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Cherokee History - Smoky Mountains

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The Cherokee Indians – Then and Now

Today, eight states contain lands once laid claim to by tribes of the Cherokee Nation centuries ago. This group of mostly southern states include Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North and South Carolina,Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. In all, the Cherokee Nation was estimated to have laid claim to about 135,000 square miles in total land area.

Only 56,000 acres of the Cherokee's original homeland make up the Qualla Boundary today. This area is more commonly referred to as the Cherokee Indian Reservation, located in western North Carolina. The reservation is a sovereign land held in trust specifically for the tribe by the United States Government. Will Thomas, a non-Indian, purchased the land in the late 1800s and presented the land as a gift to the Cherokee people.

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his region has been known as "sha-cona-ge" or the "land of the blue mist (or smoke)" by the Cherokee for centuries. The Cherokee once inhabited a vast area that included the Great Smoky Mountains, even before Columbus discovered his new world.Male Cherokee Dress

Thousands of non-Indians have moved into the area and developed the region during the past 100 years, though the Smokies are still home to the Cherokee. A geographic surprise to many, about 90-percent of the Great Smoky Mountains lie within the borders of western North Carolina, while a small amount is in Tennessee.

Today, the reservation, which is bordered on the north by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, boasts of development uncommon on Indian lands throughout the country. Around 75 percent of the tribe's revenues derive directly from the tourism industry - the mainstay of their economy.

Nearly 350 businesses hold "trader's licenses" and collect a six percent tribal levy on sales. The six percent North Carolina sales tax, nor any other tax, applies within the Qualla Boundary.

Visitation to Cherokee has grown since the late 1940s, thus spurring an annual increase in tourist-related businesses. Today, the reservation has about 100 cabins, 47 motels and 28 campgrounds, numerous restaurants, cultural and non-cultural attractions, shops, service stations and more. The reservation even contains six major motel properties.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians live on the reservation and are the descendants of the 1,000 Cherokee who hid in the Great Smoky Mountains to avoid forced removal to Oklahoma on the infamous "Trail of Tears" during the late 1830s. Today, approximately 11,000 Cherokee are enrolled members of the tribe.

No longer in danger of becoming extinct as it was only a generation ago, their language, both spoken and written, is heard at attractions such as the Oconaluftee Indian Village and during the outdoor drama "Unto These Hills". The Cherokee language is also a part of the curriculum at universities such as Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, a required subject in Carolina schools.

The Cherokee were not nomadic like the tribes of the north plains. They called themselves Ani'-Yun'wiya, meaning the Principal People. The Cherokee women are extremely important in Cherokee society in that they are who decent is traced through. In Cherokee society, you live in the mother's household. This is in contrast to the European method of decent that traced both the men and women.

Cherokee - Letter I
n 1540, Hernando de Soto, a Spanish explorer, would enter the Cherokee territory and forever change the way the Cherokee lived. With him, de Soto brought disease, death and misery to the Native Americans – all in his quest for gold, silver and other forms of wealth in the name of Spain. During that time, his men killed some Indians and enslaved others, believing they were withholding information about Cherokee wealth and the location of mines. About 95 percent of the native population during the first 200 years of European presence succumbed to diseases carried by the foreigners. In all, for every 100 Native Americans who lived in 1492, there were only five who could call themselves direct descendants in 1692.

The Cherokee people and their known struggles with the white man have been detailed in film and books over the years and the struggle continues to this day. The Cherokee make do in a non-Indian society while attempting to avoid severance of their often tragic, but unique past. Meanwhile, the future and prosperity of the Cherokee people grows as the tourism industry does.

In the late 1940s, the Cherokee people started to become tourism-minded around the same time the Smokies were designated as a National Park. This was also during the Blue Ridge Parkway's early development phases. As the park opened and the parkway developed, visitors were coming in via two highways--US 441 and US 19, and support services were needed. Still, tourism continues to be the economic lifeblood of the Cherokee people, nearly 50 years later.

You could say that the Qualla Boundary and its businesses are Indian-owned but, by the authority of the Tribal Council, Indians can lease their businesses or buildings to non-Indians. The Cherokee people rightfully can continue to claim the status of "original inhabitants" of the vast and beautiful Smoky Mountains, even as the Reservation continues to grow and develop.

