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Native American Society


Most people recognize the name Cherokee, making the tribe one of the best known in history. The name itself means "real or principal people."

The Cherokee lived in the dense evergreen forests among the Allegheny and Great Smokey mountains. The area was plentiful with game, fish and plant life.

Villages of homes made of wooden poles covered with woven mats were raised along the banks of rivers and streams. Typically the houses surrounded a round, community Council House used for social and religious ceremonies.

The women farmed corn, beans, squash and sunflowers which they preserved for use year-round. Gourds raised were used as utensils, storage containers and ceremonial rattles. Women and children also gathered wild grapes, berries, nuts and greens to round out the diet of game and fish supplied by the men, who caught fish in stone weirs. Sometimes the men would mix a potion of poisonous roots and bark and place it in the water. This would make the fish disoriented and very easy to catch.

Men and women wore clothes made of deerskin. Breechcloths for the men and short skirts for the women. Both added fur robes and long shawls tied over the left shoulder in winter. Men wore high leather boots too, especially when on the hunt.

Cherokee spirituality revolves around a Creator and spirits who embody the Sun, Moon and stars. Harvest ceremony is very important to any agricultural tribe, and the Cherokee hold the Green Corn Dance each August to hedge their bet for a good harvest.

While tribes had always relied heavily on oral tradition, a history passed from one generation to the next by stories and songs, in 1828 a Cherokee named Sequoyah decided to develop a native alphabet. Eventually Sequoyah teamed up with Elias Boudinot, who was educated in white schools. Boudinot served as editor for the very first American Indian newspaper, published in Sequoyah's alphabet and English alike. The paper thrived until its publication was ceased in 1835 when the Cherokee were marched to Indian Territory hundreds of miles away.

The Cherokee had asked to be an independent nation when addressed by the fledgling American government in 1785. A treaty guaranteed that right. The Cherokee fought with the U.S. Government against the Creek Nation, with one Cherokee warrior saving the life of Andrew Jackson. While obviously grateful in the moment, Jackson eventually betrayed the loyalty of the Cherokee when he turned a blind eye to the illegal encroachment of white settlers on to Cherokee land in Georgia. If that wasn't bad enough, he later introduced the Indian Removal Act of 1830 to Congress. This act forced the removal of all eastern tribes to land west of the Mississippi River.

The Cherokee fought their removal and won a temporary stay from the Supreme Court in 1832. But adding injury to insult, Jackson ignored the courts decision and ordered troops in to forcibly march what was thought to be the remaining 1600 Cherokee to Oklahoma. This march became known as the "Trail of Tears." Five hundred died along the way.

This horrendous act did not stifle the staunch Cherokee, who flourished in Oklahoma. They joined the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole to form the Five Civilized Tribes, a democratic government with its own constitution, a court system and regular elections.

While the government roundup attempted to move those 1600 to Oklahoma, another 1500 Cherokee resistors fled into the Smokey Mountains and hid. Once it was safe, a white trader named Colonel William Thomas bought up some of the original Cherokee lands in North Carolina and held the deeds in his name for the Cherokee because it was illegal for an Indian to buy or own land. Thomas eventually became a U.S. senator and pushed through laws that acknowledged the rights of the eastern Cherokee, including the ownership of those lands, and even got the government to add lands, creating the present Cherokee reservation. When Thomas died, all the lands in his name were transferred to the tribe.

The Cherokee removed to Oklahoma in favor of white settlers had only a small matter of time to wait before that land was wanted by homesteaders, too. As Oklahoma sought statehood the U.S. government again divided reservation lands to sell to white settlers, leaving just a small parcel for reservation land.

Today descendants of the Cherokee still live on the reservations in North Carolina and Oklahoma.

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