The Cherokee are a Native American people historically settled in the Southeastern United States. In the 19th century, white settlers in the United States called the Cherokee one of the "Five Civilized Tribes", because they had assimilated numerous cultural and technological practices of European American settlers.
Although the Cherokee are probably the largest and most important tribe in the United States, having their own national government and numbering at any time in their history from 20,000 to 25,000 persons, almost nothing has yet been written of their history or general ethnology, as compared with the literature of such northern tribes as the Delawares, the Iroquois, or the Ojibwa.
The worldview of the early Cherokees, who called themselves Ani-yunwi-ya (the Real People) or sometimes Ani-Keetuwahgi (People of Keetoowah), described in three worlds. There was the world on top of the Sky Vault, and there was a world underneath the one on which we live. Both the world above and the world below were populated by powerful spiritual beings, and those two spiritual worlds were opposed to one another.
Traditionally, the Cherokees danced to ensure individual health and social welfare. According to legend, the dance songs bequeathed to them by the Stone Coat monster will assuage all the ills of life. Winter dances, associated with ghosts and certain animals, are to be given only during times of frost, lest they affect the growth of vegetation by attracting cold and death. The summer dances are associated with crops and vegetation. Other dances are purely for social intercourse and entertainment or are prompted by specific events in the community.
Each village had a council house where ceremonies and tribal meetings were held. The council house was seven-sided to represent the seven clans of the Cherokee: Bird, Paint, Deer, Wolf, Blue, Long Hair, and Wild Potato. Each tribe elected two chiefs-a Peace Chief who counseled during peaceful times and a War chief who made decisions during times of war. However, the Chiefs did not rule absolutely, decision making was a more democratic process, with tribal members having the opportunity to voice concerns.
Cherokees are probably best known to most people as the only American Indians with their own system of writing. In the past, many other tribes in both North and South American invented systems for recalling important events, but only the Cherokees possess a writing system equivalent to the European alphabet.
Unfortunately, the Cherokee Indians did not enjoy prosperous times for long. With the discovery of gold on Cherokee lands in 1828 and Andrew Jackson's 1830 Removal Act, calling for the relocation of all native peoples east of the Mississippi River to Oklahoma, the U. S. government forced the Cherokees from their homes in 1838. Almost 14,000 Cherokees began the trek westward in October of 1838. More than 4,000 died from cold, hunger, and disease during the six-month journey that came to be known as the "Trail of Tears."
Cherokee Indians society was a matriarchy. The children took the clan of the mother, and kinship was traced through the mother's family. Women had an equal voice in the affairs of the tribe. Marriage was only allowed between members of different clans. Property was passed on according to clan alliance.
The Cherokee Indians arrived in the Smoky Mountains about A.D. 1000. Believed to have been a branch of the Iroquois who moved south from Iroquoian lands in New England. Consisting of 7 clans, the Cherokee Nation stretched from the Ohio River into South Carolina. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians lived in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, believed to be the sacred ancestral home of the Cherokee Nation.
The Cherokee lived along the fertile rivers of Georgia and the Carolinas and were primarily agricultural, growing corn, beans, sweet potatoes, and squash. They also collected wild plants and relied on fishing and hunting for survival. Members of this matriarchal society lived in log and mud huts stationed around a seven-sided council house that was the center of the village.
Cherokee Indians can trace their history back more than one thousand years. Their society was based on hunting, trading, and agriculture, living in towns until they encountered the first Europeans in 1540, when Spanish explorer Hernando de Sota led an exploration through Cherokee Indian territory. By the time European explorers and traders arrived, Cherokee Indian lands covered a large part of what is now the southeastern United States.