When Being Civilized Was Not Enough
War bonnets, teepees, Appaloosa ponies, and a nomadic lifestyle – these are the images that have been promoted of Native Americans living prior to the 20th Century. And for the tribes of the Great Plains and parts of the western US, this was somewhat accurate, but for eastern groups, nothing could have been farther from the truth. The eastern Native
Peoples lived primarily in permanent villages made up of wood and thatch structures called long houses or, in the case of the Cherokee, in thatch roofed wattle and daub houses that looked surprisingly modern. While eastern tribes hunted, fished, and gathered food, they also farmed, raising corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, sunflowers, other vegetables, and domestic animals. Their daily lives were organized not unlike their contemporaries living in villages the world over. This was especially true of the Cherokee, considered by whites to be one of the five civilized tribes.
The daily lives of early Cherokees were ordered by their clan membership and the village in which they lived. Their form of government centered on the individual village, which was connected to other villages through a common language, common customs, intermarriage, and way of life. The villages were autonomous units roughly divided into three loosely affiliated groups: 1) the Lower Towns based at the headwaters of the Savannah River (including Keowee and Estatoe), 2) the Middle Towns based at the headwaters of the Little Tennessee River (including Etchoe and Stecoe, 3) the Upper Towns on the Lower Little Tennessee River and the headwater of the Hiwassee River (including Septic and Telco).
Within each village, there were two governmental units, one for peace and the other for war. Each unit was led by a different chief and council. Citizens of the village had a voice in decisions for the chiefs were advisors, not absolute monarchs. Chiefs and council leaders could use oratory to persuade, but no one was to be coerced through threats.
Nativeamericanroots.net describes Cherokee government and culture as follows:
One of the overriding principles in Cherokee culture that impacted traditional Cherokee government was the concept of egalitarianism. The Cherokee viewed all people as equal and from this worldview the idea of coercive government is reprehensible. Thus, leaders and the council could not force conformity on the people: they could only attempt to persuade everyone that certain actions would be for the common good.
The Cherokee lived in a simple democracy by all appearances, unlike colonial era Europeans.
Early on, the tribe recognized the danger posed by the arrival and rapid growth in numbers and power of Europeans. They watched in alarm as lands once held by Native Peoples were gobbled up and the former owners were summarily trampled under the flood of European immigrant settlers, made worse by the cession through treaty of large portions of their own lands. Life on the US 17th and 18th century western frontier, roughly the Appalachian chain of mountains, became a clash of cultures.
The Cherokee decided the key to survival in this new world order would be assimilation. If they couldn’t beat the Europeans, then they would join them as much as they were able. This philosophy eventually touched nearly every aspect of the Cherokees’ lives. From the clothes they wore to the homes in which they lived, the influence of their European neighbors was evident. In 1821, Sequoyah perfected his alphabet and the Cherokee became literate. Log cabins replaced the wattle and daub houses. After the US government supplied them with spinning wheels and looms, weaving was a major industry by 1820’s. They established a capital city, New Echota, near present day Calhoun, Georgia. A newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix, was published in both Cherokee and English. By 1830, they had formed a government similar to that of the United States with a constitution and bicameral legislature, called the general council. The general council had the power to elect the principal chief. Despite the tremendous effort to assimilate and fit into the changing world in which they found themselves, their lands continued to shrink.
The Cherokee might have succeeded in their plan of assimilation for the sake of survival had gold not been discovered on tribal land near Dahlonega, Georgia. Cherokees like Chief John Ross and Chief Joseph Vann fought legal battles all the way to the Supreme Court to retain tribal lands and personal lands respectively, but the court sided with Georgia and the US government. Believing that resistance was futile, a small group led by Major Ridge and his son John signed away rights to all Cherokee ancestral lands with the Treaty of New Echota in 1835. Out of a population of 17,000, fewer than 500 attended the treaty meeting. None of the tribal officers signed the treaty.
Today, all that is left of the once great Cherokee Nation in the state of Georgia are historical markers and parks. The gallery and the video link below help to tell some of the story of when being civilized and assimilated was not enough to save a great people’s ancestral home. The result of the Treaty of New Echota was the infamous Trail of Tears on which 4000 Cherokee died.
Brown, Virginia and Owens, Laurella. The World of the Southern Indians. Montgomery: New South Books, 2010.
Rozema, Vicki. Cherokee Voices: Early Accounts of Cherokee Life in the East. Winston-Salem: John F. Blair, Publisher, 2002.