The body of fundamental principles and laws by which the Cherokee Nation is governed has changed over the years, but the tribe's determination to govern itself has never wavered - and it has constructed four different constitutions since the early 19th century.
This year marks 180 years since tribal leaders signed the 1839 constitution. Preceding that document was an 1827 constitution signed in New Echota, Georgia. After Cherokees were forcibly removed from their homeland and relocated to Indian Country, two factions adopted an Act of Union to become one political, governmental body, and later that year adopted the 1839 document.
Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said the 1839 constitution is significant, because it represented not only people reforming such a document, but it was a sign of the Cherokee people "bringing themselves back together."
"We were completely torn apart politically, economically - forcibly removed across the country, and one of the marks of our success that I think particularly young Cherokees need to know is it was against a lot of odds that we got back together," said Hoskin. "So this really symbolized unity as much as it symbolizes this body of principles on which we're governed."
Although much of the Cherokee Nation territory had been relinquished to the United States via treaties, a small group of Cherokees agreed to relocate the entire tribe by signing the Treaty of New Echota.
A faction dubbed the Old Settlers was already in Indian Country when Principal Chief John Ross refused to sign the treaty and implored the Cherokee people to stay home. They were forcibly removed and led on the Trail of Tears.
Hoskin said the Trail of Tears was the "most serious and tragic pressure point" of forced removal, but added that all Cherokees had endured hardships, and that the two parties' reunion was a sign they did not want to go down a similar trail.
"Cherokees collectively - even though we do have our differences - do have a sense that we are one people. There are certain things that bind us, and that divide and conquer is something that we might be susceptible to," said Hoskin. "I just think they didn't want that to happen and I do believe that they felt that if they didn't join back together, that it would just hasten their demise."
The 1839 constitution included new rules of elections and the creation of districts. It remained the law of the land until 1898, when the federal government disbanded Native American governments by the passing of the Curtis Act, which eventually led to statehood. The United States, from then until 1971, selected chiefs through presidential appointment and essentially controlled tribal matters.
The Principal Chiefs Act of 1970 was signed after a resurgence in tribal efforts took hold, giving certain tribes like the Cherokee Nation the opportunity to take back control of their governments and popularly elect tribal officials.
Once William Wayne Keeler was elected as the Cherokee Nation chief - the first time in 68 years an election was held - he and fellow Cherokees via convention drafted a new constitution, which was later signed in 1975 by Principal Chief Ross Swimmer. Ratified in 1976, the new document included an executive branch with principal chief and deputy chief, a legislative branch of 15 elected counselors, and a judicial appeals tribune for its court system.
The '75 constitution lacked many of the revisions included in the tribe's current constitution. It did include one detail, however, that is also in today's document.
"In the 1975 constitution, there was an article that required in 20 years the citizens of the Cherokee Nation would be asked if they would like to amend, edit, or create a new constitution by convention," said Jay Hannah, chairman of the CN 1999 constitution convention and custodian of records for the Constitution Convention Commission. "That question was placed on the ballot of 1995, 20 years after, and was in fact overwhelmingly endorsed by the voters. So the Cherokee Nation then was directed by its voters, from an article that existed in its then current constitution, to determine what changes would need to take place to the constitution."
The years between the 1975 constitution and the 1999 constitution proved to be a tumultuous time, as the ambiguity in the '75 constitution's language raised concerns about federal government oversight and led to the tribe's constitutional crisis of the late 1990s. Meanwhile, citizens appeared to have a desire for a greater separation of powers.
The second part of this series will focus on the constitutional convention of 1999 and the tribe's current body of fundamental principles and laws.