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The Cherokees are an indigenous nation that traditionally lived without a centralized government or private property, in southern Appalachia, in what is now “South Carolina,” “North Carolina,” “Tennessee,” “Georgia,” and “Alabama.” Hunting grounds extended into “Kentucky”. People have farmed in this region since around 3,000 BCE, but Mississippian culture reached the Cherokees' ancestors around 1,000 CE.[1] Until the eighteenth century, the Cherokees had no centralized government.[2]

In the 1830s, the “United States” forcibly relocated the vast majority of Cherokees into “Oklahoma”. Today, the “United States” recognizes three Cherokee tribes: the Cherokee Nation and United Keetoowah Band in “Oklahoma” and the Eastern Band of Cherokees in “North Carolina.”[3]


In the beginning, Cherokee tradition says, there was was no land, only water and sky. Animals lived above the sky. The water beetle ventured into the water and found soft mud. He brought the mud to the surface of the water, and the mud grew as it began to dry. Eventually, the mud formed land, and the animals decided to make their homes there. They sent the buzzard to check if the mud was dry. The buzzard flew over the drying earth, and as he got tired his wings struck the ground, forming Appalachia's mountains and valleys.[4] The Cherokees had a gendered division of labor, with women doing most of the farming and gathering and men doing the hunting.[5] Cherokees speak dialects of an Iroquoian language.[6]


Until the nineteenth century, the Cherokees had no centralized government.[7] At that point, the nation adopted a centralized government “in order to prevent young warriors from raiding the [settler] frontier and provoking retribution on innocent Cherokees. In the late 1790s, the council began to take on responsibilities for internal order that once had rested with clans.”[8]

Traditionally, Cherokee men were in charge of diplomacy, signing treaties, and declaring war. Cherokee women found ways to influence the process, however. Colin Calloway writes, “Indian women did not normally sign treaties, but they sometimes signed and presented petitions while treaties were in process, and they occasionally challenged—and even threatened—male speakers.”[9] In 1817, Cherokee women presented a petition to the male chiefs, advocating that they hold onto Cherokee land and resist forced removal. “Your mothers, your sisters ask and beg of you not to part with any more of our land,” the petition implored.[10]


Cherokees traditionally held all land in common. Individuals could clear land as long as they did not infringe on land their neighbors were using.[11] Food came from a combination of farming, gathering and hunting, with women doing most of the farming and gathering and men doing the hunting. Crops included corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers.[12]Contact with English settlers led to some changes in the economy. For instance, some Cherokees began to capture, sell, and use African-American slaves.[13]


Cherokees tradition attributes spiritual power to plants, animals, and the land and water itself. The Cherokees “emphasized the importance of respect for other living things, not domination over them.”[14] Killing any animal except bears (who they believed had lost a war against the humans) required ceremonies, and Cherokees used virtually all parts of the animals.[15] They altered their environment considerably yet respectfully, clearing forests to build villages and grow crops, and burning underbrush to create foraging habitat for deer and to allow hunters to see better.[16]


Historically at an annual Cherokee ceremony, all crimes except murder were forgiven. “No one left the ceremony with grudges or animosity toward another,” writes Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation.[17]

The Cherokee nation created a police force around the 1790s, as they established a centralized government for the first time, in response to pressures from English settlers.[18]


In 1760, the Cherokees “began their own guerrilla war against their ‘allies’ the English, in Virginia and Carolina. Led by Oconostota, the Cherokee fought for two years, eventually agreeing to a peace treaty which saw partitions of their land ceded after the English colonial forces had razed Cherokee villages and crops.”[19]

In the 1830s, the Cherokees resisted forced removal nonviolently, under the leadership of John Ross, the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. Ross's strategy involved a public relations campaign, lobbying the federal government, and fighting removal in the courts.[20] In the Worcester v. Georgia decision, the “U.S.” Supreme Court ruled that the Cherokees and other tribes retained all sovereignty that was not officially surrendered by treaties or taken by Congress. The government ignored the decision, however, and proceeded with plans for removal. In 1835, some Cherokee leaders reluctantly signed the Treaty of New Echota, conceding to removal. Ross became the superintendent for removal.[21]

Neighboring Societies

The Cherokees' first interaction with Europeans occurred when members of Hernando de Soto's expedition arrived between 1539 and 1543. Epidemics in the 1760s reduced the Cherokee population from about 30,000 to about 7,000.[22] In 1760, during the Seven Years' War, English settlers invaded Cherokee lands and destroyed entire towns. Most Cherokees sided with the British in the American Revolution.[23] In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law, enabling the government to forcibly relocate Indians from the southeast into “Oklahoma”. During the Trail of Tears, the forced march beginning in 1838, approximately 4,000 Cherokees died, a quarter of the entire Cherokee population.[24]

A traveller from Maine described the death march:

[W]e found the road literally filled with the procession for about three miles in length. The sick and feeble were carried in wag- gons-about as comfortable for traveling as a New England ox cart with a covering over it-a great many ride on horseback and multitudes go on foot- even aged females, apparently nearly ready to drop into the grave, were traveling with heavy burdens attached to the back-on the sometimes frozen ground, and sometimes muddy streets, with no covering for the feet except what nature had given them...We learned from the inhabitants on the road where the Indians passed, that they buried fourteen or fifteen at every stopping place, and they make a journey of ten miles per day only on an average[25]

  1. Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green, The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears (New York: Penguin Books, 2007), xiii, 8-9.
  2. Perdue and Green, Cherokee Nation, 10.
  3. Perdue and Green, xiii.
  4. Perdue and Green, Cherokee Nation, 1.
  5. Perdue and Green, Cherokee Nation, 9, 35.
  6. Perdue and Green, Cherokee Nation, 1.
  7. Perdue and Green, Cherokee Nation, 10.
  8. Perdue and Green, Cherokee Nation, 36.
  9. Colin G. Calloway, First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History, 4th edition, (Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2012), 304.
  10. Calloway, First Peoples, 306.
  11. Perdue and Green,. Cherokee Nation, 9.
  12. Perdue and Green, Cherokee Nation, 6-9, 35.
  13. Perdue and Green, Cherokee Nation, 13.
  14. Perdue and Green, Cherokee Nation, 4.
  15. Perdue and Green, Cherokee Nation, 7.
  16. Perdue and Green, Cherokee Nation, 8.
  17. Wilma Mankiller, every day is a good day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women (Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 2004), 14-15.
  18. Perdue and Green, Cherokee Nation, 36.
  19. Gord Hill, Five Hundred Years of Indigenous Resistance,
  20. Perdue and Green, Cherokee Nation, 74-77.
  21. Perdue and Green, Cherokee Nation, 88-98, 112, 130.
  22. Perdue and Green, Cherokee Nation, 11.
  23. Perdue and Green, Cherokee Nation, 16-19.
  24. Perdue and Green, Cherokee Nation, 64, 139.
  25. David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 124.