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The Cherokee are a Native American people historically settled in the Southeastern United States (principally Georgia, the Carolinas, and East Tennessee). Their language is an Iroquoian language. In the 19th century, historians and ethnographers recorded their oral tradition that told of the tribe having migrated south in ancient times from the Great Lakes region, where other Iroquoian-speaking peoples were located. They began to have contact with European traders in the 18th century.
In the 19th century, white settlers in the United States called the Cherokee one of the "Five Civilized Tribes", because they had assimilated numerous cultural and technological practices of European American settlers. The Cherokee were one of the first, if not the first, major non-European ethnic group to become U.S. citizens. Article 8 in the 1817 treaty with the Cherokee stated Cherokees may wish to become citizen of the United States. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the Cherokee Nation has more than 300,000 members, the largest of the 565 federally recognized Native American tribes in the United States.
Of the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes, the Cherokee Nation and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians (UKB) have headquarters in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. The UKB are mostly descendants of "Old Settlers", Cherokee who migrated to Arkansas and Oklahoma about 1817. The Cherokee Nation are related to the people who were forcibly relocated there in the 1830s under the Indian Removal Act. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is located on the Qualla Boundary in western North Carolina.
In addition, there are Cherokee bands in the Southeast that are recognized as tribes by state governments, such as the Echota Cherokee Tribe of Alabama, but not the U.S. federal government.
There are two prevailing views about Cherokee origins. One is that the Cherokee, an Iroquoian-speaking people, are relative latecomers to Southern Appalachia, who may have migrated in late prehistoric times from northern areas, the traditional territory of the later Haudenosaunee five nations and other Iroquoian-speaking peoples. Researchers in the 19th century recorded conversations with elders who recounted an oral tradition of the Cherokee people's migrating south from the Great Lakes region in ancient times. The other theory, which is disputed by academic specialists, is that the Cherokee had been in the Southeast for thousands of years. There is no archeological evidence for this.
Some traditionalists, historians and archaeologists believe that the Cherokee did not come to Appalachia until the 15th century or later. They may have migrated from the north and moved south into Muscogee Creek territory and settled at the sites of mounds built by the Mississippian culture. During early research, archeologists had mistakenly attributed several Mississippian culture sites to the Cherokee, including Moundville and Etowah Mounds.
Late 20th-century studies have shown conclusively instead that the weight of archeological evidence at the sites shows they are unquestionably related to ancestors of Muskogean peoples rather than to the Cherokee. Pre-contact Cherokee are considered to be part of the later Pisgah Phase of Southern Appalachia, which lasted from circa 1000 to 1500. Despite the consensus among most specialists in Southeast archeology and anthropology, some scholars contend that ancestors of the Cherokee people lived in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee for a far longer period of time. During the late Archaic and Woodland Period, Indians in the region began to cultivate plants such as marsh elder, lambsquarters, pigweed, sunflowers and some native squash.
People created new art forms such as shell gorgets, adopted new technologies, and followed an elaborate cycle of religious ceremonies. During the Mississippian Culture-period (800 to 1500 CE), local women developed a new variety of maize (corn) called eastern flint. It closely resembled modern corn and produced larger crops. The successful cultivation of corn surpluses allowed the rise of larger, more complex chiefdoms with several villages and concentrated populations during this period. Corn became celebrated among numerous peoples in religious ceremonies, especially the Green Corn Ceremony.
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