Cherokee Nation: Tribe History, Facts & Culture

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  • 0:00 Origin, Culture & Clans
  • 2:02 Europeans, U.S.…
  • 3:45 New Echota & Indian Removal
  • 5:55 The Modern Cherokee
  • 6:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Michael Knoedl

Michael teaches high school Social Studies and has a M.S. in Sports Management.

Many Native American tribes fought to keep their land and way of life, while others preferred appeasement, cooperation, and/or assimilation. Learn about the Cherokee, their approach to U.S. expansion and settlement, and their way of life in this lesson.

Origins and Culture

The Cherokee migrated to the southern Appalachian Mountain region, which covers parts of Georgia, Alabama, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky, over 5,000 years ago from the Great Lakes area. They are closely related to the Mohawk and Huron from the modern day New York region. They lived in matriarchal clans, meaning that women were seen as equal to men, men joined the women's family at marriage, and status was earned by helping the group as a whole. Although matriarchal, each clan was still led by a male chief.

Historically, there are seven major clans that are still highly revered to this day. Clans are treated as a tight knit family and individuals do not marry within their own clan because members are considered brother and sister. In addition, seating at ceremonial dances is assigned by clan and the specific clan name is required to receive spiritual guidance and medicine.

The seven major clans are:

Long Hair: This clan is known as a peaceful clan. Prisoners of war and orphans are widely accepted and taken care of by them.

Blue: This clan is considered the oldest clan. They are known to make the medicine to treat illness in other clans.

Wolf: The Wolf Clan is the largest of all the clans. They are the protectors and warriors of the Cherokee.

Wild Potato: The Wild Potato Clan are gatherers and growers. They were known to practice agriculture.

Deer: The Deer Clan were known to be the fastest runners and the best hunters. They also raised animals for other clans and were used as messengers between the clans.

Bird: The Bird Clan members were highly spiritual and were thought to be the communication link between heaven and earth.

Paint: The Paint Clan were the tribal doctors. They administered medicine by painting it on the sick person's body after a ceremony.

Prior to 1500, all the Clans combined were estimated to make up a population estimated of over 200,000 men, women and children. Disease and warfare would cut that number down drastically.

Europeans, U.S. Settlers & The Treaty of Holston

Hernando DeSoto's expedition was the first to come into contact with the Cherokee. In the mid-1500s, DeSoto came through on his exploration of the area between Florida and the Mississippi River. The Cherokee were very friendly to the DeSoto expedition and helped them replenish their supplies and food. When the expedition left the Cherokee, smallpox remained.

The Cherokee had no immunity to European diseases, so smallpox and other diseases were very deadly. This round of smallpox is thought to have killed about 75% of the Cherokee population, bringing the total population down to about 50,000. When South Carolina was settled in the mid-1600s, another wave of smallpox hit the Cherokee and brought the population down to near 25,000 individuals.

The Cherokee did find a new way of life, however, after the settlement of South Carolina. The Cherokee realized that white traders and settlers needed furs, food, and slaves, which the Cherokee were skilled at finding. They captured slaves from the modern-day Florida region and sold them to South Carolina farms. In addition, they were paid in kettles, tools, alcohol, and European-style clothing. As relations with the settlers grew, it would be to the Cherokee's benefit that they liked European-style items.

The Treaty of Holston in 1791 guaranteed that Cherokee land within the U.S. borders would be officially recognized with its own boundaries kept intact. The Cherokee soon adopted a written constitution, a written alphabet, a formal education system, a police force, newspaper, and larger-scale farming methods. This led the Cherokee to be considered one of the Five Civilized Tribes by the U.S. government. However, this name did not mean that the U.S. saw the Cherokees as being equal to white Americans.

New Echota, Indian Removal & The Trail of Tears

In the early 1800s, the newly-established State of Georgia abolished the Cherokee government and its capital of New Echota. This was done to take the Cherokees' land. Principal Chief John Ross, whose role was similar to that of a U.S. president, went to Washington D.C. to plea for their land to be protected. President Andrew Jackson, however, was a supporter of Indian Removal and sided with the state of Georgia.

As the legal proceedings continued, the case was eventually brought before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Cherokee and asked President Jackson to send the military to help them get Georgian settlers off their land. President Jackson refused and told the Supreme Court enforce the ruling themselves.

The Indian Removal Act was meant to allow President Jackson to supposedly negotiate with the Indian tribes to exchange their lands in the east for lands west of the Mississippi River. Several tribes in the area agreed to the President's terms, but initially the Cherokee did not.

However, Chief Major Ridge, a Cherokee leader and adviser to Principal Chief Ross, knew the Cherokee would eventually be forced to give up their lands in the east. So he secretly took a group of his followers to Washington D.C. and signed over the Cherokee lands in exchange for $5 million. This agreement, known as the Treaty of New Echota, was fought by Principal Chief Ross and his followers, including over 15,000 signatures on a petition. But the U.S. government ratified the treaty. Under the treaty's terms, the Cherokee had two years to move to Indian Territory.

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