History of the Cherokee language

Blowgun demonstration in Oconaluftee Indian Village, Cherokee, North Carolina. Cherokee language and culture have been kept alive together. Today, churches within Cherokee tribal jurisdiction areas give services in the language, and on ceremonial "stomp" grounds ceremonial leaders are required to perform all duties in the language and all information and records are kept in the syllabary.

Cherokee is an endangered-to-moribund Iroquoian language. It is the native language of the Cherokee tribes.

Today’s article is a history of the Cherokee language, the original American Iroquoian language indigenous to the Cherokee tribes. In 2019, the Tri-Council of Cherokee tribes announced a state of emergency for the language due to the extinction threat, calling for the improvement of the revitalization program.

Origin of the Word Cherokee

The Cherokee call their language Tslagi or Tsalagi. They consider themselves as Aniyunwiya, which means “Principal People.” The Iroquois living in New York have historically called the Cherokee Oyata’ge’ronoñ, which means “inhabitants of the cave nation.”

Many theories abound about the issue of the name “Cherokee.” It may have been initially derived from the Choctaw term Cha-la-kee, which literarily means “those who live in the hills,” or Choctaw Chi-luk-ik-bi, meaning “those who live in the cave nation.”

Pre-Contact history

There are two prevailing views about Cherokee origins, and most of what is known about Cherokee history can be studied through their traditional language. One theory is that the Cherokee, an Iroquoian-speaking people, are relative latecomers to Southern Appalachia, who may have migrated in late prehistoric times from northern areas, the traditional territory of the later Haudenosaunee five nations and other Iroquoian-speaking peoples. Researchers in the 19th century recorded conversations with elders who recounted an oral tradition of the Cherokee people’s migrating south from the Great Lakes region in ancient times. The other theory, which is disputed by academic specialists, is that the Cherokee had been in the Southeast for thousands of years. Pre-contact Cherokee is considered to be part of the later Pisgah Phase of Southern Appalachia, which lasted from circa 1000 to 1500.

Much of what is known about pre-19th century Cherokee culture and society comes from the papers of American writer John Howard Payne. The Payne papers describe the account by Cherokee elders of a traditional societal structure in which a “white” organization of elders represented the seven clans. According to Payne, this group, which was hereditary and described as priestly, was responsible for religious activities such as healing, purification, and prayer. The second group of younger men, the “red” organization, was responsible for warfare. Warfare was considered a polluting activity, which required the purification of the priestly class before participants could reintegrate into normal village life. This hierarchy had disappeared long before the 18th century. The reasons for the change have been debated, with the origin of the decline often located with a revolt by the Cherokee against the abuses of the priestly class known as the Ani-Kutani( “Aní-” is a prefix referring to a group of individuals, while the meaning of “kutáni” is unknown).

17th century: English contact

In 1657, there was a disturbance in Virginia Colony as the Rechahecrians or Rickahockans, as well as the Siouan Manahoac and Nahyssan, broke through the frontier and settled near the Falls of the James, near present-day Richmond, Virginia. The following year, a combined force of English and Pamunkey drove the newcomers away. The identity of the Rechahecrians has been much debated. Historians noted the name closely resembled that recorded for the Eriechronon or Erielhonan, commonly known as the Erie tribe. The Iroquoian people had been driven away from the southern shore of Lake Erie by the powerful Iroquois Five Nations in 1654. The anthropologist Martin Smith theorized some remnants of the tribe migrated to Virginia after the wars (1986:131–32). Few historians suggest this tribe was Cherokee.

Early Modern History

Over the course of the 18th century CE, the number of Cherokee speakers declined sharply. In the 1730s, the population halved due to commercial trade with England that resulted in the spread of diseases such as smallpox, to which the indigenous peoples had no immunity. In the 1780s, the Cherokee people faced genocidal wars with British settlers, significantly the Anglo-Cherokee War, and conflicts with other tribes, including the Muscogee.

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