“We were a recognized tribe, and we’re trying to get that re-established,” said Smith. “The Western Cherokee Nation was around long before Tahlequah ever existed.”
Smith, who claims to be a distant cousin to Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith, said her Cherokee ancestors left South Carolina and went to Connecticut in the early 18th century. Finding Connecticut a bit too cold for their tastes, they eventually moved westward and southward, ending up in Arkansas in 1721.
“We were here 100 years before we had any dealings with the [U.S.] government,” she said.
Another of the groups that would like to gain federal recognition (and that, according to Lola Smith, splintered off from her tribe) is the Northern Cherokee Nation of Missouri and Arkansas.
Like the Western Cherokees and the Lost Cherokees, the Northern Cherokee Nation traces its roots to those Cherokees who left the southeastern U.S. before the Trail of Tears.
According to tribal Secretary Gail Buzzard, many of the Northern Cherokee Nation members trace their lineage to Dragging Canoe, an 18th century Cherokee war chief who opposed the selling of Cherokee lands to British settlers.
“We came to Missouri in the 1700s,” said Buzzard. “Our first documentation is [a treaty] from 1750 with Spain.”
According to Buzzard, the Northern Cherokees have a difficult time proving their heritage because it was illegal in Missouri to be Indian until the 1920s.
“We have a few records, but mostly it’s oral history,” she said. “We’ve been working on [federal recognition] for many years, but our biggest problem is oral history instead of written history. There are a lot of gaps in our history because we weren’t allowed to keep records.”
Oklahoma has a few non-recognized Cherokee groups, too, including the Southern Cherokees, based in Webber Falls. In 2002, that group attempted to establish riverboat gambling on the Arkansas River, a move that was opposed by the Cherokee Nation.