Native Languages of the Americas: Cherokee (Tsalagi)
Language: Cherokee--more properly spelled Tsalagi--is an
Iroquoian language with an innovative written syllabary invented by a
Cherokee scholar. 22,000 people speak Tsalagi today, primarily in Oklahoma and North Carolina.
Though it is one of the healthier Indian languages of North America and the one in which
the most literature being published, Tsalagi is still in imperiled condition because of government
policies as late as the fifties which enforced the removal of Cherokee children from
Tsalagi-speaking homes, reducing the number of young Cherokees being raised bilingually
from 75% to less than 5% today.
People: 'Cherokee' is Creek for 'people with another language'.
(It's amazing how white settlers always managed to learn another tribe's name for any group of Indians. They
learned the Creek word for the Cherokee tribe, but not the Creek word for themselves.) Anyway, our
original name for ourselves was Aniyunwiya, but Cherokee is fine too (though we say it
Tsalagi). There are 350,000 Cherokee people today, mostly in Oklahoma and North Carolina.
History: The best-known episode in Cherokee history was also the worst:
the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of the Cherokee Indians from their ancestral home in
the southeast to Oklahoma. The Cherokee people were an urban, Christian, agricultural,
intermarried society who had supported the
United States against other tribes. In the end this was all for nothing. Though prominent
Americans like Davy Crockett and Daniel Webster spoke against Removal, and though the
Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional, President Andrew Jackson sent in the army. Fifteen to twenty thousand
Cherokee Indians (along with Choctaw,
Creek, and other tribes) were rounded up and
herded to Oklahoma in the winter of 1838-1839. Driven from their homes without being allowed to collect
their possessions first, even their shoes, the Cherokees were no better equipped for an 800-mile forced march
than people today would be. Between four and eight thousand Cherokee people died of exposure, starvation, disease, and
exhaustion along the Trail of Tears. If you understand this, both the extent to which the Cherokees had adopted American
standards of civilization before the Removal and the ultimate futility of it, you will go a
long way towards understanding the Cherokee mentality and also the attitudes of other Indian
peoples towards us.