Before Europeans settlers began spreading throughout the southeastern United States, the Cherokee were the dominant Native American tribe in the Blue Ridge Mountains for centuries.
Cultivating a rich culture of spirituality, storytelling, language, art, and a deep respect for the Earth, the Cherokee people thrived well into the late 18h century.
By the early 19th century, conflicts between European immigrants and America’s indigenous people threatened the Cherokee tribe’s survival, and eventually forced them from their ancestral lands in the tragic Trail of Tears.
Despite a history filled with trials and trauma, the resilience of the Cherokee people has allowed them to remain prominent today.
With more than 300,000 tribal members dedicated to preserving their rich cultural heritage and history, the Cherokee Nation is the largest of the 567 federally recognized tribes in the US.
Read on to learn 40 fascinating facts about Cherokee culture and history, from their ancient origin in the Great Lakes to the founding of their capital at New Echota, the Trail of Tears, and the present day.
General Facts About Cherokee Culture
1. The Cherokee are an Iroquian-speaking people who refer to themselves as Aniyvwiya, or “the Real People.”
Most Iroquoian-speaking people originally lived near the Great Lakes, leading historians to believe that the Cherokee migrated south from that region.
2. Cherokee villages were usually positioned near a river, and consisted of around 30 to 60 houses as well as a larger council house used for political assemblies and religious ceremonies.
These houses were made out of river cane and branches plastered with mud, and had a thatched roof. After the arrival of European settlers, the Cherokee ultimately began living in log cabins and wooden houses.
3. Cherokee men and women each had distinct roles, but there was an equal division of power.
The men were in charge of hunting, fighting, and making political decisions, while women were in charge of farming, property, taking care of the family, and making social decisions for the clan.
While only men could become war chiefs, women were the landowners in Cherokee culture. Since they were traditionally a matrilineal kinship society, all property and social status descended through the women’s line.
4. Cherokee men originally wore simple breechcloths and leggings made from deer hide, and would shave their heads, leaving just a scalplock (which they allowed to grow long).
Cherokee women kept their hair long and wore deerskin skirts and dresses, along with moccasins on their feet. When cloth was later introduced by the Europeans, cotton blouses and skirts became more popular.
5. Traditional Cherokee arts included river cane basket weaving, gourd art, pottery, and pipe carving.
After being forced out of their native lands and into Oklahoma, the tribe couldn’t find the materials they once used for art. So they began creating crafts such as intricate beadwork and textiles (rugs, blankets, quilts, etc.).
6. Music plays a significant role in Cherokee culture, and is performed for a variety of different functions. These include religious and healing ceremonies, storytelling, showing gratitude to the Earth, and to bring about bountiful harvests.
Handmade drums, rattles, and flutes are common instruments that are played alongside singing and chanting.
7. Many Cherokee songs accompany dances that are done for either social or religious and ceremonial purposes. They’re often performed in elaborate costumes, with additional pieces such as wings and masks.
These can be seen in the Bear Dance, Beaver Dance, and the ceremonial Eagle Dance, where masks and wings of the respective animal are worn.
The most important dance of the Cherokee people is the Stomp Dance, which is performed in a ceremonial setting preceded by a game of Anejodi, or stickball.
8. Cherokee people regarded the spiritual and physical world as one and the same, and practiced their religion through rituals, daily prayers, and ceremonies.
They believed that plants, animals, rivers, mountains, and other ecological features had spiritual powers.
Rather than trying to rule over nature, the tribe believed it was their duty to be environmental stewards in order to maintain the Earth’s balance and harmony.
9. The basis of Cherokee religion was the belief that the universe is composed of three connected worlds– the Upper World, Middle World, and Under World.
The Middle World was thought to be where all living beings and spirits resided; the Upper World was where spirits of ancestors and animals that had passed on lived; and the Under World was where bad spirits lived.
Cherokee people believed that spirits from the Under World could come into the Middle World and cause disharmony. But spirits from the Upper World could also come down to restore balance if called on or needed.
10. Special ceremonies were performed in order to ask the spirits for help in the Middle World before going to war, leaving on a hunt, or to help heal the sick.
Ritual purification was also important to the Cherokee for maintaining spiritual balance.
A baptism-like ritual called “going to water” was often performed, wherein tribe members would be led by a medicine man (a.k.a. shaman) to a stream and immerse themselves to represent a rebirth.
11. The core belief in maintaining balance and harmony was upheld throughout myriad aspects of Cherokee society.
For example, when hunting and gathering, the Cherokee made sure to only take what was needed. They believed that if they killed too many plants or animals, they would disrupt the balance of nature.
Hunters would often take part in rituals before going out on a hunt, and after killing an animal they would typically ask for forgiveness.
