- By Chuck Hoskin Jr
Guest Opinion. Cherokee Nation’s history is rich, but the details of our story are not well-known – even among our own citizens. We must be better informed. Our past informs our present in how we interact with each other, with other tribes, and even with the United States Government. In order to make informed decisions about where we are going, we must better understand where we came from.
Knowledge is ultimately the best defense for preserving our Nation’s long and unique history, and protecting our reservation, treaty rights, and sovereignty. We cannot effectively educate others in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere on these issues or defend ourselves against false narratives unless we, ourselves, are fully educated and understand the complex truth of our history—a history that is the basis for our sovereign powers and legal rights that define us as the Cherokee Nation.
Most everyone knows Cherokee Nation, with more than 450,000 citizens, is the country’s largest federally recognized Indian tribe. About a third of these citizens live on our 7,000 square mile reservation in northeast Oklahoma. Cherokee Nation citizens are spread across the United States—our citizens live in every state in the union, and there are significant populations of Cherokees in Texas, California, Arkansas, Kansas, and Missouri. The Cherokee Nation Constitution—first ratified in 1827 and most recently updated in 2003—provides for a tripartite government with executive, legislative, and judicial branches. We maintain exclusive jurisdiction over the entirety of our land base, and govern from our capital city of Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
What people don’t know, unfortunately, are the details. And the details are paramount, because those who seek to steal our history and sovereignty often make false claims in order to misrepresent their rights and sew confusion. We need to know these facts, clearly understand their meaning, and be ready to push back when we come across fraudulent narratives.
First and foremost, there is no “historic” Cherokee Nation—there is only Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee Nation of today is the Cherokee Nation of yesterday. Cherokee Nation in 2023 is the Cherokee Nation that was governing itself when Europeans “discovered us.” The whole framing of a “historical” Cherokee Nation is a construct that has no historical or legal basis. It is time to put it to rest, definitively.
Our continuous government-to-government relationship with the United States predates the founding of the country. Cherokee Nation entered into its first treaty with the United States in 1785 (the Treaty of Hopewell), and over the next 81 years forged numerous treaties and agreements with its fellow sovereign. As the landmark McGirt and Vann decisions demonstrated, the United States and Cherokee Nation are still bound by the provisions of these treaties, which remain valid law and shape our legal rights and obligations. Our final treaty with the United States was signed in 1866.
Originally, Cherokee Nation’s homelands consisted of a substantial portion of what is now the southeastern United States. Between May 1838 and March 1839, the U.S. Government forcibly removed thousands of our ancestors to a reservation in what is now Oklahoma. The boundaries of this reservation were defined and affirmed in a series of treaties, guaranteeing the Nation’s sovereign title to, and authority over, those lands. And in 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt ruling made clear that the Cherokee Nation’s reservation and the treaty right tied to it are enduring. Our reservation is ours alone.
The 1835 Treaty of New Echota was, of course, responsible for our removal. Following our removal, our people came together in the 1839 Act of Union. The Cherokee Nation reunited under a new constitution in Indian Territory. The Act preserved our rights and obligations under our treaties, as well as our exclusive jurisdiction over our reservation. Moreover, our ancestors’ efforts to reunite means that those treaties remain alive and well and exclusively in the hands of the Cherokee Nation.
And we’ve continued to chart our own history. In 1971, we elected a principal chief for the first time since Oklahoma statehood. And in 1985, Wilma Mankiller became the first woman to serve as principal chief of our nation and the first woman elected to serve as principal chief of any tribal nation. In 2019, I nominated Kim Teehee to serve as our first-ever delegate to the U.S. Congress – a seat that was promised to us in the Treaty of New Echota, the same treaty that led to our removal. In the nearly 200 years since that treaty was signed, Congress has failed to seat the delegate that we were promised. It’s past time for that to change, and we are still working to get Kim seated.
Our history matters. The truth matters.
Other tribes -- such as the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians -- are entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts. And -- most importantly -- they are certainly not entitled to the treaty rights and the benefits that our ancestors fought to secure for the Cherokee Nation with our blood, sweat, and tears.
The Cherokee Nation, our treaty rights, and reservation in the twenty-first century are the expressions and products of our remarkably difficult history and too, of our unbending will to persevere and thrive. Through it all, the Nation and its people survived intact.
We must insist on and tell the truth to educate our citizens and protect our Nation and rich history. To do this successfully will require all of us. Our truth is the truth. We must know it and share it because what is at stake is too great.
Chuck Hoskin, Jr. is the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.
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