The Cherokee Nation – the Origins and Beginnings

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Native Americans, the forefathers of our nation. The ones who inhabited this beautiful land we call our home long before the European settlers came and officially put it on the map. Most importantly the ones who showed us a new way of life and the meaning of being abundant, caring, and spiritual. This is why I chose to do this paper on one of the most important tribes in our country. The Cherokee Nation is one of the most refined and respected tribes in our country, they are the ones who aided the British during the French and Indian War, the ones that aided America in the War of 1812, the ones who fought bravely to try and do their best to repel the oppression the American government during the Indian Wars of the 1800s. The Cherokee are by far one of the great if not the greatest nation that inhabits the U.S. today, and this is why I share with you the subject of the “Tsalagi” which means Cherokee in their language.

The origins and beginnings of the Cherokee are shrouded in mystery. We know that they came to the continent the same way the other tribes and red skinned people did, from the far north as they are pictured in many books and paintings fighting freezing rains and winds to arrive in their southern homeland. We know that their language is Iroquoian and that they shared many traditions with their northern cousins such as the Sioux, Pawnee and Cheyenne. The Cherokee were established in the 20th century and eventually settled in Oklahoma where they are headquartered and inhabit most of the state population to this day.

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The current population of the Cherokee Nation is approximately 260,000 tribal citizens worldwide with approximately 120,000 living within the boundaries of the tribe, making them the largest Native American tribe in the state of Oklahoma and the second largest in the United States. There is another branch of the Cherokee known as the Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma with an eastern chapter, headquartered in North Carolina. Though most members in the United Sates are enrolled as members of the Cherokee Nation and have stayed true to their Oklahoma roots. Before their recognition in the 20th century, the Cherokee were like any other native tribe, people fighting for their homes and lives. Since the colonization of the U.S. the Cherokee as well as many other Indian nations were victims of war, massacres, rape, and capital punishment, as the incoming settlers were moving in and chasing them out. The most infamous atrocity of them all was what was known as the Trail of Tears. 

In 1830 President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which gave the power to the federal government to exchange native land east of the Mississippi to land in the west, which was called the “Indian Colonization Zone” which was acquired by the United States during the Louisiana Purchase. This land is located today in Oklahoma, where the tribe currently resides today. The new act ordered the government to negotiate the removal treaties fairly, voluntarily and peacefully. It did not permit the president or anyone else to take the land from the Cherokee or other Native nations by force. However, President Jackson and his government ignored that aspect of the law and forced the Native Americans to vacate the lands they had lived on for generations. Many nations other than the Cherokee, particularly the Choctaw and the Creeks suffered the same fate in the Trail.

One Choctaw leader even told an Alabama newspaper that it was the “trail of tears and death.” 15,000 Creeks set out to the journey to Oklahoma. Out of those 15,000, 3,500 did not make the journey. Because of the new government policy the Cherokee were divided, some wanted to stay and fight while others were willing to leave in exchange for money and other trinkets. In 1835, the Treaty of New Echota was negotiated. It was struck between the federal government and a few self-appointed representatives of the Cherokee nation. The treaty consisted of the trade of all Cherokee land east of the Mississippi for $5 million, relocation assistance and compensation for lost property. To the federal government, this was the chance and the gold mine they have been waiting for, but to many Cherokee this was a betrayal. A Judas kiss, and they had the right to for the negotiators did not represent the tribal government nor the interest of the Cherokee people. 

At the time, principal chief of the Cherokee, John Ross wrote in a letter to the U.S. Senate showing his anger and disapproval of the treaty. He stated in the letter that this was not in the best interest of his people and they refuse to be creatures of the federal government. He started a petition to have the treaty revoked in which nearly 16,000 Cherokee members signed, but congress approved the treaty anyways and so they were forced to move again. Civil War eventually broke out between the Cherokee, between those who supported the treaty and those who supported Ross and resisted voluntary removal. The war resulted in the death of many treaty leaders, but in 1846 peace came to the Cherokee Nation as both factions signed a treaty supervised by the US government.

