Eastern Band of Cherokee & Chero
Eastern Band of Cherokee & Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma
           Membership in Eastern Band of Cherokee
           Membership in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma

Numerically, the Cherokees are the largest Indian tribe in the United States. In the 1990 census, 308,132 people identified themselves as Cherokees of which greater than half of them are federally recognized members of either the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in western North Carolina, or the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. The Eastern Band has more than ten thousand members, who are descended from approximately one thousand Cherokees who avoided forced removal in 1838 by claiming North Carolina citizenship under an earlier treaty or by taking refuge in and near the Great Smoky Mountains. Enrollment in the Eastern Band requires one-thirty-second degree of Cherokee blood through descent from an enrollee on the 1924 Baker roll.

Modern Eastern Cherokees trace their origins to about one thousand Cherokees who managed to avoid removal. One-third of these—some fifty-seven families—were living outside the Cherokee Nation on the Oconaluftee River in the early nineteenth century and claimed U.S. citizenship under the treaties of 1817 and 1819. Living on nontribal land, these families were not subject to the Treaty of New Echota. They were referred to as the Oconaluftee Citizen Indians by the U.S. Army, which made no attempt to remove them. These Indians were joined in November 1838 by refugees from the Nantahala River area.

Other Cherokees who remained in North Carolina included those living in the village of Cheoih, near Robbinsville, which had a close alliance with local whites. A number of families along the Valley River were also left behind. They were headed by white males, and the army was unable to obtain a clarification of their status. Other Cherokees who remained in the East came from such places as Turtle Town and Duck Town in Tennessee, Fighting Town in Georgia, and Shooting Creek and Hanging Dog Town in North Carolina.

The fate of the North Carolina Cherokees remained in question for several years following removal. By 1848, however, the U.S. Congress agreed to recognize the rights of the North Carolina Cherokees on the condition that the state recognize their rights as permanent residents. Acknowledgment was not forthcoming until after the Civil War. During the war the Eastern Cherokees sided with their white neighbors and the Confederacy. Many enlisted in the Sixty-ninth North Carolina Infantry, which was commanded by William Holland Thomas and became known as the Thomas Legion. After the war, the Cherokees faced the prospect of losing their land again. Title to their land was held by Thomas, their trusted friend and attorney. He had invested heavily in the Southern cause and was now impoverished and mentally unstable. His creditors obtained sheriff's deeds to all his property, including the Cherokees' land. In 1866, the state of North Carolina finally recognized the Cherokees as permanent residents and the federal government allowed money promised under the previous treaty to be used to pay Thomas's debts to insure that the tribe would not be dispossessed. The Cherokees began to reorganize their tribal government, and on December 9, 1868, a general council of the Eastern Cherokees was held at Cheoih in Graham County. In the first election since removal, Flying Squirrel was chosen principal chief and was inaugurated on December 1, 1870. The Qualla Boundary, also known as the Eastern Cherokee Reservation, was soon established, and the limits were marked in 1876 by the Temple Survey. The Qualla Boundary had a population of 835 in 1880; another 189 Cherokees lived in Graham County, 83 in Cherokee County, and 12 in Macon County. In the 1880s, many of the Cherokees living in Macon and Cherokee Counties moved to Qualla to take advantage of its newly established school and other amenities, and to be part of the social atmosphere. 

The Cherokees became incorporated under the laws of North Carolina in 1889 and began conducting business as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Title to tribal lands previously held by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs was transferred to the corporation. By 1890 an incipient cash economy had developed. Unfortunately, the advent of the timber industry, which operated on Cherokee land for a few decades, resulted in the deforestation of the mountains.

In 1919, Cherokee veterans of World War I were made citizens of the United States. In 1924, all American Indians received U.S. citizenship. Also in that year, Cherokee land was placed in federal trust, with the guarantee that the land would always remain in Cherokee possession.

The opening of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1940 changed the long-term focus of the Cherokee economy. After World War II, the scenic wilderness of the park began to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. The Cherokee Historical Association was organized in 1948 and premiered its outdoor drama, Unto These Hills, two years later. In 1952, the association opened the Oconaluftee Indian Village. Today tourism is the primary industry in the Qualla Boundary area, providing jobs for about 65 percent of the local population.

Lands currently held by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians include 56,572.8 acres in five countries of western North Carolina and 76.3 acres in two counties in eastern Tennessee. In North Carolina, tribal holdings include fifty-two tracts or boundaries, which are contained in thirty separate bodies of land. The majority of the land is in Jackson and Swain Counties. A small strip of land is in Haywood County, and scattered residential tracts are in Graham and Cherokee Counties. Possessory title to approximately 80 percent of tribal land is held by individuals, who can transfer land only to other tribal members. Of the more than ten thousand Eastern Cherokees, about sixty-five hundred live on tribal lands. 

Membership in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma requires proof of descent from an ancestor on the 1906 Dawes Commission roll. There is no minimum blood quantum requirement—a policy that has resulted in a rapid expansion of tribal membership, which has grown from slightly more than fifty thousand in 1980 to more than one hundred seventy-five thousand in 1995, with tens of thousands of applications still pending. The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma is now the largest federally recognized tribe in the United States. The United Band of Keetoowahs was organized among the Oklahoma Cherokees in the 1930s as a political entity and has held federal recognition since 1946. Two other Oklahoma Cherokee groups, neither of which is a political entity, also use the name Keetoowah. In addition to the three federally recognized groups, more than fifty other organizations in at least twelve states claim Cherokee descent.

The years between removal and the 1860s were called the Cherokees' golden age, a period of prosperity that ended with the devastation of the American Civil War. Like residents of most border areas, Cherokees were divided in their loyalties. One-third of the Cherokee population either died or moved away during the war. After the war, Cherokee land was again taken, this time to accommodate other tribes displaced by the U.S. government. At the turn of the century most of the remaining tribal land was parceled out to individual Cherokees in allotments. Final eligibility for allotments was determined by the Dawes Commission rolls of 1906. The surviving original enrollees and their descendants make up the tribal membership of today's Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

The Cherokee Nation is a source of pride and identity for its members, many of whom live in the original territory of the Cherokee Nation, which is located in fourteen counties of northeastern Oklahoma. Today this land is not a reservation, but a jurisdictional service area. The tribal structure was reorganized in the 1970s, and since then the Cherokee Nation has become a leader in education, health care, housing, vocational training, and economic development in northeastern Oklahoma. The nation currently employs 940 people on staff and in its business enterprises, and its annual payroll exceeds $13 million.

The assets of the Cherokee Nation include ninety-six miles of the Arkansas River bed and more than sixty-one thousand acres of tribal land. Over the past fifteen years, the Cherokee Nation has posted dramatic and steady financial growth while increasing its asset base. The annual operating budget exceeds $50 million, with the funds provided by federal programs and generated from tribal sources.


Duane H. King, ed., The Cherokee Indian Nation: A Troubled History (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1979);
James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee Bureau of American Ethnology.
The Cherokees (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963).

Pictorial Descriptions from "Mason's Collections"
File sent in parts by:  Grace Iglesia - University of Kentucky

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