UKB Principal Chief George Wickliffe, EBCI Principal Chief Michell Hicks and Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker are shown after exchanging gifts at the opening of Friday’s Tri-Council meeting.
Published August 31, 2015
History was made on Aug. 28 as elected leaders of the Cherokee Nation, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians gathered for a joint council meeting at Red Clay State Park, Tennessee, a place long revered by our Cherokee people as sacred ground.
It’s the first time all three Cherokee tribes have gathered at Red Clay in generations. The last meeting there was to make important decisions for the Cherokee people as the tribe was facing forced removal to Indian Territory in 1838. This tri-council meeting was an unprecedented event, and I was honored to participate as we again came together as one people, from one fire.
The date of the gathering was also significant as it marked the 177th anniversary of the departure of the first detachment of Cherokees who were forced to leave our homelands in the east for modern-day Oklahoma. Red Clay was the Cherokee capital when the removal polices of the federal government were officially enacted and our people began that long and painful trek.
Principal Chief Bill John Baker
The history of Red Clay is an interesting one. Previously, our capital had been New Echota, Georgia, but sadly the state began passing legislation in 1829 that extended its state laws and jurisdiction over Cherokee territory. These laws, often called the Georgia Harassment Laws, terrorized and displaced many Cherokee families residing in the state. Additionally, Georgia prohibited the Cherokee government and Cherokee courts from functioning. It was an attempt to keep our tribal council from planning, making decisions or protesting federal Indian policies.
To combat this, the Cherokee capital was moved just north of the Georgia state line into Tennessee. There were 11 separate council meetings held here between 1832 and 1837. It was also at Red Clay when the Cherokee people first learned about the Treaty of New Echota, and later, where Principal Chief John Ross made the announcement that the Cherokee people would be removed. Prior to removal, the Cherokee Nation encompassed all or parts of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
Today, Red Clay is a Tennessee state park and a place for remembrance and respect. Seeing the grounds filled with modern leaders from our respective sovereign governments was moving and a memory I will cherish forever. During the meeting, we came together as brothers and sisters and discussed the issues of the day and shared the successes of our people. Although we discussed the issues of today, the fact we were sitting in council at our ancient home, a place where our ancestors made life-altering decisions that shaped our tribe forever, was never far from anyone’s mind.
I can only admire what our ancestors did and the way they kept the Cherokee people alive. The leaders who met at Red Clay ensured we would survive by any means necessary. The burden of leadership in those dark days of our past was immense. They were true Cherokee patriots and statesmen and will be honored for all time.
I want to thank the Eastern Band of Cherokees for being such gracious hosts, and I encourage each of you to visit our ancient homelands if the opportunity arises.
Bill John Baker is the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.