12. The Cherokee people were hunters, gatherers, and farmers. Men would fish and hunt for wild hog, turkey, white-tailed deer, squirrel, and rabbit, while women foraged for wild plants, onions, mushrooms, and berries.
Women were also the primary gardeners and grew crops like squash, corn, and beans. These were known as the “Three Sisters,” because they grew well together and were used in almost all of their meals.
13. When hunting for deer, turkey, and other large game, the men would primarily use bows and arrows made from hickory and black locust trees, with flint-knapped arrowheads.
For smaller game like squirrels and rabbits, they would use blowguns made from river cane.
Traditionally, the Cherokee would only hunt out of necessity to feed their families. But when European settlers introduced firearms, they began to hunt for trade as well.
14. The arrival of the Europeans also changed Cherokee farming practices, as they began growing peaches and watermelons with seeds acquired through trade.
They also started growing apples from Europe, sweet potatoes from the Caribbean, and black-eyed peas from Africa.
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History of Cherokee in Georgia (pre-Trail of Tears)
15. Cherokee people inhabited the Southeastern US– including parts of present-day Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, and North Georgia– for countless generations before the arrival of Europeans.
16. Europeans first came in contact with the Cherokee during the 1540 Spanish expedition of Hernando de Soto.
The famed conquistador passed through what is now Embreeville, Tennessee, and eventually made his way through Cherokee villages in Georgia while searching for gold.
After the Europeans arrived, the Cherokee population began to drastically decline, in large part due to introduced diseases to which the Native Americans had no immunity.
17. When Georgia was founded in 1733, the Cherokee became key trading partners of the British in Augusta.
European manufactured goods like weapons and tools were traded for beeswax, river cane baskets, and deerskins.
As trade increased, the Brits began living in Cherokee villages, and peace treaties between the two cultures were created. They included a promise by the natives to the British Crown in 1730 to only trade with Englishmen.
18. During the Seven Years’ War (a.k.a. the French & Indian War), the Cherokee/England alliance was tested.
The Native Americans initially joined the British war effort against France. But after feeling undervalued for their services, skirmishes ensued, which eventually led to full warfare between them.
The Cherokee began attacking southern colonies. The British retaliated with two military incursions during the Anglo-Cherokee War (1758-1761), which caused widespread destruction of Cherokee towns in Georgia and South Carolina.
19. After the murder of a number of Cherokee leaders in the State of Franklin (now East Tennessee), Little Turkey was elected as chief of the Cherokee.
The seat of the Cherokee council was then moved from Chota to Ustanali (later known as New Echota, in Calhoun GA), which was established by refugees from the Cherokee Lower Towns.
20. The government of the Cherokee Nation began meeting in New Echota. On November 12, 1825, it was officially named their capital, serving as a place for Cherokee Council meetings, court hearings, and social gatherings.
New Echota was the site of the first Cherokee newspaper (the Cherokee Phoenix), their first Supreme Courthouse, and, most infamously, where the Treaty of New Echota was signed ceding Cherokee land to the U.S.
21. After the Cherokee were removed from North Georgia during the Trail of Tears in 1838, their capital was abandoned for over 100 years.
In 1954, a team of archeologists began excavating New Echota. They uncovered thousands artifacts from the Cherokee era as well as relics of earlier indigenous cultures.
As a result, the State of Georgia authorized reconstruction of New Echota, including important buildings like the Council House and Supreme Court. The New Echota Historical Park was officially opened in 1962.
History of Cherokee in North Carolina (pre-Trail of Tears)
22. In western North Carolina, the Cherokee inhabited what were known as the Valley, Middle, and Outer Towns.
They were located along the major rivers of the Tuckasegee, the upper Little Tennessee, and French Broad River.
23. After Hernando De Soto made initial contact with the Cherokee in 1540, an expedition led by Juan Pardo in 1566 further explored Cherokee land in western North Carolina and southeastern Tennessee.
Pardo stayed at the Joara chiefdom near Morganton, North Carolina, and explored Cherokee villages near Asheville.
24. During the Revolutionary War, the Cherokee aligned themselves with the British. They hoped that, if the British won, they would stop colonial expansion to the west (just as they’d done with the Royal Proclamation of 1763).
Unfortunately, when the British were defeated, the Cherokee people lost a large portion of their North Carolina land to the newly formed United States of America.
25. In 1798, the Tellico Treaty was signed in response to the influx of settlers into North Carolina’s Cherokee territory.
This treaty required that the Meigs-Freeman line be drawn to stop more settlers from encroaching on Cherokee land.
This line went from the peak of Mount Collins to a spot on the North Carolina-South Carolina border, near what is now Brevard NC.
Sequoyah & The Cherokee Language
26. Sequoyah was a Cherokee man who served in the U.S. Army in the Creek War, and was also an accomplished silversmith and painter.
