Encyclopedia Article


The Cherokee are a US Native American tribal group who were the largest tribe in what are now the southeastern United States before European contact. Cherokee is an Iroquoian language with multiple dialects. Along with the Creek, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles, the Cherokee were considered by non-Native settlers to be one of the Five Civilized Tribes in the 1800s.

The tribe was loosely organized around its many villages, each with two chiefs -- one war chief associated with the color red and one political, religious, economic chief associated with the color white. Chiefs could be men or women, and women sat in on the council. Although related, the villages did not form a completely unified entity until the late 1700s. The people were mainly farmers and lived alongside rivers with a central ceremonial place. It was common to use public shaming and scorn to enforce rules within the villages. The Cherokee also use a matrilineal clan social system.

The Cherokee sided with the British during the American Revolution, but later incorporated methods of farming and life from the colonial settlers. They fought with the U.S. in the Creek War of 1813, where a Cherokee saved Andrew Jackson's life. Despite their growth, their notoreity as one of the Civilized Tribes, and their cooperation, the Cherokee were still pressured to give up land, and the discovery of gold on their land led to the Indian Removal Act, where they were forecefully relocated to 'Indian Territory" west of the Mississippi River. Their removal, beginning in 1838, came to be known as the Trail of Tears during which more than 4000 people died.

They were federally recognized in 1946.

Photo Credit: 

"Standingdeer, championi archer of the Cherokee, circa 1930" by Government & Heritage Library, State Library of NC is licensed under CC BY.

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