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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

Cherokee National Capitol, 1924
(15240, Muriel Wright Collection, OHS).

Cherokee Supreme Court Building, 1967
(11602A, Eugene H. Brewington Collection, OHS).


With a current enrollment of approximately 240,000 members, the Cherokee Nation is Oklahoma's largest Indian group and the second largest in the United States. The Cherokee Nation is the direct, lineal descendant of the sovereign tribal government that presided over much of the southeastern United States before European colonization. The major concentration of contemporary Cherokees lies in fourteen northeastern Oklahoma counties within the original 1835 tribal treaty boundaries. The other federally recognized Cherokee government groups are the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma and the Eastern Band, headquartered in North Carolina. However, most Cherokees living throughout the United States are enrolled members of the Cherokee Nation and identify with their historic Oklahoma roots.

The Cherokee population did not always appear so sound. Indeed, often throughout history tribal survival was in doubt. In 1838–39 more than one-fourth of the tribe died on the trek from the Southeast to the Indian Territory. Through it all—colonial battles, smallpox epidemics, the struggle to retain historic southeastern homelands, expulsion on "the trail of tears," involvement in the American Civil War, the theft and allotment of tribal lands, the coming of Oklahoma statehood, the starvation and depravation of the Great Depression, and the scattering of tribal citizens during and following the Second World War—the Cherokee Nation survived.

In a historic migration fragment the tribal journey is shown to have begun in the far north. Cherokees are pictured fighting freezing rains and winds to arrive in their southern homeland. While the prehistoric origin of the Cherokee is shrouded in mystery, we know that their language is Iroquoian and that they shared many traditions with these northern cousins.

Most of the ancient Cherokee villages were situated along streams in scattered areas throughout the Appalachian Mountains. The life of the traditional Cherokee was guided by a faith in supernatural forces that linked humans to all other living things. Values rested on a relationship of people and place, family and clan, and community and council. Historically, villages operated as autonomous units, joined together for ceremonials and wars. Villages with their seven clans were laid out around a large town or council house with small individual dwellings surrounding these centers.

The Cherokees owned little personal property. Hunting and warfare were central to the life of the aboriginal Cherokees; the tribe had embraced limited agriculture and planted fields, which supplemented the hunt. Males hunted; women gardened, cooked, made pottery, and reared children. The tribe was matrilineal; women had use of the land and one's clan membership came through the mother. A "beloved woman" and Council of Women had substantial power, including the right to declare war, which led the British to call the tribe "a petticoat government."

Disorganized bands of Cherokees forged themselves into a strong national political state, created their own native alphabet, adopted a written constitution, and ultimately provided political, social, and economic leadership not only for the tribe but also for the nation. That they became known as one of the "Five Civilized Tribes" is testimony to their ingenuity. They saw, paradoxically, that in change was their only hope of survival as a people.

The Cherokees were the largest Indian tribe on the southern frontier of English America. By the eighteenth century the tribe numbered more than ten thousand and lived in sixty or more scattered villages. Through a series of treaties the Cherokee land holdings were reduced until the 1820s, when the major body of the tribe (approximately sixteen thousand) was concentrated primarily in Georgia and Tennessee. They were "removed" after a series of congressional and court battles and were driven by the U.S. military over what became known as "the Trail of Tears" (1838–39).

Before the removal the Cherokee resolved to keep their government in operation throughout the exile and upon arrival in the Indian Territory. Here they joined six thousand Western or Old Settler Cherokees who had voluntarily migrated beginning as early as 1808, settling in Arkansas then the Indian Territory that became Oklahoma. The Cherokee joined their two governments under the Act of Union (1839). Since then this government has continuously operated as the Cherokee Nation. To the present the survival of this one united Cherokee government is celebrated each year on September 6 at the National Holiday in Tahlequah.

Since removal to the Indian Territory the Cherokee Nation has remained committed to its sovereign nationhood, despite loss of one-fourth of its population on the Trail of Tears, federal seizure and allotment of tribal lands, forced merger into a state, and prohibition of the electoral franchise in selection of their own chief. Governing its people in the Indian Territory since 1839, the Cherokee Nation passed through six eras. The first marked the reestablishment of a united Cherokee Nation (1839–48).

