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Narratives on the History of the Cherokee Tribe: A look at Official American Records on Cherokee Identity

Updated: Apr 19

The Cherokee Tribe is currently located on 57,000 acres of land in the western region of North Carolina which is also known as the Qualla Boundary. Home to about 14,000 members, this land is just a mere speck in comparison to the tribal land pre-colonization. Boasting more than 410,00 members worldwide, the Cherokee Nation is the biggest tribal community in America today. Although today, most Cherokee members live in or near Oklahoma due to the forced migration of tribal communities in the 1800s. The rich history and culture of the Cherokee tribe can be seen and experienced through various activities and businesses in the Qualla boundary. These include various outdoor expeditions such as elk watching, trout fishing, and seeing natural sights such as waterfalls. However, if the outdoors is not for you, then you can visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian or the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, Inc to see authentic Cherokee bead working, pottery, and other art forms being made. 


Background on the Cherokee Tribe in North Carolina

The earliest recorded European contact with the Cherokee Tribe is in 1540, as a result of Hernando DeSoto’s exploration of the southwestern portion of America to claim Florida as a part of Spanish territory and search for gold. Although the latter was not found, DeSoto traveled across ten states fighting off many Native American communities to settle the territory now known as Florida. Slowly the Cherokee land became settled by non-Native Americans thus starting the missionary contact and ideology of whitewashing Native American people and culture into assimilation. The Society of United Brethren had an integral part in this process. In a published article published on October 14, 1829, in the Cherokee Pheonix, a spokesman for the Society of Brethren writes: 

“Friends and Brothers, One of the principal intentions of the United Brethren, when they began settlements in North Carolina, was to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God to you and other Indian Nations. Most 50 years are now passed, since some of your Chiefs, who occasionally came to our settlements, had a meeting with our Brethren, wherein it was proposed to them that the Brethren were willing to send Missionaries to your Nation, to teach you and your children the way to eternal life and happiness. Your Chiefs declared then their approbation of a Mission in very friendly terms. But wars and continued troubles prevented the execution of it, which grieved us much.

Friends and Brothers, In the year 1783, now 20 years ago, when Col. Martin was an agent, we made another trial to begin a Mission and sent our beloved Brother Martin Schneider to visit you in your towns on the river Tennessee. He returned to us in January 1784, and informed us that you had received him very kindly and promised him to form a resolution about receiving teachers as soon as your great Chief Taysell came home. But while Brother Schneider was preparing to visit you again, and to hear your resolution, a war broke out, and the further communication between us and you was hindered to our great sorrow” (Cherokee Pheonix 1829). 

Although according to this account, the Cherokee Tribe asked for the missionaries to settle, it cannot be taken as a concrete fact of history. About 40 years prior to this letter, through multiple treaties recognized and made with the British, the Cherokee land and people were considered a sovereign nation and still retain that today. Sovereignty means they have their own law, elections, government, institutions, and more. Although they have relationships that are vital with the federal government and the North Carolina government in specific, the Cherokee nation is built upon its categorization as self-governing and autonomous. 

Years later on December 29, 1835, a group of U.S. Government Officials and around 500 Cherokee representatives met at New Echota, Georgia. The focus of this meeting was signing a treaty that handed over 7 million acres of Cherokee ancestral land in exchange for $5 million and land in present-day Oklahoma. This exchange was made possible by President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830 which “authorized the president to grant lands west of the Mississippi in exchange for Indian lands within existing state borders” (Document Asset). With a lack of support from many within the tribe, the treaty was signed and ratified in March of 1836. As a result of the unfavorability of this treaty among the Cherokee nation, President Martin Van Buren granted the Cherokee nation an extension of two years for the relocation before governmental action would be taken. When May 1838 came around, most of the Cherokee nation still had not moved from their ancestral land to Oklahoma. As a result of the treaty and heightened pressure for eviction by the U.S. military, the Cherokee Tribe was forced into relocating via the 1,200-mile trek that has become to be known as the Trail of Tears. It is estimated that around 10 to 50 percent of the Cherokee tribe on this journey died of disease, starvation, and/ or exhaustion. The lack of consensus on the death percentage is a consequence of the lack of government records and reliability on Native American history. The Cherokee of North Carolina website ranges the death toll from 25 to 50 percent whereas the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources suggests the range is from 10 to 25 percent. This difference represents the historical and cultural incongruence of the experience of Native Americans in American history and present culture. 

As the Civil War began, the Native Americans located in Oklahoma and those that stayed on their ancestral North Carolina land, had to choose between who to support. In the beginning, they sided with the Union but as protection by local military forts became abandoned Chief John Ross had to sign a treaty with the Confederacy for protection. Suffering major loss from internal conflict on who the tribe should side with during the civil war and the damage generated from fighting in Cherokee land, the Cherokee Nation was devastated by the war which spiraled into a major economic recession. As Oklahoma became ratified as a state, the Cherokee infrastructure dissolved in part of assimilation processes and broader “ethnic cleansing” ideas by white Americans. 


In the 1960s in conjunction with the Civil Rights movements, attention to Tribal Rights of self-determination surged. A conference was held at the University of Chicago which allowed citizens of all Native nations to voice their opinions and desires. One quote from this conference that stood out was this one:

“We are not pleading for special treatment at the hands of the American people. When we ask that our treaties be respected… the right of self-government, a right that the Indians possessed before the coming of the white man, has never been extinguished; indeed, it has been repeatedly sustained by the courts of the United States. Our leaders made binding agreements—ceding lands as requested by the United States; keeping the peace; harboring no enemies of the nation. And the people stood with the leaders in accepting these obligations. A treaty, in the minds of our people, is an eternal word” (Tribal Self Governance). 

 As the nationhood of the Cherokee community became recognized more by the American Federal Government, reservations became instilled with their own power hierarchies. 

Now, the Qualla Boundary in North Carolina is home to the generations that came out of the survivors of the Trail of Tears and those who choose to stay on that land. With over 14,000 members the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is a sovereign nation with its own executive, legislative, and judicial branches that are elected via a democratic system. Additionally, tribal members participate in American Federal elections. Focusing on reclaiming the history, cultural, and traditional identity of the Cherokee Tribe, the community today expands on official historical archives to include the experience, identity, and narrative of Cherokee members that was never granted authority nor respected in these archives. An important factor in this mission is the continued resilience of Cherokee members in the face of adversity through the millennia.

--Peyton Rohlfs



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