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For other uses, see Cherokee (disambiguation).

The Cherokee, or Missing image

(ah-ni-yv-wi-ya) in the Cherokee language, are a people native to North America, who at the time of European contact in the 16th century, inhabited what is now the Eastern United States and Southeastern United States until most were forcefully moved to the Ozark Plateau. They were one of the tribes referred to as the Five Civilized Tribes.


Bands and naming

Nations and Bands recognized by the United States government, and representing 250,000 Federally recognized Cherokees, have headquarters in Tahlequah, Oklahoma (the Cherokee Nation, and United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians and at Cherokee, North Carolina (Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians). State-recognized Cherokee tribes have headquarters in Georgia, Missouri and Alabama. Other large and small non-recognized Cherokee organizations are located in Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, and other locations in the United States.

A 1984 KJRH-TV documentary, "Spirit of the Fire" explored the history of the Keetoowah Nighthawk Society, and their preservation of the traditional ceremonies and rituals practiced and maintained by the Cherokee after their arrival in Oklahoma. Redbird Smith was an influential Nighthawk member and the group revitalized traditional spirituality among Cherokees, beginning in the early 20th century. Today there are seven ceremonial dance grounds in Oklahoma and these either belong to the Keetoowah tradition or the Four Mothers Society.

The spelling "Cherokee" was once believed to be due to the Cherokee language's name, "Tsalagi" (ᏣᎳᎩ) - this then may have been rendered phonetically in Portuguese (or more likely a barranquenho dialect, since de Soto was Extremaduran) as chalaque, then in French as cheraqui, and then by the English as cherokee.

The Cherokee language does not contain any "r" based sounds, and as such, the word "Cherokee" when spoken in the language is expressed as Tsa-la-gi (pronounced Jah-la-gee or Cha-la-gee) by native speakers, since these sounds most closely resemble "Cherokee" in the native language. A Southern Cherokee group did speak a local dialect with a trilled "r" sound after early contact with Europeans of both French and Spanish ancestry in Georgia and Alabama during the early 1700s. The ancient Ah-ni-ku-ta-ni dialect and Oklahoma dialects do not contain any 'r' based sounds.

The word "Cherokee" is a derived word which came originally from the Choctaw trade language. It was derived from the Choctaw word "Cha-la-kee" which means "those who live in the mountains" or "those who live in the caves." The name which the Cherokees originally used for themselves is Ah-ni-yv-wi-ya (literal translation "these are all the human people"). Most native American tribes have a name for themselves which means approximately this. However, modern Cherokee call themselves Cherokee, or Tsalagi.

Language and writing system

Main article: Cherokee language


The Cherokee speak an Iroquoian language which is polysynthetic and is written in a syllabary invented by Sequoyah. For years, many people wrote transliterated Cherokee on the Internet or used poorly intercompatible fonts to type out the syllabary. However, since the fairly recent addition of the Cherokee syllables to Unicode, the Cherokee language is experiencing a renaissance in its use on the Internet. It is now believed that a more ancient Syllabary that predated Sequoyah and may have inspired his great work for the Cherokee people was handed down through the Ah-ni-ku-ta-ni, an ancient priesthood of the Cherokee people.

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Image:Ceroka silabaro.jpg


U.S. Population<ref>Population figures (rounded off) from Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987), p. 115.; 1990 population figure from the Encyclopedia of North American Indians (; 2000 population from a USA Today news story (, which explains that the 2000 population figure increased so dramatically because of a greater effort to count everybody, and because multi-racial people were, for the first time, able to identify themselves as belonging to more than one group.</ref>
Year Population
1650 22,000
1808 13,000
1835 21,500
1850 16,000
1890 28,000
1910 31,500
1970 66,000*
1980 232,000*
1990 308,132*
2000 729,533*
*new counting methods used

