April 2003 A Conscious Evolution Newsletter
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Volume 2, Number 4

Opinions presented in Metamorphosis are those of their respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of others associated with the newsletter.

The Cherokee Spirit

by Connie Reich
 

I am part Cherokee. The reason there are so many people who are part Cherokee is because the Cherokee were one of the few tribes who encouraged marriages to whites and took those who married Cherokee into the tribe. I am uncertain of exactly how much Cherokee blood I actually have. It gets rather complicated. My great-grandmother on my mom’s side was a full-blood Cherokee who married a white man. My grandmother was half Cherokee, and she married a white man who had Cherokee blood. My dad’s parents both had Cherokee blood, so both of my parents were part Cherokee. My mom was at least a quarter Cherokee, possibly more. According to the Cherokee Nation, if you even have a little Cherokee blood you are a Cherokee. I think it’s also in the heart and soul.

Today there are four groups of Cherokee, three of which are recognized by the federal government. They are the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the United Keetoowah Band, also of Oklahoma, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina. The fourth, the Echota Cherokee, are recognized by the State of Alabama. My great-grandmother was a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. She died at the age of 103, four or five years before I was born. My grandmother lived out her life in Wewoka, Oklahoma, not far from the boundary line of what is today the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma in northeastern Oklahoma. The capital is Tahlequah. My grandmother told me when I was a child that her mother was one of the Cherokee rounded up in groups from their homeland and forced to march over 1,000 miles to Oklahoma territory in 1838-1839.

My parents moved to Michigan when I was three years old. If some archaeologists are correct, in moving to Michigan my parents were actually returning to their ancestral homeland. Because the Cherokee language is so similar to the Iroquois dialect, and because the two Nations share similar ceremonial rites and beliefs, it is suggested that the Cherokee were originally part of the Iroquois Nation, with their origins in the Great Lakes area. It is believed that while part of the Iroquois Nation moved northward, another group moved southward, later calling themselves the Aniyunwiya, or the Principal People. The name was changed to Cherokee by European explorers who heard the Creek Indians refer to their neighboring tribe as Chelokee, which is really a Creek word meaning people of a different speech.

Since their earliest contact with European explorers in 1500, the Cherokee had been identified as one of the most advanced among Native American tribes. The Cherokee land was 40,000 square miles, with the Ohio River bordering the north. It included most of Kentucky and Tennessee, parts of Georgia, Alabama, both Carolinas and both Virginias. When the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1789, the boundary line for the states was drawn right through the Cherokee Nation as if it didn’t exist. The Cherokee were forced into treaties by the white man (28 times between 1684 and 1819), and pushed repeatedly into smaller portions of their territory. With less and less hunting ground, the Cherokee turned to farming and cattle ranching.

In 1828, the year that Andrew Jackson was elected president, the Cherokee were not nomadic savages. In fact, they had assimilated many European customs, including the wearing of gowns by Cherokee women. The Cherokee had built roads, schools, churches, and had their own system of representational government. They had their own alphabet called the “Talking Leaves,” which was perfected by Sequoyah. They lived in cabins on their lands, and had acquired furniture and dishes from their European neighbors. The Cherokee lived in peace with the white settlers and many of them adopted the Christian religion. Runaway slaves were accepted into the tribe and lived amongst the Cherokee.

Andrew Jackson ran for president on a platform promoting Indian removal and was elected in 1828. In 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act because gold was discovered in Georgia and the state government wanted the Indians out of the way. Jackson painted a picture of the Cherokee as illiterate, uncivilized “savage hunters.” He quickly signed the Removal Act into law. Jackson was pleased with the passage of the law because in addition to enabling the states to, “advance rapidly in population, wealth, and power,” the law, in his view, would also help the Cherokee and other Indian tribes.

In his address to Congress in 1830 Andrew Jackson stated: “It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessing their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.”

