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[ Back to Cherokee ] [ Trail of Tears ]

Cherokee Yesterday and Today

Lands once claimed centuries ago by the Cherokee Nation encompassed parts of what are now eight states: Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. The total land area was estimated to be about 135,000 square miles.

In contrast, today only 56,000 acres of their original homeland comprise the Qualla Boundary, more commonly referred to as the Cherokee Indian Reservation, in western North Carolina.. When visitors arrive on the reservation, they are entering a sovereign land held in trust specifically for the Tribe by the United States Government. This land was purchased by a non-Indian, by the name of Will Thomas, who in the late 1800s, presented the land to the Cherokee people. [ continued ]

o the Cherokee, this area was known as "sha-cona-ge" or the "land of the blue mist (or smoke)". Long before Columbus arrived in the New World, the Cherokee were already inhabiting a vast area that included the Great Smoky Mountains.Male Cherokee Dress

The Great Smokies are still home to the Cherokee, but thousands of non-Indians have moved into the area and developed the region during the past one hundred years. About ninety percent of the Great Smokies lie within the borders of western North Carolina and a small amount is in Tennessee that is a geographic surprise to many.

Bordered on the North by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the reservation today boasts of development uncommon on Indian lands throughout the United States. Tourism is the mainstay of the economy with about seventy-five percent of the tribe's revenues derived from this industry.

Nearly three hundred and fifty businesses hold "trader's licenses" and collect a six percent tribal levy on sales. No other sales tax, such as the six percent North Carolina sales tax, apply within the Boundary.

Since the late 1940s, visitation to Cherokee has grown and spurred an annual increase in tourist-related businesses. Today, the reservation has 47 motels, about 100 cabins and 28 campgrounds, numerous restaurants, shops, cultural and non-cultural attractions, service stations and more. Six major motel properties are located on the reservation.

The Cherokee living on the reservation are known as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and are descendants of the approximately one thousand Cherokee who hid in these 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.

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

Unlike the tribes of the north plains and others, the Cherokee were not nomadic, they called themselves Ani'-Yun'wiya, the Principal People. They traced their descent through the women in their society and they lived in the mother's household, in contrast to the European method that traced both the men and women.

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n 1540, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto's enteredy the Cherokee territory and changed forever the way the Cherokee lived. His quest for gold, silver and other forms of wealth in the name of Spain brought disease, death and misery to Native Americans. Believing the Indians were withholding information about Cherokee wealth and location of mines, de Soto's men killed some Indians and enslaved others. Diseases carried by the foreigners brought about the demise of about 95 percent of the native population during the first 200 years of European presence that means that for every one hundred Native Americans who lived in 1492, there were only five in 1692.

Volumes have been written about the Cherokee people and their known struggles since the first encounters with the white man. Today, they continue to struggle in a non-Indian society while attempting to avoid severance of their unique and often tragic past. As tourism grows, so does the prosperity and future of the Cherokee people.

It was the designation of the Smokies as a National Park and the development of the Blue Ridge Parkway that caused Cherokee to become tourism-minded in the late 1940s. As visitors came to enjoy the Park and the unique Parkway, services were needed for the visitors who arrived via two highways--US 441 and US 19. Nearly 50 years later, tourism is still the economic lifeblood of the Cherokee people.

All business locations within the Qualla Boundary are Indian-owned but, by the authority of the Tribal Council, Indians can lease their buildings or businesses to non-Indians. Even as the Reservation continues to grow and develop, the Cherokee people rightfully can continue to claim the status of "original inhabitants" of the vast and beautiful Smoky Mountains.

Trail of Tears

Beginning in the spring of 1837 and continuing through the fall of the following year, approximately 16,000 Cherokees were corralled into a dozen hastily constructed stockades in groups of 1,000. They were transported by a fleet of over 600 wagons, steamers, and keel boats to the west by 7,000 soldiers and volunteers under the command of General Winfield Scott. It took nearly 200 days to complete the journey, and an estimated 4,000 Cherokees died before reaching their destination from exposure to the torrential rains and ice storms, malnutrition, and disease.

American history is filled with stories of how the Cherokees were mistreated, maligned and tricked out of their homeland through treaty after treaty (about 30 total), beginning in 1684 and culminating with an agreement between a small faction of Cherokee leaders and U.S. Government in 1835 that led to the Removal.

The Treaty of Removal promised tribal members 13 million acres of land in Oklahoma and $5 million in compensation. Many were tricked out of their money or had to leave so hastily that they were never able to claim it. In the West they were again "persuaded" to sign away their lands, and in 1898 the U.S. Government pressured the tribe to divide remaining tracts among individual tribe members. The Cherokee question was a hotly debated issue in Congress for many years. Sadly, speeches by Henry Clay, Davy Crockett, Daniel Webster, and other prominent statesmen on behalf of the Cherokees fell on deaf ears, including those of President Andrew Jackson, who signed the Removal. Pressed by while settlers who wanted more land in the Appalachian mountains, the U.S. Government had been successful in persuading some tribesmen to move voluntarily prior to the treaty of 1833. A number of Cherokee contingents settled in Arkansas between 1819 and 1828, only to be uprooted later by whites in that area. Others agreed to accept 160 acres of land and become "useful" U.S. citizens in order to remain in their homeland. The majority, however, felt they should not be conciliatory or uprooted for any reason, and they were subsequently victimized. About 1,000 hid out in the mountains during the round-up and were allowed to remain only after the execution of Tsali and his two sons, who had killed a U.S. soldier for mistreating his wife, their mother. Will Thomas, an adopted Cherokee, was able to buy up 56,000 acres of land for them in Western North Carolina--lands which were eventually designated as the Qualla Boundary.

The Removal might have been avoided, according to many historians, if the U.S. Government had dealt fairly with the tribe, and if white settlers had tried to live peaceably with the Indians. After all, by the early 1800s the Cherokees, whose presence in North America dates to before the time of Christ. were enjoying a high quality of life in established communities and taking care of their own affairs through a republican form of government. Sequoyah, one of their prominent leaders, had spent 12 years developing the Cherokee Alphabet--the only in history to accomplish this feat without being able to read or write another language. And Elias Boudinot, an educated Cherokee, was publishing a newspaper, The Phoenix, in both English and Cherokee in the Cherokee Nation as early as 1828.

The story of the Removal his been passed down through generations of Cherokees. It is the subject of numerous books. as well as two outdoor dramas-"Unto These Hills," which has played to four decades of audiences in Cherokee. and "Trail of Tears," which is performed annually in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. The designation of the Trail of Tears as a national landmark, no doubt, will enhance awareness of the tragedy. The trail designation culminated four years of planning on the part of the National Park Service, the Eastern and Western Cherokee Tribes, and several states "to identify and protect the historic route, remnants, and artifacts for public use and enjoyment." A comprehensive management plan by a 35-member advisory council was developed. A trail logo would be adopted and placed along the land and water route extending from Cherokee, NC, to Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Interpretative centers would be planned in each of the states through which the trail passes--North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, and Oklahoma--with federal. state, and local governments participating.

Efforts would be made to identify sites and artifacts along the trail, such as Tsali's Rock in the Deep Creek area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the site of Fort Butler in Cherokee County, North Carolina.

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

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