Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Cherokee were horticulturalists, raising cereal and vegetable crops on a swidden basis and supplementing their subsistence through hunting, fishing, and collecting. The primary cultigen was maize and the most important game animal the white-tailed deer. Contact with Europeans resulted in the addition of new grains, vegetables, and domesticated animals. During the seventeenth century the European fur trade became a central factor in the Cherokee economy. But the trade declined in the mid-eighteenth century, and the Cherokee adopted more intensive forms of agriculture and animal husbandry.
Prior to contact each Cherokee town maintained a mutual aid society known as the gadu:gi (later known as the Free Labor Company), which coordinated agricultural activities. After contact the cooperative functions of the gadu:gi expanded to include relief to those in need of emergency assistance. In North Carolina the gadu:gi remained a permanent organization until very recent times, while in Oklahoma it became a temporary group constituted to perform specific tasks.
Today the majority of the Eastern Cherokee continue general subsistence farming, with tobacco, garden crops, and beef occasionally raised for cash. At Qualla Boundary, Tourism provides income through retail shops, restaurants, motels, museums, and exhibitions; however, these are not sufficient to provide all families with adequate incomes. Other income is derived from logging, seasonal wage labor, and Government assistance. Among the Western Cherokee there is little industry, tourist or otherwise, and they often rent their land to White ranchers rather than farm it themselves. Cash income is from ranching and other wage labor, government work projects, and government assistance.
Industrial Arts. Aboriginal crafts included metalworking, potting, soapstone carving, and basket weaving. Copper, then brass, then silver were used by Cherokee metalsmiths. Today basket weaving persists among Cherokee women at Qualla Boundary, where the products are sold to tourists.
Trade. A considerable precontact trade was maintained with neighboring Indian groups. Trade with Europeans in the seventeenth century was indirect and inconsequential, but by the early eighteenth century it had become an integral part of the economy. Salt obtained by the Cherokee from saline streams and licks was an important trade item in both pre- and postcontact times.
Division of Labor. Prior to the mid-eighteenth century women did most of the farming, while men were responsible for hunting, fishing, and clearing fields for planting. Women also prepared food, made clothes, made pottery and baskets, and raised the children. Ritual and medicinal activities were carried out mainly by males. After contact, both men and women conducted trade with Europeans. The decline of hunting and the adoption of more intensive agriculture in the eighteenth century altered the traditional division of labor, and men replaced women in the fields and women's work was increasingly confined to the household. Today, at least among the Eastern Cherokee, most women continue to work in the home. Some, however, are employed in tourist services, crafts, factory work, and farm and domestic labor.
Land Tenure. Aboriginally, individuals had the right to occupy, hunt, and cultivate the land with ownership vested in local clan sections. After contact the Cherokee were under constant pressure to sell their lands to Whites, and as a result in the early nineteenth century the Cherokee Nation adopted a system of property law, placing all Cherokee lands under Tribal authority. In 1906, tribal land in Indian Territory was allotted to individuals by the U.S. government. In North Carolina after the removal the Cherokee were prohibited from owning land, and for a time all their lands were recorded under the name of their White benefactor, Will Thomas. Today, the federal government is the trustee of the Eastern Cherokee lands, with actual ownership vested in the Eastern Band itself.