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The Cherokee Nation

The Cherokee people are located in two distinct regions representing their history under the United States. The Eastern Band of Cherokee are located in North Carolina and Tennessee, the traditional homeland of the people who call themselves "Ani Yun Wiya" or "Real People"(ENAT, 43-48). The term Cherokee was probably given to them by their neighbors in the southeast, the Creeks. The Creeks called them "Tciloki", meaning "people of a different speech".

The modern Cherokee nation has more enrolled members than any other in the United States. The 1990 census showed around 400,000 Cherokees living in the country. The Navajo, however are considered the largest tribe by many since the Western Cherokee recognize any one who has even the smallest part Cherokee in their heritage to be a Western Cherokee. The Western Cherokee philosophy is that even the smallest drop of Cherokee blood makes one a Cherokee. Most other tribes, including the Eastern Band of Cherokee, require an individual to prove to be at least one quarter or one sixteenth descended from an individual member of a particular tribe to be eligible for membership.

The major component of the Cherokee nation is found in Oklahoma. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act which evicted all Indians in the southeastern United States to what is now Oklahoma. At the time of this act, the Cherokee were an advanced nation having built towns and cities, having a written constitution and even printing their own newspapers in the Cherokee language. The Cherokee had been interacting with the United States government for quite some time on a true government to government relationship. Part of the fear that caused the move was that the Cherokee would actually take steps to become a truly independent nation on the western boundaries of the United States. The primary motivation, however, was greed. The whites in Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee and Alabama desired the lands of the Cherokee. The United States military had the might to grant the whites their wish.

The eviction of the Cherokee people and their relocation to Oklahoma has become known as the "Trail of Tears". The military did not care for the Cherokees in any way during the migration. The forced move was accompanied by disease, harsh weather, starvation and attacks by marauding whites. Over 4,000 Cherokee died on the road to Oklahoma. Every year, the "Trail of Tears'" is recalled in a pageant and remembrance ceremony in the Cherokee capital of Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

The government's treatment of the Cherokee and other tribes in the 1830s bore bitter fruit thirty years later when all five of the "Civilized Tribes", that is the Cherokee, the Chickasaw, the Choctaw, the Muskogee or Creek, and the Seminole signed treaties with the Confederate States of America and fought in the war against the Union. The earliest fully documented Cherokee flag is that of the Cherokee Braves. This flag was presented to principal chief John Ross on October 7, 1861 by the Confederate Indian Commissioner, Albert Pike. A similar flag has been attributed to the First Cherokee Mounted Rifles, possibly pointing to the base design as a de facto national flag for the Cherokee Nation (Devereaux D. Cannon Jr., The Flags of the Confederacy, An Illustrated History, [Memphis, TN : St. Luke's Press & Broadfoot Publishing, 1988], 64). This flag was the standard design of the first Confederate national flag, three horizontal stripes of red over white over red bearing a blue canton upon which a ring of eleven white stars appeared. The standard flag was modified for use by the Cherokees by the addition of a large red star in the center of the ring and that was surrounded by four smaller red stars. The five additional stars stood for the five "Civilized Tribes", while the large one specifically referred to the Cherokees. In red letters on the white stripe appeard the words "Cherokee Braves". This flag, employing black lettering is used today by the unrecognized "Southern Cherokee Nation" based in Georgia (note: this is not the same as the state recognized Chrokee of Georgia which employ a distinctive flag of their own).

In Dr. Whitney Smith's "The Flag Book of the United States"(FBUS, 254-255), the Cherokee are reported to have a white flag bearing seven red seven pointed stars. This flag, which has been called a "peace flag" was known to have been used in the ceremonies of the Cherokee to celebrate their national holiday on Sept. 7, 1968. The Cherokee Peace Flag is symbolic in both color and design. The red stars stand for victory and success, while the white background represents peace and happiness. The seven points of each star recall the seven clans of the Cherokee people. The stars are arranged in the pattern of the constellation "Yonegwa", known to the white man as the Great Bear or Big Dipper. According to Cherokee history, the peace flag was carried by the Cherokee from their traditional home to the Indian Territory along the "Trail of Tears". Before that journey began, the Cherokee War Flag, was buried with a hatchet. The "War Flag" was red and bore the Big Dipper in white according to tribal sources. This counter changing of red and white for war and peace is a common design element in many eastewrn tribes.

As of March 1998, the government of the Cherokee of Oklahoma is considering bringing back the "Peace flag" with some design modifications. Added to the fly would be a black star for those having died on the "Trail of Tears" while a blue star may be added for the bright future.

The western Cherokee based in Oklahoma have an orange flag. This flag bears their tribal seal (ANNIN) in the center. A single seven pointed star, each point divided in half, one side yellow, the other orange.

This star recalls the seven original clans of the Cherokee people. This is surrounded by a oak wreath depicted in orange and green. The oak symbolizes the sacred eternal fire which was kindled from oak wood. All this lies on a grey circle. Ringing this central circle is an orange band bearing the phrase "Seal of the Cherokee Nation" in both English and Cherokee script. In the Cherokee language, it is pronounced "Tsa la gi yi A ye hli", meaning "The Cherokee Nation"(postcard, "Seal of the Cherokee Nation"). That script, it should be noted, was the invention of the great Cherokee chief, Sequoyah. It was the first Indian language to be put in written form. At the base of the orange ring is the date Sept. 6, 1839, the date of the constitution of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma.

Beyond the seal is a ring of seven yellow seven pointed stars, again recalling the seven original clans. These stars also recall the seven holidays in the Cherokee Life cycle and the seven sacred rites in the Cherokee's native religion. The stars are arranged so that each has one point aiming toward the central seal.

Edging the entire flag is a border of green and black diagonal stripes similar to the rope-like border frequently found around a seal .

The flag was designed by Mr. Stanley John(Cherokee Advocate, 8/78), a full blooded Navajo and husband to a member of the Cherokee nation. It was approved by the Tribal Council on October 9, 1978 and officially raised over the Tribal headquarters on September 30, 1979(Cherokee Advocate 9/79).

As the result of a resolution passed by the Cherokee Council on September 9, 1989, the flag of the Cherokee Nation was altered(Cherokee Council Resolution #73-89, Sept. 9, 1989). To the upper fly corner was added a single black seven pointed star(Sample flag provided by the Cherokee Nation, Tahlequah, OK). This star is a constant reminder of those Cherokee who lost their lives during the terrible ordeal recalled each year in Tahlequah, the "Trail of Tears".

Special thanks to Devereaux Cannon for supplying detailed information concerning the Cherokee flag changes.

The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma sells copies of its flag. The Gift Shop sells both small and large versions. A large one is $69.98 while a small one is $7.98. You can call the gift shop at (918) 456-2793 or 1-800-256-2123.

You may write the Cherokee Nation at: Cherokee Tribal Council, P.O. Box 948, Tahlequah, OK 74465 or phone (918) 456-0671.

Don Healy, Bisbee, Az 85603