Approximately 16,000 Cherokees were moved into a dozen hastily constructed stockades in groups of 1,000 beginning in the spring of 1837 and continuing throughout the fall the following year. Under the command of General Winfield Scott, the Cherokee were transported by a fleet of over 600 keel boats, steamers, and wagons to the west by 7,000 soldiers and volunteers. An estimated 4,000 Cherokee Indians died during the almost 200-day journey from such occurrences as exposure to torrential rains and ice storms to disease and malnutrition.

You'll find stories throughout the history books of how the Cherokees were maligned, mistreated, and tricked out of their homeland through treaty after treaty (about 30 total). According to historians, this began in 1684 and ended in 1835 with their removal when a small faction of Cherokee leaders and the U.S. Government came to a final agreement.

The Treaty of Removal promised members of the Cherokee nation $5 million in compensation and 13 million acres of land in Oklahoma. Many had to leave so hastily that they were never able to claim it and were tricked out of their money. Once in Oklahoma, they were again "influenced" to sign away their lands, and in 1898 the remaining tracts were divided among individual tribe members under pressure from the U.S. Government. For many years Congress debated on how to handle the Cherokee Indians. Despite the pleas for fair treatment for the Cherokee by such statesmen as Davy Crockett, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and others, it fell on deaf ears, including those of man who signed the removal - President Andrew Jackson. Prior to the treaty of 1833, the U.S. Government had been successful in persuading some tribesmen to move voluntarily. Between 1819 and 1828, a number of displaced Cherokee settled in Arkansas only to be uprooted later by whites in that area. Some, in order to remain in the region, simply agreed to accept land totaling 160 acres and become "useful" U.S. citizens. However, the majority of the Cherokee felt that being uprooted for any reason was unfair, and that they were subsequently victimized, thus their less than hospitable reaction. During the round-up about 1,000 of their people hid out in the mountains. Some were allowed to remain, but only after such incidents as the execution of Tsali and his two sons. They were executed for killing a U.S. soldier who had mistreated Tsali's wife. Others were more fortunate because of people like Will Thomas, an adopted Cherokee, who was able to purchase 56,000 acres of land for the Cherokee in Western North Carolina. These lands were eventually designated as the Qualla Boundary.

According to many historians, the removal of the Cherokee might have been avoided, if the U.S. Government had dealt fairly with the tribe in the beginning, and if white settlers had tried a more peaceable approach to living with the Indians. By the early 1800s after all, the Cherokee, whose North America roots date back to before the time of Christ, were enjoying a pretty high quality of life. Not only had they established communities throughout the region, they were governing themselves through a republican form of authority. One of the Cherokee's most prominent leaders, Sequoyah, spent 12 years developing the Cherokee Alphabet. He is the only person in history to accomplish this feat without being able to read or write another language. As early as 1828, Elias Boudinot, an educated Cherokee, was publishing a newspaper, The Phoenix, in both English and Cherokee in the Cherokee Nation.

Generations of Cherokees have been told the story of how their ancestors were removed from their homelands. Numerous books have been penned and films made about the subject. Two outdoor dramas have been made as well - "Unto These Hills," which has played to four decades of audiences in Cherokee, N.C. and "Trail of Tears," which is performed annually in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. There is no doubt that the designation of the Trail of Tears as a national landmark has enhanced awareness of the tragedy. The designation of the trail as a national landmark was the culmination of four years of planning on the part of the Eastern and Western Cherokee Tribes, the National Park Service and several states "to protect and identify the historic route, artifacts and remnants for enjoyment and public use." A comprehensive management plan was developed by a 35-member advisory council. From Cherokee, NC, to Tahlequah, Oklahoma, a trail logo was adopted and placed along the extending land and water route. Interpretive centers have been planned for each state the trail passes through - North Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois, and Oklahoma - with state, local, and federal governments participating.

Sites and artifacts found along the trail, such as the site of Fort Butler in Cherokee County, North Carolina and Tsali's Rock in the Deep Creek area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, have been identified as well.

For the Trail of Tears anniversary, The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and the Eastern Band of Cherokee have met every two years since October, 1988. The designation of the Trail of Tears marks the beginning of another era in the history of these Native Americans, just as the return of Chief Junaluska to Cherokee in 1842.

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