As a silversmith, Sequoyah interacted with many European Americans. He was especially impressed by their writing, believing that the ability to record and transmit knowledge held a considerable amount of power.
27. By 1809, Sequoyah began attempting to create a system of writing for the Cherokee language.
He started by trying to create a pictograph system, wherein every word in the language had a character or symbol. But he ultimately found it to be impractical.
Eventually he isolated 85 distinct syllables in Cherokee speech, and assigned each one a symbol. For reference on how to shape the different letters, he used a printed Bible.
28. Sequoyah’s 6-year-old daughter, Ayokeh, helped complete his work and was the first to learn the new syllabary.
They were both charged with witchcraft and brought to trial, wherein they were separated and asked to exchange messages in order to see if their new Cherokee syllabary actually worked.
After proving it did, the warriors presiding over the trial deemed Sequoyah’s syllabary legitimate.
29. Because the syllabary was based on sounds unique to their language, it was not difficult for the Cherokee people to learn. Over the next few years, the majority of the Cherokee population became literate.
Sequoyah’s syllabary was officially adopted in 1825, making the Cherokee Nation one of the world’s first indigenous groups to have their own effective written language.
30. The syllabary proved to be incredibly useful, and spurred the creation of the first Cherokee newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix.
Chief writer Elias Boudinot wrote in both English and Cherokee, using the syllabary created by Sequoyah. The newspaper quickly became the primary method of communication among the Cherokee Nation.
31. Today Sequoyah is remembered as one of the most influential people in Cherokee history. There is a monument honoring him in Calhoun GA, as well as a 22-foot tall wooden bust of him outside of North Carolina’s Museum of the Cherokee Indian honoring his remarkable legacy.
The Trail of Tears in Georgia & North Carolina
32. The Trail of Tears was the forced relocation of nearly 100,000 Native Americans from their ancestral homeland in the southeastern United States to “Indian Territory” west of the Mississippi River.
White settlers had long sought to take Native lands for their own. They got their chance under President Andrew Jackson, after he signed the Indian Removal Act into law in 1830.
This law allowed the federal government to exchange land and negotiate removal treaties with Native Americans. It stated that negotiations should to be done fairly and voluntarily, but they quickly became forced.
33. The Cherokee people were divided on how to handle the looming threat of removal.
The majority, led by nationalist John Ross, wanted to stay and fight for their land. A vocal minority, led by Major Ridge and his son John, believed it was better to agree to leave in exchange for money and other assets.
In 1835, the “Ridgeites” signed the Treaty of New Echota, which gave the Cherokee tribe $5 million and a chunk of land in Oklahoma in exchange for their ancestral lands. They were later killed by their own people as traitors.
34. Knowing there was a lack of community support for the treaty, the US government allowed a two-year extension to give the Cherokee people time to move. But by 1838, only around 2,000 Cherokee had moved voluntarily.
In response, the government sent 7,000 soldiers (led by General Winfield Scott) to expedite their removal, forcing Cherokee out of their homes and into stockades before marching them to the new Indian Territory.
35. The brutal trek– over 1,000 miles through rough terrain and terrible weather– was made mostly on foot.
Sickness ran rampant, with whooping cough, typhus, dysentery, cholera, and starvation striking down many Cherokee along the way. It’s estimated that some 4,000 Cherokee died during the tragic Trail of Tears relocation process.
36. Today the journey is commemorated by the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, which stretches across nine states and retraces the route to Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
There’s also a Trail of Tears Highway that runs through the tiny town of Summerville GA. It traces part of the original route, with historical markers along the way.
Cherokee Culture & Cherokee Traditions Today
37. Today there are three federally recognized Cherokee tribes: the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma, and the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. It is the largest tribal nation in the US, with over 300,000 citizens.
38. The Cherokee language is the only southern Iroquoian language that is still spoken today. An estimated 2,000 people are fluent in the language, with several thousand more considered beginner or proficient speakers.
Some NGOs are taking steps to ensure the preservation of the language, including the Cherokee Preservation Foundation. They offer Cherokee-language-only classrooms to immerse children in the language on a daily basis.
39. The Cherokee Nation observes one annual holiday on September 6, which commemorates the signing of the Cherokee Nation Constitution in 1839.
The celebration takes place in Tahlequah OK, and draws 100,000+ visitors from all around the country.
There’s a parade through downtown Tahlequah and a variety of traditional games, concerts, and arts & crafts shows as well as the Chief’s State of the Nation Address.
40. There are also a number of cultural festivals celebrating Cherokee customs that take place throughout the year.
These include the Cherokee Voices Festival, which features traditional Cherokee music, singing, dance, food, and storytelling; the Northern Cherokee Nation Annual Powwow & Cultural Gathering in Clinton MO; and the annual 4th of July Powwow & Fireworks in Cherokee NC. –by Christina Maggitas; all photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett