Our History

A Proud Heritage

Since the earliest contact with European explorers in the 16th century, the Cherokee people have been consistantly identified as one of the most socially and culturally advanced of the Native American tribes. Cherokee culture thrived many hundreds of years before initial European contact in the southeastern area of what is now the United States. Cherokee society and culture continued to develop, progressing and embracing cultural elements from European settlers. The Cherokee shaped a government and a society matching the most civilized cultures of the day.

Gold was discovered in Georgia in the 1830's. Outsiders were already coveting Cherokee homelands and a period of "Indian removals" made way for encroachment by settlers, prospectors and others. Ultimately, thousands of Cherokee men, women and children were rounded up in preparation for their "removal" at the order of President Andrew Jackson in his direct defiance of a ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court ("[Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; let him enforce it now if he can." - Andrew Jackson).

The Cherokee were herded at bayonet point in a forced march of 1,000 miles ending with our arrival in "Indian Territory", which is today part of the state of Oklahoma. Thousands died in the internment camps, along the trail itself and even after their arrival due to the effects of the journey.

Rebuilding

The Cherokee soon re-established themselves in their new home with communities, churches, schools, newspapers and businesses. The new Cherokee capital of Tahlequah, along with nearby Park Hill, became a major hub of regional business activity and the center of cultural activity. The Cherokee adopted a new constitution in September of 1839 and in 1844 the Cherokee Advocate, printed in both Cherokee and English, became the first newspaper in Indian Territory and the first-ever published in a Native American language. The Cherokee Messenger was our first periodical or magazine.

The tribe's educational system of 144 elementary schools and two higher education institutions - the Cherokee Male and Female Seminaries - rivaled, if not surpassed all other schools in the region. Many white settlements bordering the Cherokee Nation took advantage of our superior school system, actually payiing tuition to have their children attend Cherokee schools.

Reading materials made possible by Sequoyah’s 1821 creation of the Cherokee Syllabary led the Cherokee people to a level of literacy significantly higher than their white counterparts well before Oklahoma became the country's 46th state in 1907.

The Cherokee rebuilt a progressive lifestyle from remnants of the society and the culture left behind in Georgia. The years between the removal and the 1860’s have often been referred to as the Cherokee's "Golden Age,” a period of prosperity ending in tribal division over loyalties in the Civil War. Unfortunately, even more Cherokee lands and rights were taken by the federal government after the war in reprimand for the Cherokee who chose to side with the Confederacy. What remained of Cherokee tribal land was eventually divided into individual allotments, doled out to Cherokees listed in the census compiled by the Dawes Commission in the late 1890s. It is the descendants of those original enrollees who make up today’s Cherokee Nation tribal citizenship.

What is the Cherokee Nation Today?

The Cherokee Nation today is an active leader in education, housing, vocational training, business and economic development. We are the largest Indian tribe in the United States with well over 300,000 tribal citizens. Over 70,000 Cherokee reside within a 7,000 square mile geographical area, which is not a reservation but rather a federally-recognized, truly sovereign nation covering most of northeast Oklahoma. Its jurisdictional service area encompasses eight entire counties along with portions of six others. As one of only three such federally-recognized Cherokee tribes, the Cherokee Nation has both the sovereign right and the responsibility to exercise control and development over our tribal assets, including more than 66,000 acres of land and 96 miles of the Arkansas Riverbed.

Tribal Government

The Cherokee Nation operates under a three-part government including the judicial, executive and legislative branches. A revised constitution of the Cherokee Nation was ratified by the Cherokee people in June of 1976 and approved by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs on September 5, 1976.

Executive power is vested in the Principal Chief, the legislative power in the Tribal Council and judicial power in the Cherokee Nation Judicial Appeals Tribunal.

The position of Deputy Principal Chief is also part of the executive branch. The Deputy Principal Chief presides over the Tribal Council during their monthly meetings. The Principal Chief, Deputy Principal Chief and council members are elected to four-year terms by registered tribal voters. Council members represent the five districts of the Cherokee Nation within its 14-county jurisdictional area.

The judicial branch of tribal government includes the District Court and Judicial Appeals Tribunal, which is directly comparable to the U.S. Supreme Court. The tribunal consists of three members who are appointed by the Principal Chief and confirmed by the council. It is the highest court of the Cherokee Nation and oversees internal legal disputes as well as the District Court. The District Judge and an Associate District Judge preside over the tribe’s District Court and hear all cases brought before it under jurisdiction of the Cherokee Nation Judicial Code.

Self-Governance Agreement

The Cherokee Nation authorized the negotiation of a tribal self-governance agreement for direct funding from the U.S. Congress on February 10, 1990. This agreement authorizes the tribe to plan, conduct, consolidate and administer programs and receive direct funding to deliver services to tribal members. Self-governance is a change from the paternalistic control the federal government has exercised in the past, to the full-tribal responsibility for self-government and independence initially intended by treaties with sovereign Indian nations.

Court System, Legal Code

Self-governance gained an added dimension in November, 1990, when the Cherokee Nation passed legislation establishing a Cherokee Nation District Court and a criminal penal and procedure code.

In February, 1991, the tribe unanimously approved four legislative acts to facilitate cooperative law enforcement within the jurisdictional boundaries of the Cherokee Nation. In compliance with State of Oklahoma statutes, the legislative acts established a Penal Code, provisions for bail and bonding, a Uniform Vehicle Code and a Uniform Controlled Dangerous Substance Act. These acts strengthen tribal sovereignty while allowing non-tribal law enforcement authorities to pursue and apprehend criminal suspects and vehicle code violators on Cherokee Nation land.

Tax Code

On February 10, 1990, the Cherokee Nation approved a tax code including a tobacco tax and sales tax on goods or services sold or rendered on tribal land. The purpose of the tax code is to raise revenue to provide governmental services to Cherokee people and promote economic development, self-sufficiency and a strong tribal government. To govern the tax code, the Cherokee Nation developed law enforcement codes and judicial procedures guided by the self-governance agreement and the tribe’s code of ethics.

Fuel Tax Agreement

On May 30, 1996, the Cherokee Nation and four other Oklahoma tribes reached an agreement with state lawmakers on taxing tribal sales of motor fuel. The tribes agreed not to sue the state or to license individual tribal citizens to sell motor fuel. In return, they will be rebated part of the money resulting from fuel sales on their lands each quarter of the year for 20 years. They also agreed to spend the money rebated to them for law enforcement, education, roads and health care.

The Cherokee Nation received its first check from the fuel tax agreement for $1.1 million from the state on February 4, 1997. The amount of money received by Cherokee Nation was based on a formula negotiated with the state which uses the number of Cherokee tribal citizens in Oklahoma and the gallons of fuel sold by the tribe’s two convenience stores (Tahlequah and Fort Gibson) between October 1 and December 31, 1996.

Leading The Way in the 21st Century

The tribe has taken the lead in self-governance through the enactment of a tax code and the re-establishment of the tribe’s district court, law enforcement and judicial systems. In addition, the nation operates several successful enterprises, including Cherokee Nation Enterprises, and Cherokee Nation Industries, Inc. CNE operates the Cherokee casino facilities, two convenience store/gas stations and a Cherokee gift shop located at the tribal complex in Tahlequah. CNI is a multi-million dollar industry, supplying several major defense contractors. The Cherokee Nation is a vital business leader in Oklahoma with a positive financial impact of over one billion dollars annually for the state.


This information is provided by the Cherokee Nation Cultural Resource Center. For information regarding culture and language, please email cultural@cherokee.org