also have been related to the Mound Builders. The town of Echota, on the Little Tennessee River, may have been the ancient capital of the Cherokee Nation.
They encountered Hernando de Soto about 1540, probably not long after they arrived in their historic homeland. Spanish attacks against the Indians commenced shortly thereafter, although new diseases probably weakened the people even before Spanish soldiers began killing them. There were also contacts with the French and especially the British in the early 17th century. Traders brought guns around 1700, along with debilitating alcohol.
The Cherokee fought a series of wars with Tuscarora, Shawnee, Catawba, Creek, and Chickasaw Indians early in the 18th century. In 1760 the Cherokee, led by Chief Oconostota, fought the British as a protest against unfair trade practices and violence practiced against them as a group. Cherokee raided settlements and captured a British fort but were defeated after two years of fighting by the British scorched-earth policy. The peace treaty cost the Cherokee much of their eastern land, and, in fact, they never fully recovered their prominence after that time.
Significant depopulation resulted from several mid-18th century epidemics. Cherokee support for Britain during the American Revolution encouraged attacks by North Carolina militia. Finally, some Cherokee who lived near Chattanooga relocated in 1794 to Arkansas and Texas and in 1831 to Indian Territory (Oklahoma). These people eventually became known as the western Cherokee.
After the American Revolution, Cherokee adopted British-style farming, cattle ranching, business, and government, becoming relatively cohesive and prosperous. They also owned slaves. They sided with the United States in the 1813 Creek War, during which a Cherokee saved Andrew Jackson's life. The tribe enjoyed a cultural renaissance between about 1800 and 1830, although they were under constant pressure for land cession and riven by internal political factionalism.
The Cherokee Nation was founded in 1827 with "Western" democratic institutions and a written constitution (which specifically disenfranchised African Americans and women). By then, Cherokee were intermarrying regularly with non-Natives and were receiving increased missionary activity, especially in education. Sequoyah (also known as George Gist) is credited with devising a Cherokee syllabary in 1821 and thus providing his people with a written language. During the late 1820s, the people began publishing a newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix.
The discovery of gold in their territory led in part to the Indian Removal Act (1830), requiring the Cherokee (among other tribes) to relocate west of the Mississippi River. When a small minority of Cherokee signed the Treaty of New Echota (1835), ceding the tribe's last remaining eastern lands, local non-Natives immediately began appropriating the Indians' land and plundering their homes and possessions. The Native Americans were forced into internment camps, where many died, although over 1,000 escaped to the mountains of North Carolina, where they became the progenitors of what came to be called the eastern band of Cherokees.
The removal, known as the Trail of Tears, began in 1838. Native Americans were forced to walk 1,000 miles through severe weather without adequate food and clothing. About 4,000 Cherokee, almost a quarter of the total, died during the removal, and more died once the people reached the Indian Territory, where they joined—and largely absorbed—the group already there. Following their arrival in Indian Territory, the Cherokee quickly adopted another constitution and reestablished their institutions and facilities, including newspapers and schools. Under Chief John Ross, most Cherokee supported slavery and also supported the Confederate cause in the Civil War.
The huge "permanent" Indian Territory was often reduced in size. When the northern region was removed to create the states of Kansas and Nebraska, Natives living there were again forcibly resettled. One result of the Dawes Act (late 1880s) was the "sale" (the virtual appropriation) of roughly 2 million acres of Indian land in Oklahoma. Oklahoma became a territory in 1890 and a state in 1907. Although the Cherokee and other tribes resisted allotment, Congress forced them to acquiesce in 1898. Their land was individually allotted in 1902, at about the same time their Native governments were officially "terminated."
Ten years after the Cherokee removal, the U.S. Congress ceased efforts to round up the eastern Cherokee. They received North Carolina state citizenship in 1866 and incorporated as the eastern band of Cherokee Indians in 1889. In the early 20th century, many eastern Cherokee were engaged in subsistence farming and in the local timber industry. Having resisted allotment, the tribe took steps to ensure that it would always own its land. Although the Cherokee suffered greatly during the Depression, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park (1930s) served as the center of a growing tourist industry.
In the 1930s, the United Keetoowah Band (UKB), a group of full-bloods opposed to assimilation, formally separated from the Oklahoma Cherokee. (The name "Keetoowah" derives from an ancient town in western North Carolina.) The group originated in the antiallotment battles at the end of the 19th century. In the early 20th century the UKB reconstructed several traditional political structures, such as the seven clans and white towns, as well as some ancient cultural practices that did not survive the move west. They received federal recognition in 1946.
Barry M. Pritzker
Debo, Angie. A History of the Indians of the United States. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970; Iverson, Peter. "We Are Still Here": American Indians in the Twentieth Century. Arlington Heights, IL: Davidson, 1998; Power, Susan C. Early Art of the Southeastern Indians: Feathered Serpents and Winged Beings. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004; Rawls, James. Chief Red Fox is Dead: A History of Native Americans in the Twentieth Century. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishing, 1996; Conley, Robert J. The Cherokee Nation: A History. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.