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Tribal Profile: Cherokee Nation (Oklahoma)


Tribal Profile: Cherokee Nation (Oklahoma)

Cherokee Supreme Court building, Tahlequah, Oklahoma, 1979. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Walter Smalling


The Cherokee Nation is headquartered in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. It is not a reservation but as a sovereign native nation, it has a jurisdiction that encompasses 14 counties in northeastern Oklahoma. The Cherokee Nation is not indigenous to Oklahoma but to the Southeast region of the United States in what is now Georgia. According to the Cherokee Nation website,over 70,000 Cherokee citizens reside within a 7000 square mile area.


The Cherokee Nation boasts a population of over 300,000 citizens. Enrollment in the Cherokee Nation is not dependent upon meeting minimum blood quantum requirements (racialization) but on tracing ancestry to the Dawes Rolls.


Linguistically, the Cherokee are an Iroquoian-speaking group. As is common among the Iroquoian groups (as well as many other Native American tribes) Cherokee society was organized on a clan system. The clan system assured improper intermarriage within families and was strictly adhered to; it was forbidden to marry someone within one's own clan and clan members were considered brothers and sisters. A person inherited their clan through their mother. Cherokee had seven clans: the Long Hair clan, the Blue clan, the Wolf clan,the Bird clan, the Paint Clan, the Deer clan and the Wild Potato clan.

Also common among the Iroquoian groups was the game of stickball (and what later came to be known as lacrosse). Historically the game was often played to settle disputes and also incorporated a Stomp Dance as part of the activities which also included feasting and spiritual ceremonies. The Cherokee Stomp Dance is a religious observance to honor Unetlanv, the creator, where participants dance around a sacred fire throughout the night. Women dancers known as shell shakers dance with leg rattles made from turtle shells, fastened at the ankles.

The traditional Cherokee belief system recognized a world of entities which were imbued with spirit. The numbers seven and four were considered sacred numbers as seven corresponded with the number of clans and four was associated with the four cardinal directions. The owl and the cougar had special significance as did the cedar, pine, spruce and laurel trees, and bodies of water were considered sacred sites. Beings called the Little People were leprechaun-like spirits who were thought to help children as much as cause mischief.

The Cherokee was the first Native American nation to develop its own written language and syllabary. It was created by Chief Sequoyah in the early 1800s in response to the European written languages. Prior to the Civil War the Cherokee had a higher literacy rate than their white counterparts.

Political Organization:

Prior to their removal to Oklahoma, the Cherokee were organized in towns and governed by councils of elders with representation from each of the clans and based on whether or not it was a time of war or peace. However, with the influence of their white settler neighbors by 1827 the Cherokee would adopt a republican-style bicameral system of government with executive, legislative and judicial branches, which it maintains today. Several commissions oversee various functions of the Cherokee government and the Marshal Service is the law enforcement division which works in conjunction with other governmental law enforcement bodies.

Historical Highlights:

The Cherokee are indigenous to the Southeast region of what is now Georgia. One of the so-called "Five Civilized Tribes," they were named by white settlers who were impressed with the Indians' ability to adapt to their changing circumstances by adopting the institutions of white European society. But their adaptation would not be enough to ensure their ability to remain in their homelands; after the discovery of gold in Georgia the state pressured for the removal of tribes who were seen as an obstruction to white progress.

In 1830 President Andrew Jackson would sign the Indian Removal Bill, resulting in the Trail of Tears in which the Cherokee and other Five Civilized Tribes would be forcibly marched over 800 miles in the dead of winter to their new home in the Oklahoma territory. It is estimated that over 8,000 Cherokee died on the journey.

The Cherokee nation would be the first Native Americans to challenge the United States in the Supreme Court, resulting in a triumvirate of decisions known as the Marshall Trilogy and what is today the bed rock of federal Indian law and contemporary policy. The Marshall Trilogy and its subsequent legal doctrines has been referred to by scholars as the creation of a legal fiction that justifies the American domination over Native American nations without their consent.

In their efforts to adapt to the influx of European immigrant culture, a mixed blood Cherokee elite class would emerge in the 19th century who profited from the owning of slaves. The integration of black slaves into Cherokee culture through intermarriage resulted in a segment of the Cherokee citizenship known as the Freedman. In the 1980s a series of actions in the Cherokee government moved to disenroll the Freedman from the Cherokee citizenry (with then Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller issuing an executive order requiring a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood as a prerequisite for enrollment, a mandate the Freedman could not meet because they were not counted on the original Dawes Rolls). Amid accusations of racism, numerous lawsuits would be filed within the Cherokee and federal court systems and in 2011 the Department of Housing and Urban Development would freeze $33 million in Cherokee funding after a Cherokee court ruling would exclude the Freedman from voting in a special election. The controversy pits the tribal right to determine its own membership against the federal government's ability to interfere in tribal matters and continues today.


Wilkins, David. American Indian Politics and the American Political System. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2007.
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