The 1839 Cherokee Nation Constitution: a Cornerstone for Rebuilding the Cherokee Nation

By Candice Byrd
on November 22, 2017

1839. A year has passed since the forced removal of the A-ni-tsa-la-gi, or as the colonizers called them, the Cherokee people. A year since the long walk along “the trail where they cried,” where it is estimated 2,000 to 4,000 of our population perished in the harsh weather elements. Winter is gone and spring is reborn to take its place. A valley at the foothills of the Ozark Mountains where two rivers conjoin is chosen as the new capital of the ancient people and called Ta-li-quu, or “Two is Enough.” After much argument, discussion and negotiation, the ink dries on the 1839 Act of Union, binding together the governments of the newly arrived Eastern Cherokees and their kin, the Western Cherokees, also known as the “Old Settlers,” under the name of one body politic – Cherokee Nation.

Later that same year, in September, another document is signed and agreed upon: the 1839 Constitution of the Cherokee Nation. Within its text, provisions are made for three branches of government: the Council of the Cherokee Nation, a Principal Chief and the Cherokee Supreme Court. The laws concerning the election process are also set forth, and jurisdictional boundaries for the purposes of voting in the Cherokee Nation are drawn, forming eight districts: Skin Bayou, Illinois, Canadian, Flint, Goingsnake, Tahlequah, Delaware and Saline. Circuit courts for civil and criminal proceedings composing four districts are created: Neosho, Salisaw, Illinois and Lees Creek. A provision for the creation of the Cherokee Female and Male seminaries as institutions of higher learning is included. The Cherokee Nation Constitution of 1839 would serve as a cornerstone to rebuild in Indian Territory.

1839. The year of renewing old ties, reaffirming an ancient nation’s sovereignty and rebuilding in a strange new homeland for a people who have inhabited this continent “from a period extending into antiquity, beyond the records and memory of man . . .” (C.N. Const. Preamble. 1839).

Today, citizens of the Cherokee Nation celebrate the ratification of the original 1839 Constitution with a softball tournament, traditional games, a stickball tournament, art show competitions, a parade and an intertribal powwow, and the Principal Chief addresses the crowd in the annual State of the Cherokee Nation address. This celebration is known as Cherokee National Holiday. In the midst of tragedy, division and an overwhelming opposition to our very existence, this annual remembrance of the 1839 Cherokee Nation Constitution adamantly stands as a symbol of our ancestors’ will to survive, their determination to thrive in adverse circumstances and, most of all, the strength to unify and rebuild a nation.