American Indian people of Iroquoian lineage living mostly in Oklahoma, U.S. Their traditional homeland is eastern Tennessee and the western Carolinas. Cherokee culture resembled that of the Creek and other Southeast Indians. Their name is derived from a Creek word meaning people of different speech; many prefer to be known as Keetoowah or Tsalagi. Cherokee is an Iroquoian language, but it differs considerably from other Iroquoian languages. At the time of first European contact, the Cherokee possessed stone implements, and they wove baskets, made pottery, cultivated corn, beans, and squash, and hunted deer, bear, and elk. Wars and treaties in the late 18th century severely reduced Cherokee power and landholdings. After a series of failed raids against U.S. troops and civilian settlements, they ceded land to attain peace and to pay debts. After 1800 the Cherokee were remarkable for their assimilation of European/American culture, forming a government modeled on that of the U.S. and adopting European methods of farming and homemaking. Most became literate following the development of a syllabary by Sequoyah. Beginning c. 1835, when gold was discovered on Cherokee land in Georgia, agitation increased for their removal to the West. The ensuing events culminated in the Trail of Tears, which left some 4,000 Cherokee dead. Cherokee descendants numbered more than 730,000 in the early 21st century.
Cherokee dancers performing in traditional regalia.—Kevin Fleming/Corbis
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