In the years when I was teaching the Cherokee Nation History Course to CN employees and communities, one of the best stories I was able to share related to the very conscious decision in 1838 by the National Council of the Cherokee Nation to continue with Constitutional government once the people had completed the journey they were embarking on – the infamous Trail of Tears. The story is that on the October evening before the largest contingent of emigrants – 1800 Cherokee souls guided by conductor Peter Hildebrand – was to begin the arduous journey, the members of the National Council, the Cherokee Nation’s legislative body, met. Knowing that they would not gather again until after reaching the Indian Territory, they made some decisions about what their first actions as a body would be once they had reached the west.
One of the things they considered was whether they would continue with constitutional government in the west. It was still a new experiment for them. They had only had an official document for eleven years, although they had been making governmental reforms for an additional ten years previously. Still, they surely recognized that in this moment, when an entire society would have to be rebuilt from the ground up, that if changes were to be made, this would be the moment to do it.
Constitutional government had been a new experiment for the Cherokees and initially had been contested by many of the more conservative Cherokees, although most had since learned to appreciate it. There must have been something about it that they felt was working well for them. Perhaps it had given stability and legitimacy to the government of Chief John Ross in the years when it had faced challenges to its authority from both the United States and oppositional Cherokees. Perhaps it was part of the narrative of being a “civilized” people that the Cherokees used so strategically as a defense of their rights and territory. Perhaps there was a clarity and conformity to it that was applied evenly across a growing and more centralized society. We were no longer a consortium of towns that self-governed according the clan rules, but a self-professed “great” nation in which laws applied equally to all. Whatever it was, the governmental leadership of the Cherokee Nation made a very conscious choice in 1838. We would continue with our new experiment in Constitutional government once we had reached our new western homelands, and establishing a superseding constitution would be a priority, even with all the challenges of rebuilding that we faced.
The 1839 Constitution was adopted on September 6 of that year by a National Council that was comprised mainly of supporters of the John Ross government. We celebrate this event each year at the Cherokee National Holiday on Labor Day weekend. The Constitution was not adopted in a congenial environment. It was ratified despite the protests of pro-removal Treaty Party members who were shut out of the Constitutional process. In addition, it was ratified despite the protests of many of the Old Settlers (Cherokees who had immigrated to Arkansas/Indian territory several decades earlier) who saw the Ross Party Cherokees as displacing governance they had already established in the region. In short, the 1839 Constitution was achieved almost by brute force, even though it aligned with the desires of what was suddenly the majority of Cherokees – those who had recently arrived from the east.
As the century progressed, the Cherokees faced even greater devastations than the removal – enormous loss of life in the American Civil War and enormous loss of territory in the final decades. Yet even as Cherokees grieved their losses, their level of engagement with their government and their society never diminished. The 1839 Constitution became their rudder, an instrument to not only guide their internal governance, but to assert their sovereignty and rights vis-à-vis the outside world.
As historians looking back, we do not see cynicism and hopelessness among the Cherokees of the late 19th century. Indeed, we see resistance across all the strata of Cherokee society, from the grassroots resistance of the Redbird Smith movement to the more politically strategic resistance of the State of Sequoyah effort. Our ancestors did not relinquish their Nation with the whimper of cynicism. Instead, they kept it alive through the continuing engagement of individuals and communities with each other and their government.
Today, Cherokees are far flung to a degree that has never been the case before. As is the case with many Indian nations, the majority of our citizens -- about 2/3 in our case -- reside outside the tribal jurisdiction. For them, but even for those within the jurisdiction, it can be challenging to remain engaged in Cherokee government and society, even with the tools of the internet and social media. As we celebrate the 66th Cherokee National Holiday this year, please consider the ways in which you can become more active in not just the cultural life, but also in the civic life of the Cherokees.
Using an acronym standing for Patriotism, Identity, Nationality, and Sovereignty, the Cherokee PINS Project: Education and Engagement for Sovereignty sponsors workshops, webinars, and other educational offerings designed to spur active and knowledgeable involvement in Cherokee government and society. Please attend the 66th Cherokee National Holiday, celebrate with your compatriots, and then explore the PINS project offerings for ways to engage further with the people, communities, and government of our shared Nation.