Native American Series - The Cherokee Nation
The Cherokee was a large nation before the white man came along. Note that I said “nation,” and not tribe. David “Iron Head” Vann said that if we call the Cherokee a tribe, then we should call the European nations tribes: “The French Tribe; the British Tribe, etc.” According to Mr. Vann, the early politicians put the title “tribe” on what they called “the Indians” to diminish them in the eyes of the public. Mr. Vann (“Iron Head”) continued, “The Cherokee Nation covered all of Kentucky, West Virgina, the eastern half of Tennessee, the northern quarter of Georgia and Alabama, the western half of North and South Carolina, and the western half of Virginia. Basically they 'owned' the Appalachian Mountains (Blue Ridge mountains) and the foothills. . . . A Nation has individual cities, villages, towns, a government, laws, and defined boundaries.”
Iron Head said that his and a few other Native American groups formed a Confederacy - the largest at the time - complete with mutual non-aggression treaties, and directives for maintaining the “common defense.” It included the Cherokee, Iroquois, Shawnee, Delaware, Chickasaw, Choctaw Nations and several smaller groups or unaffiiated Tribes.
Although the different nations spoke basically the same language, there were distinct dialects. To ease communication for trading, they invented a sign language which spread all over the North American continent. Guess what this language gave birth to? It is the basis for the modern American Sign Language (ASL) that is now being used by the hearing impaired in the U.S.
Another product of the Cherokee Nation are prominent and well-known people, including singer Cher Bono, Senator Robert Owen and Will Rogers.1
The beginning of their troubles began in 1540 when the Desoto expedition brought germs with them which killed 75% of the natives.2 Later on, in 1738, Smallpox killed 50% of the Cherokee.3
In 1790, an ancestor of Iron Head - Chief James Vann - discovered gold in their territory in North Georgia. He organized a work force to help him pan the gold, and to mine it from a local mother lode vein. He took the gold to a bank in Tennessee, carrying hundreds of pounds of it during the next few years.
in 1799 someone in Tennessee let it slip that this gold was coming from a Cherokee Indian Chief. He was followed by Whites, but they weren’t able to find his mine. So they attacked and killed him one night while he was sleeping in a tavern he owned, and stole his chest of gold.
Chief Vann’s son, Rich Joe Vann inherited the gold project. By the time of his death in 1844, he was considered the richest man in the western hemisphere. He built roads, owned a fleet of sailing ships, racehorse stables, steam-powered river boats, an import/export company, and thousands of acres of land with large brick mansions. He organized manufacturing systems and sold the products to the whites, including - get this - “Cherokee Rose” whiskey to Andrew Jackson’s army (“Indians” selling whisky to the Whites!). He also sold powder and ammunition to them. “Andy” Jackson didn’t seem to remember this service, or appreciate it much, as we’ll see later on.
Another thing Jackson "forgot" or ignored because it wasn't in his best interest, was the fact that a Cherokee saved his life, and his reputation: During the war of 1812, when Jackson was clearing Alabama territory, a Creek Indian attacked him with a knife. Chief Junaluska, a Cherokee who had brought 500 men along to help Jackson, stuck out his foot and tripped the would-be assassin. Later, at the battle at Horseshoe Bend, without Jackson's knowledge, Junaluska took a few men with him and - under fire from the Creek Indians - stole the canoes that the Creek were saving for escape, should the need arrive. When the Creek were foiled in their escape, they were forced to surrender. This made Jackson a hero, as he was now the one accredited for winning the war of 1812.
It is reported that Jackson told Junaluska: “As long as the sun shines and the grass grows, there shall be friendship between us, and the feet of the Cherokee shall be toward the east.” 4
The Need to Expand was part of the driving force for the Georgia Gold Rush. The
Georgia Colony held a Kings Grant (from Britain) for all the land west of Georgia to the Mississippi (Alabama, Mississippi, and part of Louisiana), but they were afraid of the 'hostile Indians' in Alabama, so they tried to evict the 'peaceful' Cherokees. The Georgians found the mayors of three small towns, got them drunk, then made them sign a treaty in 1817 to give up all their land for territory across the Mississippi. This treaty was put on the back burner for a while as other things developed.
