Revitalizing Native Cultures
Laura PinnixLaura Pinnix

Cherokee Language & Culture

The Cherokee Nation is the largest in the U.S. particularly when you count folks who have some Cherokee ancestors in their family trees. As Cherokee Museum curator Bo Taylor points out in Spiral of Fire, there are a lot of white people who claim Cherokee heritage, including celebrities like Cher, Brad Pitt and Elvis.

In the 2000 Census, almost 730,000 people reported that they had Cherokee blood, and were either "full blooded" Cherokee or Cherokee in combination with some other tribe or race. Less than 40 percent of the total — just over 281,000 people — identified themselves as full blood Cherokee.

Laura Pinnix says, “The Cherokee language defines who we are. And if we will ever lose our language we will not be Cherokee because the language encompasses everything.”

Click here to watch a video clip featuring Laura Pinnix from Spiral of Fire

Cherokees are split into three federally recognized tribes, with "unofficial" tribal bands in Georgia, Missouri, Alabama, and Arkansas plus members who have migrated to urban areas. The federally recognized tribes include the Cherokee Nation and the United Keetoowah Band, both in Oklahoma, and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation in North Carolina.

The Cherokee were one of the five "Civilized Tribes" of the east who were removed in the 1830s to land in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma. The other civilized tribes included the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole. They were "civilized" because they made peace with the colonists and had begun to adopt white ways — including farming, private ownership of land, laws and even slave ownership.

Early in their history of contact with the Europeans, the Cherokee tried to adopt some of European culture and philosophy. But they also tried to maintain what was essential to the Cherokee culture and coexist with their white neighbors. A Cherokee named Sequoyah wrote a syllabary for the Cherokee language in 1821 so that the tribe could be on an equal literacy footing with whites. The tribe began publishing a newspaper called The Phoenix in the Cherokee language.

Bo TaylorBo Taylor

They designated New Echota in Georgia as the new capitol for the Cherokee Nation. In 1827, they adopted a written constitution that was modeled on the U.S. document. They set up their own elected legislature, executive branch and court system. They allowed Christian missionaries into their lands, but they fought hard to protect their land from encroachment.

However, they lost the war for their land during the removal of tribes to Oklahoma. After the Trail of Tears, the tribe was dispersed over several states in the expanding U.S. The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma reestablished their system of government and operated as a relatively autonomous entity until the State of Oklahoma was admitted to the United States in 1907. Again, most of the land guaranteed to them in "Indian Territory" was opened up to white settlement. Gradually, the Cherokee began to lose some of their traditional ceremonial practices and some of their language.

The 2000 Census showed that less than 9 percent of those who identified themselves as Cherokee still spoke the language at home. In part, that low percentage is due to so many people claiming Cherokee ancestry. There are several communities that still predominantly speak Cherokee — communities like Big Cove and Snowbird of the Eastern Band in North Carolina.

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