The Cherokee People essay

The Cherokee people are the largest Native American group in the United States, whose importance in the Southeast mountainous regions of the area was once unparalleled. At the time of contact, with the English, the Cherokee spoke an Iroquoian language and were recognized as the most literate of Native American tribes, hence their designation as one of the Five Civilized Tribes. (Columbia Encyclopedia, 2007) The first contact between English settlers and the Cherokee people was in 1654.

However, written records regarding such encounters were limited even as far as the late seventeenth century, despite the numerous traders from Virginia and South Carolina who were plying their wares between Cherokee lands. As such, information regarding this period is limited largely to legal matters that involved said traders, who sought to obtain deerskins crucial to the growth of the then booming leather industries in Europe. At the start of the 18th century, traders began to suffer when Governor Moore of South Carolina instigated a slave trade of Indians.

Having commissioned a directive to “set upon, assault, kill, destroy and take captive as many Indians as possible,” the traders quickly found themselves without a people to trade with. (Mooney, 1996) Regardless, the Cherokee people were not impacted significantly by the European colonizing presence until after the Tuscarora War which, despite the nonexistent involvement of the Cherokee, changed the geopolitics of colonial America. The War was the result of the failure of North Carolinian colonies to address the various grievances put upon the Tuscarora people.

Gallay (2003) notes that having faced the political implications of the English colonial presence, the networks between the Native Americans became more developed, and as a result, the Cherokee became much more involved in the geopolitical landscape of colonial America, integrating themselves with various Indians and Europeans in the Southeast. Between various conflicts of both violent and diplomatic nature, the Cherokee emerged as a major power in the region.

In the early half of the eighteenth century, the Cherokee Nation was formed when Chief Moytoy II of Tellico united the various city-states of the Cherokee people, with the aid of Six Alexander Cuming. Moytoy swore to recognize the British King George II as an ally and protector of the Cherokee, formalized through the Treaty of Whitehall. However, this was a largely nominal union, as political authority was still localized in the towns for decades after. (Finger, 2001) Following the rapid expansion of the white population within the area, the Cherokee people began to be displaced from their ancestral lands.

President Andrew Jackson began to have them relocated under the official reason that they were not making efficient use of land that could be cultivated by white farmers. However, Wishart (1995) calls attention to evidence of the contrary: the Cherokee had begun to adapt modern farming techniques that resulted in economic surplus. Thus, despite having won the favor of the Supreme Court, many Cherokee were either forcibly relocated or ended up migrating to escape the harsh treatment of white settlers.

By the conclusion of the 19th century, the Curtis Act rendered the dissolution of Cherokee courts and government and with it the end of tribal sovereignty. The federal government made the pretense of interest in the Cherokee people’s welfare by appointing chiefs long enough to sign a treaty and by 1938 the Cherokee people reacted by electing a Chief to represent their interests to the Federal government as a Cherokee Nation, J. B. Miliam, who President Franklin Roosevelt recognized. By the mid-20th century, the Cherokee Nation had rebuilt its government.

At present, the modern Cherokee people number in the range of 300,000, with significant federally recognized populations of about 10,000 in Oklahoma known as United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, and another 10,000 known as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians located in North Carolina. As a nation, they have experienced significant economic growth and prosperity, not just in the casino businesses that typify the modern image of Native American enterprise, but in real estate and agriculture as well.

Additionally, the Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation Industries acts as a large defense contractor within the region. The Eastern Band also maintains an active tourist industry which draws millions annually to North Carolina to see cultural attractions historically relevant to the Cherokee. Like any ethnic or cultural group, the Cherokee faces its own set of problems, issues and controversies, especially with regards to how the legal framework of the federal government affects them.

In 2004, the Cherokee Tribal Council voted to clearly approve language that defines marriage as between one man and one woman. This was a response to a same sex marriage that some regarded as detrimental to the reputation of the Cherokee nation which is sworn to abide by the laws of the state of Oklahoma. (Associated Press, 2004) Blood quantum laws have also been a contentious point for the Cherokee people. These laws define membership among Native American groups based on the degree of racial ‘descendancy’ from Native American stock.

While originating in federal law to determine the distribution of land among Native Americans, tribes and nations began to incorporate them into their own laws. For example, the Eastern Band of Cherokee from North Carolina require a minimum of 1/16 Cherokee blood originating from an ancestor listed in the 1924 Baker Census, while the Western Cherokee do not impose a blood quantum minimum on applicants, though they do require direct descendance from the 1906 Dawes roll.

