Cherokee - Sociopolitical Organization



Social Organization. In aboriginal and early-contact times age conferred status and the oldest, "beloved" men enjoyed the greatest prestige. Women occupied a position of equality with men, but as the traditional division of labor shifted during the eighteenth century their economic independence lessened and their influence and status diminished. Institutionalized slavery appeared in the form of African slaves before 1700 and became widespread in the nineteenth century. Intermarriage with Whites resulted in a class of mixed-blood Cherokee who, after the American Revolution, increasingly controlled power and wealth within the society. In the nineteenth century they formed a class of wealthy, educated, and acculturated planters set apart from full-blood Cherokee by language, religion, life-style, and values. This class division persists in contemporary Cherokee society.

Political Organization. Prior to contact with Europeans each town was politically independent from the others and had two distinct governmental structures—a White, or peace, government and a Red, or war, government. During the course of the eighteenth century an overarching tribal Government based on the traditional town model was created in response to European expansion. In 1827 a constitution was adopted creating a republican form of government modeled after that of the United States, which remained active until 1906 when it was abolished by the U.S. Congress. In 1948 the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma was reestablished. The Eastern Cherokee incorporated as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in 1889.

Social Control. Eschewing face-to-face conflict, the Cherokee have employed gossip, ostracism, and social withdrawal as important forms of social control. Fear of divine retribution was a powerful form of social control in the past and remains so among some conservative Cherokee today. Conjuring or witchcraft declined in importance during the eighteenth century. In aboriginal and early-contact times serious crimes were adjudicated by the White government. Homicide often led to blood revenge by clan members. In 1898 the Cherokee judicial system was dissolved by the federal government and the group was placed under the jurisdiction of the U.S. federal courts.

Conflict. In the eighteenth century the Cherokee were Divided mainly along lines of age over what the relationship to the European colonies should be. In addition, the introduction and gradual acceptance of the money economy and European values introduced an element of aggression and competition between individuals and towns that previously was unknown in the society. Even more significant was the split over the removal to Indian Territory, first in 1817-1819 and then more seriously in 1838-1839. In general, mixed-bloods favored removal while full-bloods did not. This split broke out into civil war after arrival in Indian Territory and resurfaced during the American Civil War. Beginning in 1896 many full-bloods took part in the nativistic Nighthawk Keetoowah movement to resist the reallotment of tribal lands and mixed-blood support for reallotment. For several decades the Nighthawk movement exercised a powerful force among conservative full-blood Cherokee, but beginning about 1935 its influence waned, owing to internal divisions and the opposition of militant Christian Cherokee. Today the mixed-blood/full-blood division persists, and on occasion the hostility has erupted in violence.

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