The Cherokee nation was unified from an interrelated society of city-states in the early 18th century under the "Emperor" Moytoy, with the aid of an unofficial English envoy, Sir Alexander Cumming. In 1730, Chief Moytoy of Tellico was agreed to be the "Emperor" by the Elector Chiefs of the principal Cherokee towns. Moytoy also agreed to recognise the British king, George II, as the Cherokee protector. A decade prior to this treaty, the Cherokee had fought a war with South Carolina for several years. The title of Cherokee Emperor, however, did not carry much clout among the Cherokee, and the title eventually passed out of Moytoy's direct avuncular lineage. Beginning at about the time of the American Revolutionary War (late 1700s), 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 early dissidents would eventually move across the Mississippi River to areas that would later become the states of Arkansas and Missouri. Their settlements were established on the St. Francis and the White Rivers by 1800. Eventually, there were such large numbers of Cherokees in these areas the US Government established a Cherokee Reservation located in Arkansas, with boundaries from north of the Arkansas River up to the southern bank of the White River. Many of 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. Other Cherokee leaders who lived in Arkansas were The Bowl, Sequoyah, Spring Frog and The Dutch.

By the late 1820s, the Territory of Arkansas had designs on acquiring the land held by the Arkansas Cherokee. A delegation of Arkansas Cherokees went to Washington, D.C., and were forced to sign a treaty to vacate the Arkansas Reservation. Arkansas Cherokees had two choices: cooperate with the US government and move to Indian Territory (later Oklahoma), or defy the US Government and refuse to leave the Arkansas Reservation area. Around 1828, the tribe split, some going to Indian Territory. Others disobeyed the US Government and stayed on the old Reservation lands in Arkansas. Those who stayed on the old Arkansas Cherokee Reservation lands have lobbied the US Government since the early 1900s to be considered a Federally recognized Cherokee tribe. The US Government has ignored their pleas. Today, there are thousands of Cherokee living in Arkansas or Southern Missouri who are relatives of these pre-Trail of Tears Cherokee. (see "We Are Not Yet Conquered" by Beverly Northrup, "The Cherokee People" by Thomas E. Mails, "Myths of The Cherokee" by James Mooney, and The Lost Cherokee Nation (

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Chief John Ross, c. 1840

John Ross was an important figure in the history of the Cherokee tribe. His father emigrated from Scotland prior to the Revolutionary War. His mother was a quarter-blood Cherokee woman whose father was also from Scotland. He began his public career in 1809. The Cherokee Nation was founded in 1820, with elected public officials. John Ross became the chief of the tribe in 1828 and remained the chief until his death in 1866.

Cherokees were displaced from their ancestral lands in North Georgia and the Carolinas because of rapidly expanding white population, as well as a Gold Rush around Dahlonega, Georgia in the 1830's. See: Indian Removal, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, and Trail of Tears.

Samuel Carter, author of Cherokee Sunset, writes, "Then ... there came the reign of terror. From the jagged-walled stockades the troops fanned out across the Nation, invading every hamlet, every cabin, rooting out the inhabitants at bayonet point. The Cherokees hardly had time to realize what was happening as they were prodded like so many sheep toward the concentration camps, threatened with knives and pistols, beaten with rifle butts if they resisted."<ref>From Samuel Carter III, Cherokee Sunset: A Nation Betrayed (New York: Doubleday, 1976, ISBN 0385067356), p. 232.</ref> In the terror of the forced marches, the Cherokee were not always able to give their dead a full burial. Instead, the singing of Amazing Grace had to suffice. Since then, Amazing Grace is often considered the Cherokee National Anthem.

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Cherokee Nation Courthouse mid 1800's.

Once the Cherokees reached Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), tensions ran high and the suspension of the Cherokee Blood Law was ignored. On June 22, 1839, after the adjournment of a tribal meeting, some of the prominent signers of the Treaty of New Echota were assassinated, including the drafter of the Blood Law, Major Ridge, along with John Ridge and Elias Boudinot. This started 15 years of civil war amongst the Cherokees. One of the notable survivors was Stand Watie, who became a Confederate general during the American Civil War. The Cherokees were one of the five "civilized tribes" that concluded treaties with, and were recognized by, the Confederate States of America.