Sturm (2002) notes that blood quantum essentially creates a notion that racial identity is tied to lineal purity, despite the undermining influence of family and community ties. As such, despite the strong element of tradition in Cherokee identity, the concept of blood quantum has become internalized by the people in the wake of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Kelly (2007) criticizes the blood quantum laws on similar grounds, noting that such requirements result in the creation of ‘split families’ because membership requirements do not apply to families of varying quantum.

Further complicating their relationship with notions of race and identity are the Cherokee Freedmen who are the source of an ongoing controversy related to matters of citizenship. After the abolition of slavery in the United States, African slaves of the Cherokee Nation were granted citizenship and were regarded as legitimate members of the Cherokee Nation and its culture as part of the Treaty of 1866 (Nieves, 2007). In 1880, the Cherokee senate voted to deny citizenship to the Freedmen who had failed to comply with the treaty by returning to the Cherokee Nation within six months.

Additionally, an 1880 census failed to include freedmen as part of the Cherokee Nation, noting that while the Treaty of 1866 granted them civil and political rights, they did not possess the right to share tribal assets. (Sturm, 2002) The federal government addressed this matter in 1888 with an over-ruling mandate that all citizens of the Cherokee nation, even adopted ones, would share in tribal assets. They compiled the Wallace Roll, which re-incorporated 3,524 Freedmen as citizens of the Cherokee Nation.

The Dawes Act of 1887 converted tribal lands into individual ownership and in 1902, the Dawes Rolls, distributed individuals in the Indian Territory under separate racial categories with the freedmen being placed on the Freedmen roll regardless of the absence or presence of any Cherokee blood. The inconsistencies of the Dawes Rolls have been criticized by many of the Freedmen, noting that many black Cherokee didn’t get on the rolls. (Sturm, 2002) In the 1970s, federal incentives such as free health care lured many Dawes descendants to rejoin the Cherokee nation, including freedmen.

This was when the freedmen began experiencing racial segregation from the Cherokee Indians themselves. Ross Swimmer, then Chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1983, required that Cherokee citizens must possess a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) card in order to vote, but because the Indian heritage of Freedmen was not recorded on the Dawes Rolls, they were effectively rendered ineligible under these parameters. Swimmer’s successor, Wilma Mankiller took this disenfranchisement one step further by expanding the CDIB card’s importance, making it a requirement to be an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation.

Numerous lawsuits have been the result of this controversy, centered around disputes regarding discrimination and the Cherokee Nation has continuously attempted to dismiss such suits. In March 2007, the Cherokee Nation voted on a constitutional amendment to revoke the tribal citizenship of the Freedmen. An overwhelming majority of voters favored the amendment and this ignited controversy from not just the Freedmen, but from various black political groups. (BBC, 2007)

However, the federal government intervened when not more than two months later, the U. S. Bureau of Indian Affairs sent words that it denied the amendments, noting that such amendments require approval from the Bureau that the Cherokee Nation did not bother to obtain. The BIA also reprimanded the Cherokee Nation for excluding the Freedmen from the amendment vote. (Hales, 2007)


Cherokee. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2007. Finger, J. R. (2001). Tennessee Frontiers: Three Regions in Transition. Indiana: Indiana University Press. Gallay, Allan. (2003)

The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670-1717. Connecticut: Yale University Press. Mooney, J. (1996). Myths of the Cherokee. New York: Dover Publications. Wishart, D. M. (1995 January) Evidence of Surplus Production in the Cherokee Nation Prior to Removal. Journal of Economic History, 55, p. 120 Associated Press. (2004, August 21) Cherokee council defines tribal marriage law. Sturm, Circe (2002) Blood Politics: Race, Culture and Identity in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

Berkeley: University of California Press. Kelly, A. (2007, December 13) Indian by identity: a look inside tribal enrollment. Char-Koosta News. Retrieved May 13 2008 from: http://www. charkoosta. com/2007_12_13/tribal_enrollment. html Nieves, E. (2007, March 3) Putting a Vote to the Question: ‘Who is Cherokee? ’ The New York Times. BBC News. (2007, March 4) Cherokees eject slave descendants. Retrieved May 13 2008 from: http://news. bbc. co. uk/2/hi/americas/6416735. stm Hales, D. (2007, May 23) BIA rejects Cherokee Amendment. Edmond Sun.