The Cherokee Indian Nation
It may seem strange to link tartan with some of the great
tribes of north American Indians and you could be forgiven for
querying the link. It is however, part and parcel of the legendary
global spread of the early Scots adventurers who permeated all
walks of life and all cultures. The modern appeal of tartan as a
unique identifier with those adventurers - whether the links are by
nature or nurture - is a fascinating phenomenum.
It has been widely reported that historically there has
always been a great affinity between the Scots and the North
American Indians and the reasons suggested have been the
similarities between their cultures and the fact that, generally
speaking, if the Scots wanted to settle on Indian territory, they
tended to ask, rather than take!
Someone who has studied the matter in great detail is our
good friend James "Al" Bullman of Franklin, North Carolina. He's
been a student of things Scottish for decades and is a Chevalier of
the Grand Priory of Scotland and a Fellow of the Society of
Antiquaries (Scotland). He's also a past member of the boards of
the Council of Scottish Clans and Associations (COSCA); Clan Rose
and the Scottish Tartans Society, USA, of which he was Scottish
Games Chairman. He is a lecturer at college level on Scottish
history and the history of tartan and is the founder in 1988 of the
original Scottish District Families Association. Even more
importantly, Al is also a past vice-principal Chief of the Echota
Band of the Cherokee Indians in Alabama.
Who are the Cherokee?
In the early days before the coming of the Europeans to this
side of the Atlantic, the Cherokee claimed territory about the size
of Scotland in what is now the Southern Appalachian chain of
mountains covering Western North Carolina, North Western South
Carolina, North Georgia, North Alabama, Eastern Tennessee and South
West Virginia. They also claimed the Cumberland basin of Northern
Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Today the Cherokee are concentrated in Oklahoma and the Cherokee
Boundary in Western North Carolina and there are about 12,000 in
Missouri and in the Echota Band in Alabama.
The name Cherokee comes from a Creek Indian word "Chelokee"
meaning people who talk differently and although the Cherokee were
part of what was known as the five civilized tribes, they spoke in
an Iroquian language, the Iroquois being a northern Native American
The early Spanish (Desoto) called them Chalaque and the Choctaw
and Chickasaw peoples called them Chilukki. To confuse the issue
even further, the Cherokee in early times are thought to have
called themselves Aniyunwiya or "the principal people". Today many
prefer "Tsalagi" which is their word for Cherokee.
In 1674 the population of the Cherokee was thought to be about
50,000. Smallpox epidemics (originally 'imported' by the Spanish
'Desoto' expedition of 1540) in 1729,1738 and 1753 are said to have
killed over half the population, but the Cherokee population
stabilized at roughly 20 to 25 thousand until their removal west to
Oklahoma in the late 1830's. The American Civil War in the 1860's
cost the Cherokee a quarter of its population. In the early 1990s
the U.S. census recorded 308,132 persons identified as
The Cherokee were divided in three groups. The lower Cherokee,
the middle and the over the hill Cherokee and each group was
further divided into seven "clans" . . . sounds a bit Scottish does
The seven "clans" were The Bird, The Paint, The Deer, The Panther,
The Wild Potato, The Blue Holly and The Wolf. There were also other
divisions into bands, some being the Atali, Chickamauga Etali,
Onnontiogg and Qualia. All of these bands collectively made up the
Each village or town operated independently in daily matters
except in time of war or gatherings for special ceremonies. In
times of war 'red chiefs' ran things, in times of peace 'white
chiefs' ran things. Contrary to western cowboy movies, the Cherokee
didn't live in teepees but in wattle and daub structures - circular
frames of interwoven branches plastered with mud and mixed grasses
with the interiors dug out below ground level. A village was
normally made up of 30 to 60 homes and a large council house for
meetings and ceremonies.
The first European to meet the Cherokee was the Spaniard Desoto
during his 1540 expedition to the southeastern U.S. After the
settlement of Virginia in 1609, traders working their way west had
reached the Cherokee by 1629. Increasing dependence on trade goods
caused the Cherokee to have an alliance with the British in their
wars with the French and Spanish and the Cherokee raided Spanish
settlements as far away as Florida. At the same time they were also
successfully safeguarding their territory from the Catawba peoples
in the east of Carolina and the Creek and Choctaw to the south.
Cherokee women had more rights and powers than European women. A
Cherokee could decide who she would marry. Her new husband would
build her a house, which was her property and she and her brothers
raised the children. To obtain a divorce she packed her husband's
clothes and put them outside the door and she was free to remarry.
When she died, her daughters inherited, not her sons. On the
council was a woman called The War Woman who decided if prisoners
lived or died. Woman's lib at its earliest!
During the civil war in the US, the Cherokee took the side of
the southern states and paid the price for being on the losing
side. In the late 1830's they were forcibly removed from their
homes to Oklahoma but a few resisted and went into hiding and they
are the forebears of those who live in Western North Carolina today
where they own the land, having bought and paid for some 58,000
acres. That settlement is called a Cherokee Boundry or Boundary and
is not a reservation - a government territory reserved for native
peoples who cannot own the land they live on. Today, the Cherokee
are a strong, independent people, keeping alive traditions, but
living in the 21st century. On our next trip, I will tell you of
John Ross, a blue eyed Scot who became the most famous Cherokee
You cannot curse (swear) at someone in the Cherokee language,
there are no such words. You must use English.