In 1848 a group of Cherokee set out on an expedition to California looking for new settlement lands. The expedition followed the Arkansas River upstream to Rocky Mountains in present-day Colorado, then followed the base of mountains northward into present-day Wyoming before turning westward. The route become known as the Cherokee Trail. The group, which undertook gold prospecting in California, returned along the same route the following year, noticing placer gold deposits in tributaries of the South Platte. The discovery went unnoticed for a decade, but eventually became one of the primary sources of the Colorado Gold Rush of 1859.

Not all of the eastern Cherokees were removed on the Trail of Tears. William Holland Thomas, a white store owner and state legislator from Jackson County, North Carolina helped over 600 Cherokee from Qualla Town (the site of modern-day Cherokee, North Carolina) obtain North Carolina citizenship. As such, these citizens were exempt from forced removal to the west. In addition, over 400 other Cherokee hid from Federal troops in the remote Snowbird Mountains of neighboring Graham County, North Carolina, under the leadership of Tsali[1] ( (the subject of the outdoor drama Unto These Hills held in Cherokee, NC). Together, these groups were the basis for what is now known as the Eastern Band of Cherokees. Out of gratitude to Thomas, these western North Carolina Cherokees served in the Civil War as part of Thomas' Legion, a unit of approximately 1,100 men of both Cherokee and white origin, fighting primarily in Virginia, where their battle record was outstanding[2] ( Thomas' Legion was the last Confederate unit in the eastern theater of the war to surrender after capturing Waynesville, North Carolina on May 10, 1865. They agreed to cease from hostilities on the condition of being allowed to retain their arms for hunting. This, coupled with Stand Watie's surrender of western forces on July 23, 1865, gave the Cherokees the distinction of being the very last Confederates to capitulate in both theaters of the American Civil War.

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Map of the present-day Cherokee Nation Tribal Statistical Area

In Oklahoma, the Dawes Act of 1887 broke up the tribal land base. Under the Curtis Act of 1898, Cherokee courts and governmental systems were abolished by the US Federal Government. These and other acts were designed to end tribal sovereignty to pave the way for Oklahoma Statehood in 1907. The Federal government appointed chiefs to the Cherokee Nation, often just long enough to sign a treaty. However, the Cherokee Nation recognized it needed leadership and a general convention was convened in 1938 to elect a Chief. They choose J. B. Milam as principal chief, and as a goodwill gesture Franklin Delano Roosevelt confirmed the election in 1941.

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Cherokee Nation Courthouse in Oklahoma 1913.

W. W. Keeler was appointed chief in 1949 but as federal government adopted the self-determination policy, the Cherokee Nation was able to rebuild its government and W. W. Keeler was elected chief by the people, via a Congressional Act signed by President Nixon. Keeler, who was also the President of Phillips Petroleum was succeeded by Ross Swimmer, Wilma Mankiller, Joe Byrd and Chad Smith who is currently the chief of the Nation.

The United Keetoowah Band took a different track than the Cherokee Nation and received federal recognition after the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. They are descended from the Old Settlers, or Cherokees that moved west before Removal, and the tribe requires a quarter blood quantum for enrollment.

The Modern Cherokee Nation

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Cherokee Nation Historic Courthouse in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

The modern Cherokee Nation (referred to as "The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma" in its constitution[3] ( in recent times has excelled and has experienced an uprecedented expansion in economic growth, equality, and prosperity for its citizens under the leadership of Principal Chief Chad Smith, with significant business, corporate, real estate, and agricultural interests, including numerous highly profitable casino operations. The Cherokee Nation controls Cherokee Nation Enterprises, a very large Defense contractor that creates thousands of jobs in Eastern Oklahoma for Cherokee Citizens.

The Nation has constructed health clinics throughout Oklahoma, contributed to community development programs, constructed learning facilities and universities for its citizens, instilled the practice of Gadugi and self-reliance in its citizens, revitalized language immersion programs for its children and youth, and is a powerful and positive economic and political force in Eastern Oklahoma.

