“A Two Party Political System”
Before the formal Cherokee Constitution and governing structure, the Cherokee Nation, Cherokee Indians used democratic ruling among the people organized by each town.”Cherokee traditional law contemplated only clan wrongs, and not “public wrongs” or adjudicable private disputes.” Each Cherokee village was autonomous and operated two forms of governing bodies. The “white” government that was lead by the Peace Chief known as “Beloved Man” and ruled during the times of peace. He dealt with domestic issues and ceremonies. “[An] adviser, counselors from each clan, a council of elders, a speaker, messengers, and ceremonial officers” all assist the “Beloved Man”.
“The red government included the Great War Chief, the Great War Chief’s Second, seven war counselors, a War Woman, the Chief War Speaker, messengers, ceremonial officers, and scouts. The fate of captives and war prisoners was decided by the War Woman [also known as the Grandmother Elders]”. Most of the negotiations and interactions between white colonial control were with the War Chief, as the Peace Chief’s was seldom necessary with colonial dealings.
A balanced mixture of men and women made of the council and they gathered in the Council House of the town leaving their weapons outside of the building to ensure a level, peaceable assembly. The chiefs held the responsibility to persuade the council in the best interest of the tribe but did not in and of themselves solely impose direct authority over the people. The council meetings were well organized and conducted democratically. The chiefs would orate in an advisory position and then each person present in the meeting took turns speaking without interruption until a general consensus of the situation was reached. Controversy was avidly avoided and should one member disagree with the majority of council members they would retract. “The council did not pass laws or regulate conduct”
Women were always present at council meetings and deliberated concerning war strategies. “The war women were women who had themselves won previous honors in wars and they were the mothers of warriors”. They were highly valued in the matrilineal tribal structure. Among all the Cherokee clans and tribe as a whole, they initially received all people as equals and conducted unbiased negotiations.
The Cherokee Nation: A Government Evolves
1760-1762 – Cherokee War (SC)
1773 – First cession of Cherokee land in Georgia
1776-1783 – Impressed by the British during the French and Indian War, the Cherokee side with
them during the American Revolution. The price for the decision is immense. Beginning at about
the time of the American Revolutionary War, divisions over continued accommodation of
encroachments by white settlers, despite repeated violations of previous treaties, caused some
Cherokee to begin to leave The Cherokee Nation. These dissidents became known as the
Chickamauga. Led by Chief Dragging Canoe, the Chickamauga made alliances with the Shawnee
and engaged in raids against colonial settlements, aided by the British. Colonel Pickens
destroyed Long Swamp village (1782) and forced the Cherokee to cede land to settlers.
1785 Treaty of Hopewell (SC) – The Cherokee thought this would be the end of the settlers’
invasion of Cherokee land. Within 3 years bitter fighting had erupted as settlers continued to
move into the Cherokee Nation. This treaty is the basis for the term “Talking Leaves.” Cherokee felt that written words were like leaves, when they were no longer of use they withered and died.
1791—The Treaty of Holston is signed. It includes a call for the U.S. to “advance the civilization” of the Cherokees by giving them farm tools and technical advice. The chiefs are encouraged to use credit and then are forced by the government to settle their debts by land cessions.
1802—Thomas Jefferson signs the Georgia Compact in support of Indian removal.
1813-1814 Cherokee warriors fight alongside future president Andrew Jackson during two
campaigns (5 major battles) against the Red Sticks, saving both his army and his life in separate
1814— Jackson demands cessions of 2.2 million acres from the Cherokee.
1817—A treaty makes an exchange for land in Arkansas. “Old settlers” begin voluntary migration and establish a government there. In 1828, they are forced to move into Indian territory.
1819- Final cession of land in Georgia, and part of a much larger cession, the Cherokee give up
claims to all land east of the Chattahoochee River.
1821—Sequoyah’s Cherokee Syllabary is completed (consisting of 85 pictographs “Talking Leaves”) and quickly leads to almost total literacy among the Cherokees.
1822—The Cherokee’s Supreme Court is established. Georgia begins press for cession of remaining Cherokee lands, citing Jefferson’s 1802 commitment to the state.
1824—The first written law of the Western Cherokees is published.
1825—New Echota in Georgia is authorized as the Cherokee capital.
1827—The modern Cherokee Nation begins with a Cherokee Constitution established by a convention. John Ross is elected Principal Chief.