1815 - 1816 was known as the “year without a summer,” and settlers were starving. The Cherokees had a habit of storing excess food for hard times, so they had a huge surplus. So they sold their surplus food to the whites. This made people covet their “enchanted” land. This and the Georgia gold rush of 1828 brought the people into Georgia. This necessitated further expansion, and the people regarded the “Indians” as being in the way. The Georgians and others called “Red-Legs” began to raid, rape and kill the Cherokee. What did Chief John Ross do about this? Did he organize a war party and go after these barbarians? No, he went to the U.S. Supreme Court. He legally won two court battles: the Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia in 1831, and the Worcester vs. Georgia in 1832.5 These victories specified that the Cherokee had the right to stay in their own territory. Was Andrew Jackson prone to honor the judicial system of the country? No! He forgot all they had done for him, turned his back on the Cherokee in direct opposition to the Supreme Court and eventually evicted the Cherokee in 1835.
Is Big Foot linked with a Cherokee?
One ironic thing about all this is that the Cherokee were more literate than some of the settlers around them. In 1820 a man named Sequoya invented characters that represented the syllables of the Cherokee language. Within two years, 80% of the Cherokee could read. In 1823 they established a newspaper called the Cherokee Phoenix. As 1835 drew near, the press was burned and the government began to enforce the bogus treaty of 1817 mentioned earlier. By now, the Cherokee had built schools, grist mills, saw mills and had engaged in many types of industry. These, and Joe Vann’s mansion were being possessed and taken over by the Georgians. Chief John Ross traveled to Washington to protest, but Jackson refused to see him.
Thus, the Cherokee - the first homesteaders of the land - those who had stored enough food to save the surrounding settlers - those who were promised statehood earlier by the government if they dressed like them (which they did) - those who helped Jackson to win the War of 1812 and saved his life - those who depended on the legal court system and earned the support of Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, Samuel Worcester and Ralph Waldo Emerson - those who earned a place in society through trade and industrial achievements - and who had achieved literacy - were driven out like animals, escorted by soldiers who were slow to protect them from the elements and from marauding whites. The journey through terrible weather and ill-prepared means - lack of food and shelter - took the lives of 1/4 of the people. This march ultimately came to be known as the “Nunadautsun’t” or “the trail where we cried.” History called it the “Trail of Tears.” Chief Junaluska later said, after he was marched west, “If I had known that snake Jackson would drive us from our homes, I would have killed him that day at the Horseshoe.” (Paraphrased, from two sources)6
When the Georgians divided up the Cherokee lands, they awarded a choice piece to Andrew Jackson - seemingly for his help in the eviction.
Some Cherokee say that "Andy's" support for the Georgians' eviction of the Cherokee is outright "sedition," and that he should have been impeached. But that was unthinkable, as he was the one who "single-handedly won the 1812 war!"
I would like to share with you something that remains within the heart of the Cherokee; something that oppressors have not been able to kill or smother. It is called the prayer of Purification:
Great Spirit (U-ne-qua), whose voice I hear in the wind,
Whose breath gives life to all the world. Hear me;
I need your strength and wisdom.
Let me walk in beauty, and make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect the things you have made and my ears sharp to hear your voice.
Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught my people.
Help me to remain calm and strong in the face of all that comes towards me.
Let me learn the lessons you have hidden in every leaf and rock.
Help me seek pure thoughts and act with the intention of helping others.
Help me find compassion without empathy overwhelming me.
I seek strength, not to be greater than my brother, but to fight my greatest enemy MYSELF.
Make me always ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes.
So when life fades, as the fading sunset, my spirit may come to you without shame.7
This article represents only a small amount of the information I've gathered on the Cherokee Nation, and even a smaller amount of what's available. As time permits, I may decide to add another hub to this one. A reason for stopping at this point - with the "Trail of Tears" - is to get people to ponder the plight of the Cherokee. In my studies, I have come to understand the Cherokee better, and I've found that my opinion of them - although it was high to begin with - is even higher than before. I hope my article moves people and helps to reduce any amount of apathy that may be growing in the hearts of men concerning minorities.
Source: This information, unless otherwise footnoted, is taken from an interview with David “Iron Head” Vann, Cherokee genealogy specialist and historian - Life member of the Cherokee National Historical Society.
1. Lee Sultzman with Tsalagi historian Ken Martin.
4. Cherokee, North Carolina - History and Culture: Junaluska
6. Op Cit.
7. Cherokee by blood Religion:
Trail of Tears: Native Americans Driven West, in Spite of Their Supreme Court Victory
Back to Introduction:
To See Part 2:
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