Early Cherokee Indians - Native American History
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Cherokee History

Cherokee pipe
Cherokee tobacco pipe
(Museum of the Cherokee Indian)

October 2016 - The Cherokee nation was the largest, and probably the most important, nation of eastern North America. They did not call themselves the Cherokee - they called themselves the Ani Chota, which means the people of Chota, their capital, or the Ani Yunwiya, which means "the main people". Probably Cherokee people were originally part of the Iroquois people, because their language is related to Iroquois and they themselves believed that they came from the north-east, but they split off and moved south, probably about 1500 BC, in the Late Archaic period.

After that, during the Woodland period, the Cherokee lived in south-eastern North America (mainly modern Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas, but also South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia and Alabama). By about 800 AD, the Cherokee were probably a Mississippian group, building burial mounds and towns like other Mississippian people, even though they did not live right on the Mississippi river and there are some differences in the way they lived.

Cherokee cooking pot
Cherokee cooking pot for corn pudding

By around 1000 AD, in the Mississippian period, Cherokee people began to grow corn, squash, sunflowers, and beans for some of their food. They grew tobacco, too. Sometime around 1200 AD, they may have started to keep tame turkeys for food too.

Cherokee people still hunted and gathered, and they ate a lot of fish and shellfish. But the farming helped them to settle down in towns and villages.

During the Mississippian period, Cherokee people were not united under one chief. They lived in a bunch of small independent city-states. Probably these city-states were unified as a confederacy, like the Iroquois confederacy, where they considered themselves one people, and often made decisions as a group by consensus or by voting. We might consider this to be a complex chiefdom. There were at least sixty Cherokee towns, and there may have been more. Each town had about 300 to 400 people living in it.

Learn by doing: eating succotash
More about the Cherokee

Bibliography and further reading about Cherokee history:

Later Cherokee history
Native Americans
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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