After their Supreme Court victory in the case of Worcester v. Georgia (1831) and the subsequent refusal of Pres. Andrew Jackson to follow the court, the Cherokee Nation split into factions. One, known as the Ridge Party, signed the Treaty of New Echota (1835) and provided the alleged basis for tribal removal; the other, known as the Ross Party, resisted voluntary removal and presided over the ultimate process of migration on the Trail of Tears. Once they were in the Indian Territory, civil war erupted between the factions, resulting in the deaths of the leaders of the Treaty Party. A smoldering peace came to the Cherokee Nation after the U.S. government forced the factions to sign a treaty of agreement in 1846. Even then, bitter partisans nursed hatreds that started again when the Cherokees were drawn into the American Civil War.

The era between the Cherokee civil war and the American Civil War is known as "the Golden Age of the Cherokees" (1849–60). Economic, cultural, and social institutions such as the Cherokee Male and Female Seminary symbolized this renaissance. During this time the Cherokees revived a tribal newspaper, the Cherokee Advocate, and published books, pamphlets, and broadsides in Sequoyah's Cherokee syllabary. The tribe established college-level education and public schools. In addition to the planter and merchant class, traditional Indians prospered. The average Cherokee enjoyed a standard of living as high as, if not higher than, their neighbors in Arkansas, Kansas, and Missouri. This prosperity ended during the American Civil War and Reconstruction eras (1861–71).

In 1861 the Cherokees once again became pawns in a white struggle. Cherokee loyalty was divided. Many Cherokee were slaveholders and sympathetic to the Confederate cause. At first the tribe sought to maintain neutrality. Geography and politics made neutrality impossible. Soon the Treaty Party was drawn to the Southern cause and their leader Stand Watie became a brigadier general in the Confederate army. The Cherokee Nation became a site of guerrilla warfare, massive destruction, burnt-over land, and widespread starvation. In excess of seven thousand Cherokee died, leaving as much as 25 percent of the Indian children as orphans.

Despite the fact that Chief John Ross had gone north and that more than twenty-two hundred Cherokee soldiers had served the Union, the United States adopted a hostile attitude toward the entire tribe. The terms of the Treaty of Fort Smith (1866) were vindictive and harsh. The Cherokee Nation was required to surrender land, open their territory to railroads, and begin the process that would ultimately produce statehood. The costs of this war were as devastating as removal itself.

After the Civil War the Cherokee struggled to defeat allotment and tribal dissolution (1871–1906). The railroads came to Cherokee country during this era and brought intruders who pressed for the opening of Indian lands to white settlements. The cost of the campaign to hold back this tide drained the Cherokee treasury. In spite of these external pressures the Cherokee Nation came alive with several generations of farmers, herders, and merchants practicing their trades. All this should have created a lasting peace and prosperity, but the Cherokees were subject to the constant harassment from intruders.

By the time of the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889 the federal government determined to extinguish the Cherokee Outlet, from which the lease income supported the Cherokee Nation. On September 19, 1890, Pres. Benjamin Harrison closed the Outlet to the cattlemen who legally leased these grazing lands from the Cherokees. Thus, the tribe lost the major source of revenue for their school and governmental accounts. Finally, driven to near bankruptcy, the tribe ceded the Outlet. Broken by the sale, the Cherokee Nation lacked the power or financial resources to withstand the onslaught of numerous congressional enactments. Absorption into the State of Oklahoma was only a matter of time despite the resistance of traditional tribal leaders such as Redbird Smith.

In 1893 the Dawes Commission was established to seek allotment of the lands of the Five Tribes including the Cherokee; Congress passed the Curtis Act in 1898 to speed the process. The Oklahoma Enabling Act (1906) provided for admission of Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory as a single state. The Five Tribes Act (1906) abruptly reversed the scheme to terminate the tribes. Instead of eliminating tribal powers, Congress extended both tribe and tribal government, continuing tribal jurisdiction and sovereignty indefinitely in Oklahoma. No laws have since been enacted to restrict these recognized powers. The Cherokee Nation survived as the legal entity of governance.

While the tribal governmental structure survived, the Cherokee Nation land base was destroyed by allotment. As established by the Dawes Commission, the original final rolls of all political citizens of the Cherokee Nation contained 41,889 full-blood and mixed-blood Cherokees, adopted Delaware and Shawnee, intermarried whites, and Freedmen. Tribal land was divided among these people. The official Dawes Commission figures indicate that 4,420,068 acres were allotted among the 40,193 enrolled.