1828—-The Cherokee Phoenix is published in English and Cherokee at New Echota. Elias Boudinot is editor. Andrew Jackson is elected President–the Cherokees will come to call him jagsgin, “devil.” Gold is discovered in Georgia. Gold discovered in Georgia. This discovery was on Cherokee land ceded to the U. S. in 1817
(Duke’s Creek), however, gold was soon found inside the Cherokee Nation.
Timeline courtesy of: http://www.cherokeebyblood.com/Cherokee_by_blood/Important_dates.html and http://centralca.cherokee.org/Cherokee-Timeline
The Cherokee Nation Constitution: A Model of America
“In an effort to cope with non- Cherokee influences, the “Cherokee political organization often took on at least the outward appearance of white forms of government.”
Modeled after the U.S. Constitution, and with the direction and aid of Principal Chief John Ross, the Cherokee Nation modified their governing approach to a more “centralized” form of government and dissolving autonomy among villages. The influx of European settlers continuously imposed threats to the Cherokee people, their livelihood, and their survival. They addressed the Cherokee Nation as a solidified unit of set bylaws and disregarded the traditional government council structure. Therefore, the Cherokee delegates gathered in the first Cherokee capital city of New Echota in Georgia and created a constitution that was divided “into three distinct departments; the Legislative, the Executive, and Judicial” identical to the United States. The Constitution served as a means to protect and to address the evolving and growing concerns of the Cherokee Nation by defining the function of their governance in external influence. The constitution was printed in both Cherokee and English languages to reinforce the mutual understanding among the white man and the natives.
The constitution was the first step to solidifying a set of formal laws to preserve the people, their land and their bloodline.
The Cherokee Indians are masters of adaptation. Through the tragedies experienced by the egalitarian Cherokee tribe, they unified and documented their power as a people. They understood the powers in laws and western government having suffered the consequences of a naive nation. The Cherokee tribe suffered dilution of bloodline as more white settlers married Cherokee women. Many white men did not honor or support the authoritarian role of the Cherokee women, nor their right to own property and enforced their “white ways”.
“The contemporary government of the Cherokee Nation is comprised of three branches of government: the executive branch comprised of the Principal Chief; the legislative branch composed of the Tribal Council; and the judicial branch encompassing the Cherokee Nation District Courts and the Judicial Appeals Tribunal. The overarching mandate of the current administration is to proliferate Cherokee culture. This commitment to culture dictates “all you do as a Cherokee Nation employee” and influences all policy concerns and decisions made by the tribe or tribal officials.”
“The Cherokee Nation is committed to protecting our inherent sovereignty, preserving and promoting Cherokee culture, language and values and improving the quality of life for the next seven generations of Cherokee citizens.”
The Cherokee Nation website addresses the modern evolution of their enduring government structure and adaptations of the largest Indian tribe in the world (over 300,000 registered):
The modern Constitution of the Cherokee Nation was approved by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs on Sept. 5, 1975, and ratified by the Cherokee people on June 26, 1976. A Constitutional Committee convened in 1999 to create a new Constitution. In 2003 the Cherokee people voted overwhelmingly to accept it. The new Constitution was enacted in 2006 and calls for a tri-partite government consisting of Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches.
The current Cherokee Nation government supports regulatory functions, employment, emergency services, education, execution and enforcement of laws, tribal courts, and Marshal Service. It is a multi-tiered complex system that is constantly evolving to meet the demands of internal and external forces to maintain order and cultural responsibility among the masses.
Carroll, A. (2007, January 1). Articles: Cherokee Nation Tribal Profile. Retrieved March 23, 2015, from http://lawschool.unm.edu/tlj/tribal-law-journal/articles/volume_3/carroll/index.php
Economy and Systems of Government. (2012, January 1). Retrieved March 22, 2015, from http://www.kidport.com/reflib/socialstudies/nativeamericans/Economy.htm
John Ross. (2015, January 1). Retrieved March 16, 2015, from http://www.cherokee.org/AboutTheNation/History/Chiefs/JohnRoss.aspx
Ojibwa. (2011, January 23). Traditional Cherokee Government. Retrieved March 22, 2015, from http://nativeamericannetroots.net/diary/849
Thorne, T. (n.d.). Georgia Compact 1802. Retrieved from http://faculty.humanities.uci.edu/tcthorne/Hist15/gacomp.html