The Cherokee did not share President Jackson’s idea that the Indian Removal Act was the humanitarian effort he claimed it to be. They fought the law by challenging it twice in the Supreme Court. In 1831 the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, stating that the Cherokee Nation was not a sovereign nation. However, in 1832 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Cherokee Nation, stating that it did represent a sovereign nation and thus the Removal Act was invalid. Andrew Jackson was unhappy with the Supreme Court ruling and decided that in order to remove the Cherokee he would have to get them to agree to removal in a treaty. He got a very small fraction of the Cherokee Nation, led by a Cherokee named Major Ridge and his son, to sign the removal treaty. Even though Chief John Ross got over 16,000 Cherokee to sign a petition opposing the removal, Jackson held fast to the treaty and so the Cherokee fate was sealed.

The Cherokee were rounded up by 7,000 cavalry soldiers in 1838, first placed in stockades or internment camps and then marched over 1,000 miles to Oklahoma on what came to be know as the Cherokee Trail of Tears. Thousands of Cherokee died in the internment camps before the removal. More than 4,000 died on the trail, and many died after arriving from the effects of the journey. The Cherokee were always a people whose daily life was characterized by a deep commitment to maintain spiritual and physical equilibrium and to live in a right relationship among the people and with the land. They chose to walk in beauty and balance. They held fast to this commitment even when their world was changed by those who were, at times, unable to recognize the humanity in the people they sought to dominate. 

The Cherokee spirit and their commitment to beauty and balance contributed to the determination of the Cherokee Nation to rebuild in Indian Territory. They soon had a democratic form of government, churches, schools, newspapers and businesses. A new Constitution was adopted in September of 1839, the year that the final group of Cherokee arrived via the Trail of Tears. Tahlequah and nearby Park Hill became hubs of business activity and centers of cultural activity in Indian Territory. In 1844, the Cherokee Advocate, printed both in the Cherokee and English languages, became the first newspaper in Indian Territory, and the first in a Native American language. The Cherokee Messenger was the territory’s first periodical. Soon the Cherokee’s educational system of 144 elementary schools and two higher educational institutes, the Cherokee Male and Female Seminaries, rivaled all others. In fact, many white settlements bordering the Cherokee Nation took advantage of the superior school system and paid tuition to have their children attend Cherokee schools. Other bilingual materials, made possible by Sequoyah’s alphabet in 1821, led the Cherokee people to a higher level of literacy than their white counterparts, all before Oklahoma statehood in 1907.

The years between the removal and the 1860s were called “The Cherokee Golden Age,” a period of prosperity that ended with the division of the Civil War. The Cherokee were talked into siding with the Confederacy at one point during the war. After the war the government took away more of their land and their rights. What was left of the land was divided into individual allotments, which were given to Cherokee listed in the census compiled by the Dawes Commission in the late 1890s. Descendents of those original enrollees make up today’s Cherokee Nation tribal citizenship.

Today the Cherokee Nation is the second largest Native American tribe in the United States. There are more than 200,000 tribal members. Almost 70,000 of them reside in the 7,000-square-mile area of the Cherokee Nation, which is not a reservation but a jurisdictional service area that includes all of eight counties and portions of six others in northeastern Oklahoma. Today the Cherokee Nation is a leader in education, housing, vocational training, business and economic development. As a federally recognized Indian tribe, the Cherokee Nation has both the opportunity and the sovereign right to exercise control over all tribal assets, which include 66,000 acres of land as well as 96 miles of the bed of the Arkansas River. The Cherokee Nation has a democratic form of government that includes judicial, executive and legislative branches. A revised Constitution of the Cherokee Nation was ratified by the Cherokee people in June of 1976 and approved by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Executive power is vested in the Principal Chief, the legislative power in the Tribal Council, and the judicial power in the Cherokee Nation Judicial Appeals Tribunal.

It was a spirit of survival and perseverance that carried the Cherokee to Indian Territory on the Trail of Tears. Today, the same spirit leads the Cherokee.