The Cherokee are the largest Native American tribe, and one of the most fascinating. For hundreds -- possibly thousands -- of years, until the late 1700's, they were one united tribe, living and farming in an area now spanning North Carolina, northern Georgia and southern Tennessee. The story of their division into three tribes is, sadly, intertwined with one of U.S. history's more painful chapters. White settlers wanted the Cherokee lands, especially after gold was discovered, and they began a decades-long campaign to pressure their state governments, and the states to pressure the federal, to force the Cherokee to leave and move west. Some Cherokee believed the result was inevitable, and were the first to negotiate trades for land out west, eventually becoming the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees. A much larger group were later forced west in what was known as The Trail of Tears, a grueling march of 800 miles on foot, in which as many as 4,000 of the 16,000 marchers died. Those who survived the march became the Cherokee Nation, establishing a now vital government in the area of Oklahoma designated by the U.S. as Cherokee land. A third smaller group managed to avoid the forced expulsion, some by hiding, others by local alliances or state citizenship; these became the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, now based in North Carolina.
Today, the three tribes share a heritage, a language, and -- happily for those who wish to visit -- a vibrant culture with a host of fun ways to welcome visitors.
of Oklahoma is 392,000 strong, an enrolled membership that makes it nearly as large as the Navaho. An active and vital community, the Cherokee Nation welcomes visitors
The can't-miss annual festival is the Cherokee National Holiday (pictured), celebrating the signing of the Cherokee Constitution each Labor Day weekend.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians can be found where the Cherokees began, as their 8,000 members work to preserve Cherokee culture in the North Carolina area. At the Cherokee Historical Association, visitors can visit a carefully recreated 18th century Cherokee village, followed by a powerful drama that's attracted over 6 million visitors. Local annual festivals include the exciting Cherokee Powwow (pictured) and the Cherokee Heritage Festival.
There are also wonderful museums and festivals which showcase the culture of many Native American tribes, and these can be great ways to experience Cherokee culture in context. These include:
The National Museum of the American Indian, a Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC, where indigenous cultures from all the Americas are celebrated. Most years, the Museum hosts a Cherokee Days Festival, bringing together members of all three Cherokee Tribes.
The Gathering of the Nations Powwow, held in rotating locations each year, is the world's largest annual gathering of Native American nations.
The Indian National Finals Rodeo, the largest and most prestigious Native American rodeo event is typically held in October in Las Vegas.