Native American Tribes Nations and Confederacies: Cherokee

The Cherokee were the largest Native American group in the United States. Formerly the largest and most important tribe in the Southeast, they occupied mountain areas of North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. The Cherokee language belongs to the Iroquoian branch of the Hokan-Siouan linguistic stock.

By the 16th century the Cherokee had a settled, advanced culture based on agriculture, but being an aggressive tribe, they were frequently at war with the Iroquois tribes of New York however proved generally valuable allies for the British against the French. Soon after 1750, smallpox destroyed almost half the tribe.

Formerly friendly with Carolina settlers, they were provoked into war with the colonists in 1760, and two years followed before the Cherokee sued for peace. In 1820 they adopted a republican form of government, and in 1827 they established themselves as the Cherokee Nation, with their capital at New Echota, in North Georgia, under a constitution providing for an elective principal chief, a senate, and a house of representatives.

Literacy was aided by the invention of a Cherokee syllabic alphabet by Sequoyah. Its 85 characters, representing the syllables of the Cherokee language, permitted the keeping of tribal records and, later, the publication of newspapers. The 1830s discovery of gold in Cherokee territory resulted in pressure by settlers to obtain their lands.

A treaty was extracted from a small part of the tribe, binding the whole people to move beyond the Mississippi River within three years. Although the Cherokee overwhelmingly repudiated this document and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the nation's autonomy, the state of Georgia secured an order for their removal, accomplished by military force.

President Andrew Jackson refused to intervene, and in 1838 the tribe was deported to the Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. Thousands died on the march, known as the "Trail of Tears," or from subsequent hardships. Their leader at this time and until 1866 was Chief John Ross.

The Cherokee made their new capital at Tahlequah, instituted a public school system, published newspapers, and were the most important of the Five Civilized Tribes. In the American Civil War their allegiance was divided between North and South, with large contingents serving on each side. By a new treaty at the close of the war they freed their black slaves and admitted them to tribal citizenship. In 1891 they sold their western territorial extension, known as the Cherokee Strip, in 1902 they approved the division of the reservation into allotments; and in 1906 tribal sovereignty was abolished.

Tribal entities still exist, however, and many Oklahoma Cherokee live on tribal landholdings. With a population of about 370,000, the Cherokee, while scattered, are by far the largest Native American group in the United States. Close to 6,000, descendants of the few who successfully resisted removal or returned after the removal, live on the Eastern Cherokee reservation in North Carolina.

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