The Cherokee

The Cherokee were originally located in the Southern Appalachian Mountains including the Carolinas, northern Georgia and Alabama, southwest Virginia and the Cumberland Basin of Tennessee and Kentucky. The Cherokee too, were one of the tribes who made claim to the land now called Kentucky.

Cherokee comes from the Creek word "Chelokee" which means "people of a different speech." Although the Cherokee language is Iroquoian it differs significantly from the other Iroquoian languages. The Cherokee originally called themselves the Aniyunwiya - the "principal people" or the Keetoowah - "people of Kituhwa. Many prefer being called Tsalagi from their own name for the Cherokee Nation.

It is estimated that the DeSoto expedition in the mid 1500s introduced epidemics which wiped out 75% of the Native American population. In the 1670s the Cherokee population was estimated at 50,000 but a series of smallpox epidemics in the early to mid 1700s cut this in half. Then came the Civil War in which the Cherokee lost another 25% of their population. It is said that no other group of Americans, red or white, suffered as much from this conflict.

Current estimates are in excess of 370,000 Cherokee living on and off the reservations, making them the largest group of Native Americans.

There are four groups of Cherokee, three of which are recognized by the federal government. These are: the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the United Keetoowah Band, both in Oklahoma, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee, in North Carolina. The fourth, the Echota Cherokee, are recognized only by the State of Alabama.

By the time the Europeans arrived, the Cherokee were a settled agricultural people. They relied heavily on what was called the "three sisters," corn, beans and squash. Their diet was supplemented through the gathering of wild plants and hunting.

With the infiltration of the "New" Americans the Cherokee adapted quite well. In the 1800s they adopted a government according to a written constitution. They established their own court, schools, and achieved a standard of living that was the envy of their "civilized" neighbors. Sequoyah developed the Cherokee alphabet and within a few short years most of the Cherokee Nation could read. Today their level of education and standard of living is among the highest of all Native Americans.

Through the years of broken promises and one broken treaty after another the Cherokee were forced to move as more and more of their land was taken. The Cherokee had even fought for their rights in the court system. Although they won their case before the Supreme Court to save their lands President Andrew Jackson refused to enforce the court's decision and managed to pass the Indian Removal Act. Consequently the Cherokee and all they owned became fair game. When the deadline for removal arrived, 7,000 soldiers moved into the Cherokee homeland. The reward for "taking the white man's road" was to be driven from their homes at gunpoint. Thus began what became known as the "Trail of Tears."

Another march, familiar to many Mercer countians, under similar conditions was made by a different people in a different war; World War II, and it was considered a heinous war crime. But in 1839 it was the Native Americans -- and it was done by a people who claimed to believe in "equal justice for all."

 

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