Who are the Cherokees?


From the Perspective of Naming:

According to Mooney, "The proper name by which the Cherokee call themselves is Yunwiya, or Ani-Yunwiya in the third person, signifying 'real people,' or 'principal people,' a word closely related to Onwe-honwe, the name by which the cognate Iroquois know themselves. . .On ceremonial occasions they frequently speak of themselves as Ani-Kitu'hwagi, or 'people of kitu'hwa,' an ancient settlement on Tuckasegee river and apparently the original nucleus of the tribe. . .

"Cherokee, the name by which they are commonly known, has no meaning in their own language, and seems to be of foreign origin. As used among themselves the form is Tsa'lagi or Tsa'ragi. It first appears as Chalaque in the Portuguese narrative of De Soto's expedition, published originally in l557, while we find Cheraqui in a French document of 1699, and Cherokee as an English form as early, at least, as 1708. The name has thus an authentic history of 360 years. There is evidence that it is derived from the Choctaw word choluk or chiluk, signifying a pit or cave, and comes to us through the so-called Mobilian trade language, a corrupted Choctaw jargon formerly used as the medium of communication among all the tribes of the Gulf states, as far north as the mouth of the Ohio" (15-16).

". . .Very few Indian tribes are known to us under the names by which they call themselves. One reason for this is the fact that the whites have usually heard of a tribe from its neighbors, speaking other languages, before coming upon the tribe itself. Many of the popular tribal names were originally nicknames bestowed by neighboring tribes, frequently referring to some peculiar custom, and in a large number of cases would be strongly repudiated by the people designated by them. As a rule each tribe had a different name in every surrounding Indian language, besides those given by Spanish, French, Dutch, or English settlers (l82).

"Cherokee--This name occurs in fully fifty different spellings. . .The name seems to refer to the fact that the tribe occupied a cave country" (183).

From the Perspective of Place:

"The Cherokee were the mountaineers of the South, holding the entire Allegheny region from the interlocking head-streams of the Kanawha and the Tennessee southward almost to the site of Atlanta, and from the Blue ridge on the east to the Cumberland range on the west, a territory comprising an area of about 40,000 square miles, now included in the states of Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama" (Mooney, l900, 14).

From the Perspective of Numbers and Diversity:

According to Reid, "Their strength lay in their mountain homeland and in their numbers, for they were generally reckoned one of the largest, if not the largest, of the North American nations, with a population of up to 20,000 men, women, and children; at no time [during early European contact] were there fewer than 10,000, and they usually were able to muster about 3,000 warriors when forced to make a stand. Their weakness lay in their divisions, for they were spread throughout 60 independent towns, connected by winding, narrow, difficult trails and partitioned by high mountain ridges. Their language was subdivided into at least three distinct dialects, and their nation was segregated into five regional groups [the Lower, the Overhill, the Valley, the Middle, and the Out towns], often competing against one another, and sometimes, when rival clusters of towns became antagonistic, even competing within themselves (2).

"It was approximately 150 miles by meandering path and dangerous trail up the length of the nation from Tugaloo,the beloved town of the Lower Cherokees, to Chota, the mother town of the Overhills. Across the width, from Hywassee in the Valley to Stecoe among the Outs, it was between 40 and 50 miles, yet so mountainous that informed British officials miscalculated the distance as 140 miles" (Reid, l976, 3).

From the Perspective of l789 U.S. Law:

According to Jennings, "[British] agents called the Indian governments 'nations' and made treaties with them" (Jennings, l995, xiv). United States agents followed the British colonial precedent.

From the Perspective of Present-day U.S. Law:

According to Herschfelder, "Tribe is often used interchangeably with nation, and, today Native Americans use a wide range of terms to describe their political organizations including confederacy, nation, tribe, band, community, village, and corporation" (39).

"American Indian tribes were legally defined by the Supreme Court in l831 (Cherokee Nation v. Georgia) as domestic dependent nations. Federal recognition of a tribe means that the U.S. government acknowledges that the tribal nation exists as a unique political entity with a government-to-government relationship to the United States. . .Tribes are often acknowledged by the fact that they have signed a treaty with the United States. . . ." (Herschfelder, l993, 39).

Today, the federally-recognized Cherokee Tribe lives in Oklahoma. The unrecognized Eastern Band of Cherokee lives on the Cherokee Federal Reservation in North Carolina.