Who are the Cherokee Indians?

Ken Black

The Cherokee Indians are a tribe of Native Americans who settled mainly in areas of northern Georgia, North and South Carolina, and eastern Tennessee. The tribe is often linked with the Smoky Mountains, in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Many members of the tribe were eventually removed from those lands and transferred to Oklahoma on a path that eventually became known as the Trail of Tears.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

The civilian government structure of the Cherokee Indians was structured around a head chief, chief speaker, and six counselors. The head chief was also head of the religion, though he may have designated a chief priest for most day-to-day religious functions. The chief, his speaker, and his counselors all lived in or near a location known as the council house, where they could perform ceremonial functions. The house was often built near a stream, which was also important for a number of Cherokee ceremonies.

The other major division of the government was known as the military government. A chief warrior and three lieutenants made most military decisions. Surrounding them were six counselors who provided input on various matters relating to war and battles. A war woman, who was often an elderly lady — perhaps the widow of a former war chief — often made decisions on whether captives were killed or adopted into the tribe.

The religion of the Cherokee Indians centered mainly on celestial objects, particularly the sun and the moon. These objects had special meaning to the Cherokee, especially the sun, which was the recipient of many of their prayers. The Cherokee Indians also believed in an afterlife, with seven divisions of heaven. Those who did not live a good life went to a place where they were tortured. Souls lingered on Earth for as long as their bodies had lived.

When the threat of war was imminent, the warriors all met at the tribe's main headquarters to organize themselves. On the march to war, the Cherokee Indians used scouts to go ahead of the main group and report back, in order to prevent ambush. Most battles were close hand-to-hand combat. Weapons commonly used by the Cherokee Indians included bows and arrows, knives, and axes.

Due to conflicting interests, the United States government in 1838 decided to move the Cherokee people to Oklahoma, which was then known as the Indian Territory. One route was on the water, following the Tennessee, Ohio, Mississippi, and Arkansas Rivers. A main land route went northwesterly, going as far north as Southern Illinois, before turning back southwest. More than 16,000 Cherokee Indians were removed to Oklahoma, and possibly as many as half died during the trip west.

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Discussion Comments


@Grivusangel -- I had no idea the Cherokee published a newspaper in their language in Georgia! I remember reading about Sequoyah in my history classes, and knew he developed an alphabet for the Cherokee people, but I certainly didn't know they had a newspaper! That's amazing.

Next time I'm in that part of Georgia, I'll make a point to visit New Echota. It sounds like a fascinating place.


The Cherokee also go into North Alabama. There are several recognized bands in this area. I've been to New Echota, Georgia, which was where many Cherokees lived, and also where the first Cherokee-language newspaper was published. In fact, the famous Cherokee Sequoyah developed the first written alphabet for a Native American language.

There are several chiefs' homes in North Georgia, which is where they lived before the Trail of Tears began.

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