Statehood and the effort to preserve tribal identity and authority (1907–46) dominated the fifth era of Cherokee government in Oklahoma. The events of allotment and statehood were a disaster for the Cherokee. By the beginning of the Great Depression of the 1930s almost all of the land of the individual Cherokee was gone. Much of this was land rich with oil that made the white land speculator wealthy. The majority of the Cherokee people were now destitute. Great numbers left the Cherokee Nation, many heading to California, with other Dust Bowl Okies. More than half of the Cherokees left Oklahoma during these decades.

Returning Cherokee veterans from World War II and the possibility of a claim before the Indian Claims Commission (1946) provided the opportunity and the impetus for the tribe to capitalize upon a renewed sense of Cherokee spirit. Jesse B. Milam, the long-serving federally appointed Cherokee chief, utilized the powers of the Five Tribes Act that had retained governmental authority for the tribe. Thus began the era of renewal, retention, and rebuilding of the sovereign, self-governing Cherokee Nation (1946 to the present).

Under the leadership of Milam and his successors, the Cherokee Nation established programs for businesses enterprise and tribal government, including gaming operations. Since 1970 the tribe was able to elect their own chief, who had since statehood been chosen by a presidential appointment. Cherokees repurchased tribal lands, signed self-governance compacting agreements, wrote a new constitution, built strong law-and-order and health-care systems, and exerted renewed influence within the state of Oklahoma and the United States.

The Cherokee tribe is presently in the midst of a cultural as well as economic revival. The traditional Cherokee is a stronger and more powerful influence in tribal government than at any time since statehood. Increasingly, Cherokees, whether through self-help community projects or in deliberation of elected tribal council or in the votes for principal chief, are taking control over their own fate and becoming less dependent upon federal and state action. The values that survive are at the heart of the Cherokees' historic tribal existence—among these are family, friends, and a sense of being a people with a place and mission.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century there were between ten thousand and fifteen thousand Native Cherokee speakers. The number of tribe members able to read and write in the Sequoyahian syllabary was growing. The Cherokee Nation was the greatest economic force and the largest employer in northeastern Oklahoma, contributing close to one-half billion dollars to the region's economy. Today's Cherokee Nation is teaching tribal history and language courses, building a national university, and restoring traditional tribal property while increasing the financial strength and independence of the tribe and tribe members.

Since 1907 statehood the Cherokee have extended their service and loyalty to the state and nation. Robert L. Owen became one of Oklahoma's first U.S. senators. Will Rogers and Sequoyah represent the state of Oklahoma in the Statutory Hall of Fame in the U.S. Capitol. Adm. Joseph J. "Jocko" Clark, as commander of the carrier Yorktown in World War II, became the highest-ranking person of American Indian descent in U.S. military history. William W. Hastings and Brad Carson served as Oklahoma delegates in the U.S. House of Representatives. Written by poet and playwright Lynn Riggs, the drama of Cherokee life in the Indian Territory, Green Grow the Lilacs, became the basis for the award-winning musical Oklahoma! And, without question, Will Rogers was "the philosopher of America's common man who talked the Nation through the depression." In commerce and industry Chief William W. Keeler was chief executive officer of the Phillips Petroleum Company. In recent years Chief Wilma Mankiller has been influential as a role model for global leadership in the women's movement. Wes Studi remains one of the best-known American Indian film stars.

Rennard Strickland

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William L. Anderson, ed., Cherokee Removal: Before and After (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991).

Kent Carter, The Dawes Commission and the Allotment of the Five Civilized Tribes, 1893–1914 (Orem, Utah: Ancestry.com., Inc., 1999).

Robert J. Conley, The Cherokee Nation: A History (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005).

Angie Debo, And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1940).

Dianna Everett, The Texas Cherokees: A People Between Two Fires, 1819–1840 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990).

Duane King, ed., The Cherokee Indian Nation: A Troubled History (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1979).

William G. McLoughlin, After the Trail of Tears: The Cherokees' Struggle for Sovereignty, 1839–1880 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993).

Theda Perdue, The Cherokees (New York: Chelsea House, 1989).

Earl Boyd Pierce and Rennard Strickland, The Cherokee People (Phoenix, Ariz.: Indian Tribal Series, 1973).

Rennard Strickland, Fire and the Spirit: Cherokee Law from Clan to Court (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1975).

Grace Steele Woodward, The Cherokees (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963).

Related Resources

Indian Chieftan newspaper, The Gateway to Oklahoma History


The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Rennard Strickland, “Cherokee (tribe),” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=CH014.

Published January 15, 2010

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