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Echota Cherokee Tribe of Alabama

Caroline Greer, Auburn University
Echota Heritage Site
The Echota Cherokee Tribe is a state-recognized Native American group in Alabama, with its tribal headquarters located in Falkville, Morgan County. The group traces its origins to the Southeastern Indians' involvement in the American Revolutionary War. There are more than 32,000 members across the state who trace their heritage to the Chickamauga branch of the Cherokees.
In the winter of 1776-77, a group of Cherokees under the leadership of war chief Dragging Canoe moved west of the tribe's main settlements near present-day Chattanooga, Tennessee, to escape encroaching American settlers. Dragging Canoe and his followers had sided with the British during the Revolutionary War and suffered several defeats by various American colonial forces. In May 1777, Cherokee leaders signed the Treaty of Dewitt's Corner, ending the period of conflict between American settlers and the Cherokees and prompting more Cherokee land concessions. The treaty would establish the main tribe's relationship with the new United States. Not wanting to live among the victorious Americans, Dragging Canoe led a large group away from the Cherokee Upper Towns on the Little Tennessee and Hiwassee Rivers in east Tennessee to settle along Chickamauga Creek, a tributary of the Tennessee River near present-day Chattanooga, and farther down the Tennessee River near present-day Bridgeport, Jackson County. They soon became known as the "Chickamauga Cherokee."
Following the Indian Removal Act of 1830, a minority faction of the Cherokees in Georgia signed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835, ceding tribal lands in the Southeast for lands in Indian Territory and creating a legal basis for federal removal of the Cherokees from their traditional homeland in northeast Alabama, northwest Georgia, western North Carolina, and southeast Tennessee. In 1838, after several years of fighting the treaty, almost all of the Cherokees were forced from their lands in large numbers and marched to Indian Territory, an initiative that became known as the "Trail of Tears."
The federal government recorded the removal of all Cherokee, but some "reservees" in Alabama had stayed because they owned land allotments legally held by prior treaties. Others managed to escape removal and hid, finding refuge in the backwoods and lowlands. The forced removal prompted a number of remaining Native Americans, many of whom had mixed Indian and European American ancestry, to assimilate into white American culture. Censuses in 1884 and 1910 recorded Cherokees in the Southeast and found only a fraction of pre-removal populations, but despite these findings, many Cherokees remained in the Southeast, including Alabama.
In the latter part of the twentieth century, descendants of Cherokees who either escaped removal or returned from Indian Territory banded together and began to revitalize their lost culture. They started holding potlucks, doing traditional crafts, recounting old stories and legends with younger generations, and researching other aspects of their culture. One of the most important initiatives of the group, however, was revitalizing the Cherokee language. On March 16, 1980, the group organized informally as Echota at a meeting in Opelika, Lee County. Soon after, the members filed official incorporation papers with the state of Alabama, making the tribe a legal and legitimate entity with both written by-laws and a mission statement.
Echota represents a Cherokee place of renewal and is a reference to Echota, Georgia, and Chota, Tennessee, traditional capitals of the Cherokee Nation. The original Chota, meaning "Cherokee Town," was burned during the American Revolution by colonial forces. The phoenix, a bird of ancient Greek and Roman mythology known for regenerating after death, was chosen as the tribal symbol to represent the renewal of the tribe and its rising from the ashes of the burned villages and forced removal of their ancestors.
After creating a formal group, the tribe joined with other tribes lobbying for the creation of an Alabama Indian Affairs Commission (AIAC) to represent all the tribes across the state. In 1984, the commission was established and with the Davis-Strong Act. The tribe has a representative on the AIAC.
The Echota Tribe had a noted dance team that was one of the largest in the nation. It often performed weekly across Alabama and surrounding states but disbanded after 10 years from a lack of participation. Another dance team was formed, and it performs at festivals and at special events such as powwows. Many young tribal members are involved in the dance team. As tribal membership grew, the Echota revived the seven-clan organization traditional to Cherokee society: Bird, Blue, Deer, Long Hair, Paint, Wild Potato, and Wolf.
The Echota tribe has an office in Falkville that serves as its center of governance and also owns land in St. Clair and Cullman Counties. The governing body of the tribe consists of the Principal Chief, Tribal Chairman, Recording Secretary, Membership Secretary, Treasurer, and six tribal council members. The tribe has participated in Indian education programs to bring Cherokee language, history, and culture into schools.
Though the Echota have state recognition, they are not recognized as an official tribe by the federal government. Neither the federally recognized Cherokee Nation nor the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians recognize the Echota, and both groups oppose its recognition, believing members' claims as Cherokee tribe members to be fraudulent.
Published:  September 16, 2020   |   Last updated:  September 16, 2020