The Cherokee People historically occupied parts of seven southeastern states in the continental United States. The Cherokee Nation was comprised of towns and villages situated along the broad river valleys which comprise this region of the southern Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains. Cherokees also controlled hunting grounds in the rugged highlands and maintained hunting camps there throughout the year. Headmen and chiefs, who were chosen through a matrilineal social system controlled by the women, governed villages and towns. This social structure consisted of seven clans of familial organization. The clans, Bird, Deer, Wolf, Blue, Long Hair, Wild Potato and Paint, lived in extended family homes constructed from waddle and daub, an adobe like clay, applied to wooden frames. The women controlled marriage and property and the matrilineal uncles principally reared children.
At the time of European contact, first by Desoto in 1540, the Cherokee were governed by two distinct administrations, one for war and one for peace. These administrations were kept separate and reflected the religious beliefs of the tribe. Religion was not seen as a separate entity but rather an important philosophical base for their life ways.
The Cherokee viewed acculturation to the new European lifestyle as a means of survival and this was reflected primarily through education. The Cherokee invited religious missionaries into the Nation to develop schools. The disparities in language within this new educational system lead to the development of the Cherokee Syllabary or alphabet by a Cherokee named George Guess, better known as Sequoyah.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Cherokee Nation had adopted a written constitution as well as a bilingual newspaper. The new constitutional government fundamentally changed the social structure of the Cherokee from matrilineal to a paternalistic system.
During the 1830’s the state of Georgia wanted to expand state jurisdiction to include the Cherokee Nation and moved to do so through a series of legislative actions. The Cherokee Nation opposed these actions through the court system. The United States Supreme Court upheld Tribal Sovereignty through decisions in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia and Worchester v. Georgia but those two decisions were not supported by the administration. Subsequently, the Removal Act of 1830 was ratified by Congress and signed into law by President Andrew Jackson.
The Cherokee Nation was removed from their traditional territory during the winter and spring of 1838-1839 to Oklahoma. Nearly, 20,000 Cherokees were removed; however, only 16,000 survived the trip west. The Cherokee Nation reorganized under their original constitution and continues to live in Oklahoma today.
In North Carolina, those Cherokees who escaped removal either through a North Carolina provision called the Reservation Act of 1819 or by evading the United States Army remained behind in a land less state. By law, Native Americans were neither citizens of the United States nor the state where they resided therefore none could hold property. An adopted Cherokee named Will Thomas bought land with the Cherokees money, held the deeds in his name and allowed the fugitive Cherokees to live on and work the land. This ambiguous status continued until after the Civil War when the Cherokee question surfaced again. After several years of legal wrangling, the Cherokee formed a corporation. As a business, the Cherokee could hold the land and the land, which was to become known as the Qualla Boundary again, was in Cherokee control.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians obtained a corporate charter from the state of North Carolina in 1870. The Cherokee decided to re-organize their government and adopted a Constitution written by Lloyd Welch. The EBCI continues to operate under the duality of a Constitution and corporate charter.
Today, the 12,500 members of the EBCI live principally on the Qualla Boundary in Western North Carolina commonly called the Cherokee Reservation. Their democratic government is controlled through the Corporate Charter and through legislation developed jointly from North Carolina codes, federal codes and through legislation written and implemented by a popularly elected Tribal Council. The Tribal Council is elected from six voting districts to serve two-year terms. The chief executive officer is the Principal Chief who along with the Vice Chief is elected every four years. Tribal government provides services for Boundary residents and operated similarly to county governments. Tribal government also controls a tribal court system to hear both criminal and civil complaints. Funding for tribal government comes from a variety of sources including grants, taxable income from a tribal levy and casino profits.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians continues to operate as a sovereign nation in providing for the prosperity of Tribal members.