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The Cherokee Nation Warriors Memorial and Pavalion in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

The Cherokee Nation hosts a National Holiday in early September each year and 80,000 to 90,000 Cherokee Citizens travel to Tahlequah, Oklahoma each year for the festivities. The Cherokee Nation also publishes the Cherokee Phoenix, a tribal newpapers which has operated continuously since 1828, and publishes editions in both English and the Sequoyah Syllabary. The Cherokee Nation hosts and sponsors historic foundations concerned with the preservation of Cherokee Culture, including the Cherokee Heritage Center which hosts a reproduction of an ancient Cherokee Village which is open to the public. The Cherokee Heritage Center has numerous museum exhibits which is also open to the public.

The Cherokee Nation also supports the Sundance and Cherokee Film Festivals in Tahlequah, Oklahoma and Park City, Utah, and provides programs and resources for Native American film makers to particpate in the motion picture industry. Many famous Native American actors are members of the Cherokee Nation, such as Wes Studi.

The Environment

Today the Cherokee Nation is a leader in the environmental protection field. Since 1992 the Nation has served as the lead for the Inter-Tribal Environmental Council (ITEC ( mission of ITEC is to protect the health of Native Americans, their natural resources, and their environment as it relates to air, land, and water. To accomplish this mission ITEC provides technical support, training and environmental services in a variety of environmental disciplines. Currently, there are thirty-nine (39) ITEC member tribes in Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas.

Cherokee Freedmen Membership Controversies

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On March 7, 2006, the Cherokee Nation announced that the Cherokee Freedmen, the descendents of African Americans who were Citizens of the Cherokee Nation and who were adopted into the tribe after the Civil War, are now eligible for membership as Cherokee Citizens because they were classified by the Federal Government as Indians by being entered on the Dawes Commission Lands rolls during the early 1900s [4] ( The Cherokee in ancient times did not view a person's race as relevant regarding adoption into Cherokee Society, and historically viewed the Cherokee Society as a politically rather than racially based organization. The Cherokee Freedmen, due to intermarriage with the Cherokee, are for the great majority also of Cherokee Blood and ancestry. There are many exceptionally talented Cherokee artisans of Freedmen descent who currently reside within the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee Freedmen suffered many of the same hardships as other Indian groups because of their Cherokee Citizenship at the turn of the century and were viewed by the Federal Government as Indians, which led to the freedmen being placed on the Dawes Commission Rolls as Cherokee Citizens during the early 1900's.

Many Cherokee traditionalists have opposed granting tribal membership to the Freedmen; however, the Cherokee Nation also grants membership to Indians of Delaware Blood based upon previous treaties and agreements with the United States. The Cherokee Nation Supreme Court recognized the unique role of the Freedmen in Cherokee history and the mutual hardships and common experience with the Cherokee People during pre-Oklahoma Statehood in rendering its decision, and upheld the Cherokee Nation Constitution guarantees of equal rights for all Cherokee Indians.

The Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation recently announced that due to issues raised by the Cherokee People that the issue on the membership of the Freedmen was currently being considered for a vote regarding proposed ammendments to the Cherokee Nation Constitution. These ammendments are intended to restrict tribal membership exclusively to Cherokee's by blood descent and exclude the Freedman from Tribal Membership [[5] (]. Currently, The Cherokee Nation Constitution restricts who may or may not serve as an elected official only to those persons who are of Cherokee Blood. Some Cherokee traditionalists do not share the views of the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court that the Freedman descendants contributed to Cherokee culture and society in modern times, and oppose granting the Freedmen membership in the Cherokee Nation. Other traditionalists have asserted that Freedmen have an important and rightful place in the CNO.

United Keetoowah Band Lawsuits and Litigation with the Cherokee Nation

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The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, also referred to as the UKB, have repeatedly sued the Cherokee Nation demanding the ceding of tribal land allotments and monetary damages over a variety of issues. All of these lawsuits have failed or been dismissed. The UKB also recently sued the Cherokee Nation for a share of HR Bill 3534, a bill that required the Government of Oklahoma and the United States to compensate the Cherokee Nation and was concerned with the illegal seizure of the Arkansas Riverbed by the State of Oklahoma for public use lands and hydroelectric power generation. The lawsuit filed by the UKB demanding disbursements from the Cherokee Nation from HR Bill 3534 was also ruled to be frivilous and without merit. During the State of Oklahoma lawsuit pertaining to the UKB's illegal casino operations (see United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians for more information regarding the State of Oklahoma prosecution of the UKB for operating illegal casinos), the UKB again sued the Cherokee Nation demanding cessation of tribal land allotments to the UKB to build casinos. These lawsuits were also dismissed, and it was ruled the UKB is not the successor of right to the assets of the Cherokee People.

The UKB more recently held banishment proceedings against Chief Chad Smith, Chief of the Cherokee Nation who also had dual membership in both the UKB and the Cherokee Nation. Since the UKB scheduled the banishment proceedings at the exact time scheduled for the Cherokee Nation State of the Nation Address by the Principal Chief at the Cherokee National Holiday, the entire proceeding was perceived as a public spectacle by the majority of the Cherokee People and garnered disdain and disbelief. The UKB stated in a News Release that they were performing the banishment ceremony to punish Chief Chad Smith for failing to support the illegal UKB casino during the pendency of the State of Oklahoma prosecutions of the UKB Band.

The Cherokee People as a whole reacted unfavorably to the actions of the UKB regarding Chad Smith's banishment, and the event was widely viewed as a political embarrassment and publicity stunt by the UKB. Many Cherokee believe the UKB is no longer an actual "band" but a social club, and have vocally stated as such in news announcements. Chad Smith criticized the UKB for disgracing the Cherokee People and behaving like a "social club" in response to their actions.

Modern Cherokee Societies, with the exception of the UKB, are true democratic societies which no longer allow banishment of tribal members.

Although the UKB administration is widely criticized by the Cherokee People at large, many of the UKB members are spiritual leaders of the Cherokee People and are highly respected. Many highly respected and revered Cherokee traditionalists within Oklahoma are members of both the UKB and the Cherokee Nation.

Cherokee Nation Relationship with the Eastern Band

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The Cherokee Nation has announced and participated in numerous joint programs with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and participates in cultural exchange programs and joint Tribal Council meetings involving councilers from both Cherokee Tribes which addresses issues which affect all of the Cherokee People. Unlike the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians adversarial relationship with the Cherokee Nation between the administrations of both tribes, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians interactions with the Cherokee Nation presents a unified spirit of Gadugi with the leaders and citizens of the Eastern Band. There are significant positive interactions between the two groups, intermarriage, and mutual respect. Many elders of the Eastern Band reside in Cherokee Nation communities and are highly respected by Cherokee Nation Citizens across the United States. Go-hi-yu-gi is a Cherokee term which means to show mutual respect for an elder of the Cherokee People or such a show of mutual respect between Cherokee citizens. Cherokee Nation Citizens and Eastern Band Citizens exhibit a high degree of Go-hi-yu-gi between the elders and Citizens of both groups.

Marriage Law Controversy

On June 14 2004, the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council voted to officially define marriage as a union between man and woman, thereby outlawing gay marriage. This was a decision made in response to an application for a union of a lesbian couple that was submitted on May 13. Furthermore, the decision kept Cherokee law in line with Oklahoma state law, which outlawed gay marriage as the result of a popular referendum on a constitutional amendment in 2004. Numerous elders were consulted and no one could find concrete examples of same-sex marriage in Cherokee traditions. There were instances of same-sex cohabitation in the ancient culture, however, there was never a concept of same sex marriage or same sex courtships. There are historical instances of "extended families" where another male or female would cohabitate with a married couple. Provided all parties were in agreement, including the clan leaders, this conduct would be allowed. These are the only examples of same sex relationships known to have existed in ancient times.

Chief Joe Byrd's 1997 Cherokee Nation Controversies

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During the 1998 Cherokee National Holiday, Joe Byrd's private Security Forces and BIA Police armed with guns and rifles looked down from rooftops onto the crowd of Cherokee Elders, families, and children while a BIA helicopter circled overhead. Photos taken by Federal Law Enforcement.

Chief Joe Byrd, elected 1995 as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, was nearly responsible for the destruction of the modern Cherokee Nation due to issues related to his veracity which almost cost the tribe its future and Sovereignty. His administration was subjected to intense scrutiny by the US Attorney General and US Secretary of the Interior amidst allegations of diversion, fraud, illegal wiretapping, mail fraud, and organized violence against the Cherokee People.

Joe Byrd was the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1995 to 1999 and was defeated by Chief Chad Smith in the 1999 Cherokee Nation Elections. During his administration, the Cherokee Nation experienced a nationwide political scandal due to allegations of embezzlement, misuse of funds, abuses of unit power, and organized violence against the Cherokee People. Joe Byrd's illegal security force armed with rifles, shotguns, and automatic weapons seized and orchestrated an armed standoff against the Cherokee Nation Judicial Branch. Byrd's forces boarded up the Cherokee Nation Courthouse and Judicial Department after these institutions attempted to indict and subpoena him for illegal diversion of Cherokee Nation Funds. Byrd attempted to run for re-election of the Cherokee Nation in 2003 and was again defeated by the incumbent Principal Chief Chad Smith in a near landslide victory.

For more information, see Joe Byrd (Cherokee Chief).

Famous Cherokees

There were several famous Cherokees in American history, including Sequoyah, who invented the Cherokee writing system. Sequoyah is one of few people in history to invent a widely used writing system singlehandedly. Sequoyah never learned to speak, read or write the English language. Nancy Ward was a "Beloved Woman" of the Cherokees and a major political figure.

Famous Cherokee politicians include Chad "Corntassel" Smith, Wilma Mankiller and Ross Swimmer. The American blues-rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix was of Cherokee descent via his paternal grandmother, Nora Rose Moore. Oral Roberts, a non-denominational evangelist in the 1950s through the 1990s, is a card carrying member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, but many say he is also Cherokee.

Others who have identified aspects of their bloodline as Cherokee include:

Notable Cherokee Tribal Members

  • Brad Carson, Former United States Congressman, Head of Cherokee Nation Enterprises, Tribal Member Cherokee Nation
  • Joe Byrd (Cherokee Chief), Former Chief Cherokee Nation, Attempted to Overthrow the Cherokee Nation Government in the early 1990s which resulted in deployment of Federal Troops by the United States to restore order on Cherokee Nation Tribal Lands, and was accused of embezzlement of Cherokee Nation funds by the Cherokee Nation Judicial Branch.
  • Hawk Littlejohn, Native American flute maker and player.
  • Jay Red Eagle, Native American flutist, Tribal Member Cherokee Nation
  • Jeffrey Vernon Merkey, American Computer Scientist, Former Chief Scientist of Novell, Author of Multiprocessor NetWare Operating System, Tribal Member Cherokee Nation
  • Jerry Ellis, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his 1991 book Walking the Trail, One Man's Journey Along the Cherokee Trail of Tears
  • John Red Hat Duke (Keetoowah Leader) - leader of a Keetoowah Society Religious Movement, tribal member, Cherokee Nation
  • Ned Christie, Famous Outlaw and Frontiersman during Oklahoma Settlement, Tribal Member, Cherokee Nation
  • Redbird Smith, Cherokee Leader and Statesman, Tribal Member, UKB
  • Wes Studi, actor (full Cherokee) Tribal Member Cherokee Nation

Notable Individuals who have identifiable Cherokee Ancestry

Notable individuals whose Cherokee ancestry is disputed

  • Ward Churchill, activist, writer, and academic, claims Cherokee ancestry on his mother's side, although this is disputed (see article). Churchill's membership in the United Keetoowah was revoked based on a news release issued by the Tribal Council of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians.

See also


<references />

Further reading

External links


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