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What are the 7 Cherokee tribes?

What are the 7 Cherokee tribes?

The Cherokee are one of the largest Native American tribes in the United States. Historically, the Cherokee comprised seven distinct tribal groups that spoke related but distinct dialects of the Cherokee language. Today, three federally recognized Cherokee tribes exist: the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Cherokee Nation, and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians. These groups all share common ancestry and history but are distinct political entities.

The 7 Historical Cherokee Tribes

Prior to European contact, the Cherokee people comprised seven mother towns or tribes located in different parts of the southeastern United States:

Tribe Location
Lower Cherokee Northwestern South Carolina and northeastern Georgia
Middle Cherokee Western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee
Valley Cherokee Southwestern North Carolina
Overhill Cherokee East Tennessee
Hill Cherokee Northern Alabama
Atali Cherokee Northwest Georgia
Kituhwa Cherokee Southwestern North Carolina

These groups spoke three distinct but related dialects. The Lower, Middle, Valley, and Hill tribes spoke a version of Cherokee known as the Lower dialect. The Overhill and Atali spoke the Overhill dialect, while the Kituhwa had their own distinct dialect.

Despite speaking different dialects, these groups shared a common culture, origin story, and ceremonial practices. Intermarriage between tribes also served to unify them. However, each tribe was politically sovereign with its own leadership.

Early History and European Contact

Archaeologists believe the Cherokee have inhabited the southeastern United States for over 9,000 years. They were mound builders, with evidence of sophisticated earthwork architecture dating back to 600 CE. By 1500 CE, the Cherokee controlled a vast territory spanning parts of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia.

The first significant contact between the Cherokee and Europeans came in 1540, when an expedition led by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto passed through Cherokee territory. This encounter introduced the Cherokee to European diseases, which decimated their population over the next century.

Despite this, the Cherokee tribes remained politically and militarily strong. As British colonists pushed inland in the early 18th century, the Cherokee proved formidable adversaries. They attacked frontier settlements in South Carolina in the Yamasee War (1715-1717). Cherokee warriors also fought alongside the French in the French and Indian War (1754-1763).

The Cherokee Nation and U.S. Policy

As the British ceded its territories east of the Mississippi to the United States after 1783, the fledgling U.S. government sought to establish treaties with southeastern tribes like the Cherokee. The U.S. initially pursued a policy of civilization, attempting to integrate the Cherokee into Anglo-American society through agriculture, literacy, and Christianity.

Under U.S. pressure, the seven mother tribes began to coalesce into a single Cherokee Nation during the late 18th century. Cherokee leaders like Little Turkey and Bloody Fellow led this push, believing unity would strengthen the Cherokee against U.S. expansion.

In 1827, the Cherokee Nation adopted a written constitution declaring themselves a sovereign nation within U.S. territory. They established their capital at New Echota, Georgia. Under Principal Chief John Ross, the Cherokee Nation embraced many aspects of American society, including plantation agriculture and chattel slavery.

Cherokee Removal and Trail of Tears

As white settlers coveted Cherokee lands in the Southeast, the U.S. government initiated a policy of Indian removal. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 authorized the negotiation of removal treaties with eastern tribes. When the Cherokee Nation refused to sign such a treaty, the U.S. resorted to force.

In 1838, U.S. Army troops under Winfield Scott invaded Cherokee territory. Over 16,000 Cherokee were rounded up in concentration camps and then forced to march west along the Trail of Tears. It’s estimated over 4,000 Cherokee died during this forced removal to Oklahoma Indian Territory.

The trauma of removal splintered the unified Cherokee Nation. One faction led by Chief John Ross reconstituted itself as the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. However, many Cherokee evaded removal and remained in the Southeast. These individuals formed the ancestors of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and United Keetoowah Band.

The 3 Federally Recognized Cherokee Tribes Today

Today, there are three federally recognized Cherokee tribes:

The Cherokee Nation

The Cherokee Nation, headquartered in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, is the largest of the three groups with over 392,000 members. They control tribal jurisdiction over their sovereign territory in northeast Oklahoma. The Cherokee Nation operates its own government, laws, and court system.

The tribe provides public services to Cherokee citizens including health care and education programs. It also pursues business enterprises including tourism, manufacturing, and cultural preservation. Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. currently leads the Cherokee Nation.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians

The Eastern Band is centered on the Qualla Boundary reservation in western North Carolina. With over 16,000 members, the Eastern Band is much smaller than the Cherokee Nation. The tribe operates schools, health services, law enforcement, and other public institutions for enrolled members.

The Eastern Band is best known for its casinos, including the popular Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort. Vice Chief Alan B. Ensley currently serves as the tribe’s leader. The Eastern Band speaks a dialect of Cherokee similar to what their ancestors spoke in the 18th century.

The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians

Headquartered in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the UKB has over 15,000 citizens. They have trust lands in Oklahoma and Arkansas. The UKB operates its own schools, community programs, and businesses for enrolled members.

In contrast to the secular Cherokee Nation, the UKB retains a more traditional, ceremonial ground-based Keetoowah religious tradition. Chief Joe H. Bunch leads the tribe and serves on the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council.

Despite their political differences, all three Cherokee tribes stay connected through cultural gatherings like the Cherokee National Holiday and joint business enterprises. Cherokee identity remains strong, with over 819,000 individuals identifying as Cherokee on the U.S. census. Through unity and adaptation, the Cherokee continue to thrive as a people.


The Cherokee people originally comprised seven distinct mother tribes located in different parts of the southeastern United States. These tribes spoke three related dialects of Cherokee but shared cultural traditions. As the Cherokee faced European contact and U.S. expansion, they gradually united politically into the Cherokee Nation. After forced removal to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee people split into the three federally recognized tribes that persist today – the Cherokee Nation, United Keetoowah Band, and Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Despite political divides, these groups all represent proud descendants of the original seven Cherokee tribes. Through unity and adaptation, the Cherokee continue to protect their sovereignty and preserve their unique identity.