Sequoyah, a Cherokee, created the only known
Native American writing system in 1821. This
collection of syllables took twelve years to make!
The name "Cherokee" [chair-uh-kee] means "speakers of another language" or "those who live in the mountains." The Cherokee lived in southwest America, and were considered one of the "Five Civilized Tribes." Staying together in small communities, they stayed near rivers because the land was best for growing crops. The main animal for the Cherokee was deer. The weapons used to hunt were bows and arrows, blowguns, spears, and fishing poles. They made their clothes out of fiber and deerskin. Men wore breechcloths and leggings while women wore skirts and blouses. Instead of shoes they wore moccasins, which were like slippers.
The Cherokee had council meetings
where everyone could help decide what
the tribe should do.
The Cherokee had seven clans, or family groups: Bear, Blue, Bird, Paint, Deer, Wind, and Wolf. The eldest woman was always the one in charge of her clan. In a village, houses were close together and a council house was made for tribe meetings. This building had seven sides to show each of the seven clans. One tribe had two chiefs: a Peace Chief and a War Chief. The Peace Chief was in charge unless the tribe was at war, when the War Chief would take over. But, when an important decision had to be made, most of the tribe got to talk about it and decide. Politically, women were very active in the community and did go to council meetings often.
Only men were allowed to become chiefs
of the Cherokee tribe.
In Cherokee clans, men and women shared work evenly. War, hunting, and negotiation between tribes were men's work. Women took care of the crops, house, and family members. Men made political decisions for the clans and women made social choices. Only men were chiefs, while women were landowners. Everyone participated in storytelling, art, music, and traditional medicine. The Cherokee religion was a form of Animism, meaning they revered objects. Almost no one practices the old Cherokee religion today.
The Cherokee gave furs,
including fox pelts, to the Europeans
in order to get guns.
The society was matrilineal, meaning everything was passed down on the mother's side. Marrying within one's own clan was not allowed. When a couple got married, the man joined the woman's clan. Strangers who came to the village or were taken in battle were usually accepted into a clan and therefore became Cherokee.
When the Europeans came, the Cherokee traded with them: deerskin, fox pelts, otter pelts, bear hide, raccoon skin, slaves, and arrows were given in return for cloth, blankets, brass kettles and pots, and guns. Guns especially were an important trade item.
This caricature shows how the Native American lands
were divided up amongst different countries and states.
When the American Revolution broke out, the Cherokee allied with the British. In response, Americans began a campaign to kill all Cherokee. They attacked many of the towns and in the early 1780's, two-thirds of Cherokee towns were gone. Many Cherokee were forced to flee to the mountains to avoid the plundering, but starved or froze there. If caught, they were held as prisoners of war or were sold into slavery. With no help from the British, the Cherokee called for peace with the Americans in 1782.
In 1738, a terrible smallpox epidemic struck the Cherokee tribe and devastated the towns. The Cherokee had no immunity to European diseases. It lasted for eighteen months and killed nearly half of the tribe. Out of the 20,000 before, about 7,000 to 10,000 are estimated to have survived.
By 1838, the United States government forced the Cherokee
to travel thousands of miles during a bitterly cold winter. The
Cherokee were not prepared for the journey and thousands
died. Their event is now known as the "Trail of Tears."
One of the most infamous pieces of Cherokee history is the "Trail of Tears." In the 1800's, the American government decided to start the project of Indian Removal to make room for settlers. They created "Indian Territory" in Oklahoma and forced all Native American tribes to live there instead of in the South. The Cherokee refused to leave their homeland and were told the American army would force them to move. When the Cherokee asked the Supreme Court for help, the Court said that the Cherokee should be able to stay. Yet, President Andrew Jackson ordered U.S. troops to march the tribe to Oklahoma. About 4,000 Cherokee died on what is now called the "Trail of Tears."