War followed once more as now the Cherokee were sucked into the American Civil War. the time period between the Cherokee Civil War and the American Civil War was known as “the Golden Age of the Cherokees.” Economic, cultural, and social institutions arose within the nation as they were headed towards a more enlightened time. They even had their own tribal newspaper which was called the Cherokee Advocate, they also published books and pamphlets. They established schools. Everything seemed to be going their way, but this prosperity ended during the American Civil War and Reconstruction periods. 

During the war, the tribe was divided again as many Cherokee were slave owners and sympathetic to the Confederate cause. Many tribesman tried to remain neutral during the war, but the geography and politics nearly made it impossible for neutrality to happen. The party that supported the Treaty of New Echota sided with the South and their leader Stand Watie became a general for the rebels. Cherokee also fled with Ross to support and fight for the Union. Due to this, the Cherokee Nation became an exhibition of guerrilla warfare, massive destruction, burnt-over land, and starvation. Many of the children were left homeless as 7,000 of the men that went to fight in the war died. More and more hardships came after the war. The Indian Wars worsened as Union expansion west was a must after the war. Railroads, bandits, outlaws etc… plagued the territories of the Cherokee and drove more into migration, infighting, massacres, starvation and ongoing wars with the US Army and other tribes. Eventually tensions calmed down by the early 1900s everything was headed in an easier path. As of 1907 the Cherokee Nation has extended their service and loyalty to this country. Many Cherokee have served as businessmen, politicians, activists, philantrophists, and entertainers. They are currently the largest Native American tribe in the state of Oklahoma and the second largest in the United States. Today the Cherokee are recognized as one of the most refined nation and people culturally, spiritually, and politically.

The government of the Cherokee Nation is recognized by the federal government as a Tribal Government or Council, thereby having sovereign status granted by treaty and law. The seat of tribal council is the W.W. Keeler Complex near Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the capital and headquarters of the Cherokee Nation. They even have their own constitution which was established on September 5, 1975, and was ratified by the Cherokee people on June 26, 1976. The Cherokee people wanted a new constitution in 1999 and in 2003 a vote passed to accept it. The new constitution was enacted in 2006. The new constitution calls for them to have their own three branches of government. They have a Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branch just like the one we have in Washington. In the executive branch, power is vested in the Principle Chief of the tribe. The Chief is responsible for carrying out the laws of the Cherokee Nation, establishing tribal policy and delegating of authority as necessary for the day-to-day operations of all programs and enterprises that are part of the tribal government. They also have a deputy principal chief and he answers only to the principle chief. Both offices are elected to four-year terms by popular vote of registered Cherokee voters. 

The legislative branch consists of a 17-member Tribal Council elected by popular vote to represent 15 Cherokee Nation districts, plus two members elected to represent those citizens who live outside Cherokee Nation jurisdiction. The Tribal Council initiates legislation that will further the interests of the Cherokee Nation and its citizens. An elected speaker presides over the council as its president and each member serves a term limit of four years. In the judicial branch, they have their own Supreme Court, their own District Court, and a Wellness Court. Their Supreme Court is the highest court in the nation and its members are appointed by the principal chief and confirmed by the Tribal Council. The duty of the Supreme Court is to hear and resolve any disputes arising under the provisions of the Cherokee Nation’s Constitution or enactments of the Tribal Council. the District Courts hear all cases brought before it under jurisdiction of the Cherokee Nation judicial code. A district judge and an associate judge preside over court proceedings. The form of government that the Cherokee have is extremely similar to that of the US government, the only difference being that there is no ‘Electoral College’ therefore everything is being decided by a popular vote.

The culture and citizenry of the Cherokee Nation is that of a picky one. In order to be a citizen of the Cherokee nation it is required for you to have at least one direct ancestor listed on the Dawes Final Rolls. That is a federal census of those living in the Cherokee Nation that was used to distribute land to individual citizens in preparation for Oklahoma statehood in 1907. You must submit documents proving that you are a direct decendent of one the Cherokee listed in the roll. Religiously, the Cherokee tend to be more interesting. Christianity is now the most common and basic religion to the tribe, but they also have their own faith that dates back centuries. Similar to many religions, the Cherokee believe in a spirit world above and below Earth. But unlike other cultures they believed the world below was a place where the most powerful and dangerous spirits endure. Above them was what they called the sky vault, a place for the dead to dance and be cheerful.

The concept of the Cherokee religion is elemental and has some relation to nature. They worship Father Sky who is equivalent to God in Christianity, they worship Mother Earth, but most of these worships happen on the reservation or in private homes. Numbers play a pivotal role within the practice of the Cherokees’ faith. The numbers four and seven repeat in many of the myths told by the tribe. Four means the four cardinal directions of east, south, north and west and seven often represents the seven clans of the Cherokee. They also believe in certain animals and trees and those are sacred. Examples of animals are the owl and the cougar. The trees that the Cherokee hold sacred are the cedar, pine, spruce, laurel and holly. Many are used in medicine and other ceremonies. 

Rivers also play a pivotal point in their religion for they believe rivers offer purification. What gives the Cherokee such a unique national identity is that just like all the other Native American nations, is that they have tribal sovereignty. They are a federally recognized government of the Cherokee people and has sovereign status recognized by treaty and law. They exist as a domestic dependent nation within the boundaries of the U.S., so you can basically refer to them as wards of the US. They manage and operate their own affairs, but they are not truly sovereign or independent.

There are positives and negatives to this oversight. Some of the positives are that the Cherokee are given back the land that they had before the arrival of the colonists and this allows them to manage and control their own issues and to operate without incursions into their legal and business affairs by the United Sates. Also some taxes are not paid, mostly on some sources of income that derive from government benefits. Like their casinos. The negatives to this are that due to centuries of conflict with the US government, many Native American tribes no longer have rights to the natural resources in their original homelands. Most Indian reservations don’t even have running water. The Cherokee have fought tooth and nail to be recognized as a nation, and due to many actions of activists, many legislators have agreed that the Cherokee and other Native Americans, deserve the recognition.

If you were to ask me on how the future for this nation is looking? The chances are pretty decent. Under the leadership of Principle Chief Chad Smith, the Cherokee have had an amazing amount of change and expansion in economic growth and prosperity. They have great business, real estate, corporate, and agricultural interests. This of course includes the casinos which their popular venues. The Cherokee Nation also controls the Cherokee Nation Enterprises which is a large defense contractor that provides thousands of employment opportunities each year for Cherokee citizens in Eastern Oklahoma. They also have established health clinics and universities for Cherokee citizens. But of course with all this comes repercussions, 22 percent of Cherokees live below the poverty line, with a family income of roughly $25,000 according to a 1989 census. That is $10,000 less than the national average. However, they are still a positive economic force under current Principal Chief Bill John Baker, as the Cherokee keep booming the states economy with the new Cherokee Nation Businesses.

The Cherokee Nation is one of pride, duty, honor, and heritage. They are a peace that have contributed to the patchwork quilt that is America. Without them, or any other Native American tribe, would there be an America? The Native American nations have been and are a people of great strength, spirituality, and resourcefulness.

Unfortunately, it is now that we as “Americans” are beginning to understand and appreciate the proud and dignified heritage of not just the Cherokee, but every other nation. This is why when people like Senator Elizabeth Warren claim and ride on the coat tails of a great civilization that is composed of every tribe of every nation, it is not only a travesty but an injustice to what they stand for. From the Iroquois great law of peace which influenced the writing of our constitution, to the Cheyenne concept of peaceful resistance, the Cherokee as well as other nations have built a heritage that still inspires new generations of Native Americans. They will always be a vital part of the American adventure.

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The Cherokee Nation - the Origins and Beginnings. (2021, May 10). Retrieved from