In ancient times, the Cherokee culture was preserved and passed on to each generation through ceremony and oral stories. It was an informal process that incorporated changes slowly and naturally over the ages. Cultures change as new generations bring new ideas and new interpretations to old traditions. Cultures are influenced by their neighbors, by changing climate, by changing food sources, by war, and by changing political influences.
Today, we have but hints and whispers of the ancient Cherokee culture. So much has vanished under the influence of the European explorers, colonists, and the formation of the new European-American governments. The pressures and influences of this foreign culture forced the Cherokee to examine what had once been a natural progression and introduced the conscious effort of “preserving the culture”.
James Mooney states, “The definite history of the Cherokee begins with the year 1540, at which date we find [the Cherokee] already established, where they were always afterward known, in the mountains of Carolina and Georgia. … the first entry into their country was made by De Soto, advancing up the Savannah on his fruitless quest for gold, in May of that year. “
Based on the Spaniard’s description of the Cherokee at that time, we can surmise that they were quite civilized, organized, hospitable, and unintimidated by the visitors. When later explorers passed through their nation, little had changed and the Cherokee seemed unaffected and unimpressed by the encounters.
In 1708 they were described as, “a numerous people, living in the mountains northwest from Charleston settlements and having sixty towns, but of small importance in the Indian trade, being ‘but ordinary hunters and less warriors.’”
For centuries the Cherokee and Tuscarora tribe were enemies. So, In 1711—1713, about two-hundred Cherokee warriors joined the South Carolina volunteers in a war that drove the Tuscarora out of North Carolina. This would be the first of many alliances with either the colonists or the English in battles over trading agreements. When the powerful Yamasee and other small tribes along the coast were crushed by the English, many tribes in the interior, including the Cherokee, decided that it was in their best interest to sue for peace.
Again from Mooney, “In 1721, in order still more to systematize Indian affairs, Governor Nicholson of South Carolina invited the chiefs of the Cherokee to a conference, at which thirty-seven towns were represented. A treaty was made by which trading methods were regulated, a boundary line between their territory and the English settlements was agreed upon, and an agent was appointed to superintend their affairs. … Thus were the Cherokee reduced from their former condition of a free people, ranging where their pleasure led, to that of dependent vassals with bounds fixed by a colonial governor. The negotiations were accompanied by a cession of land, the first in the history of the tribe. In little more than a century thereafter they had signed away their whole original territory.”
And so it began. The first major change in the Cherokee culture with the introduction of the European concept of “boundaries”, “treaties”, and “government agents”.
In succeeding articles, we will take a look at the efforts of important Cherokee leaders to preserve their culture.