The Cherokee Nation (Cherokee: ᏣᎳᎩᎯ ᎠᏰᎵ, Tsalagihi Ayeli), also known as the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is the largest of three Cherokee federally recognized tribes in the United States. It was established in the 20th century and includes people descended from members of the Old Cherokee Nation who relocated from the Southeast due to increasing pressure to Indian Territory and Cherokee who were forced to relocate on the Trail of Tears. The tribe also includes descendants of Cherokee Freedmen and Natchez Nation. Over 299,862 people are enrolled in the Cherokee Nation, with 189,228 living within the state of Oklahoma. According to Larry Echo Hawk (in 2009), head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the current Cherokee Nation is not the historical Cherokee tribe but instead a "successor in interest."
Headquartered in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation has a tribal jurisdictional area spanning 14 counties in the northeastern corner of Oklahoma. These are Adair, Cherokee, Craig, Delaware, Mayes, McIntosh, Muskogee, Nowata, Ottawa, Rogers, Sequoyah, Tulsa, Wagoner, and Washington counties.
During 1898–1906, beginning with the Curtis Act of 1898, the US federal government all but dissolved the former Cherokee Nation's governmental and civic institutions, to make way for the incorporation of Indian Territory into the new state of Oklahoma. From 1906 to 1938, the structure and function of the tribal government was not clearly defined. After the dissolution of the tribal government of the Cherokee Nation in the 1900s and the death of William Charles Rogers in 1917, the Federal government began to appoint chiefs to the Cherokee Nation in 1919. The service time for each appointed chief was so brief that it became known as "Chief for a Day." Six men fell under this category, the first being A. B. Cunningham who served from November 8 to November 25. The short service times were often just long enough to have one sign a treaty, usually to cede more land.
In the 1930s, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration worked to improve conditions by supporting the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which encouraged tribes to reconstitute their governments and write constitutions. On August 8, 1938, the tribe convened a general convention in Fairfield, Oklahoma to elect a Chief. They choose J. B. Milam as principal chief. President Franklin D. Roosevelt confirmed the election in 1941. W. W. Keeler was appointed chief in 1949. After the U.S. government under President Richard Nixon had adopted a self-determination policy, the nation was able to rebuild its government. The people elected W. W. Keeler as chief. Keeler, who was also the president of Phillips Petroleum, was succeeded by Ross Swimmer. In 1975 the tribe drafted a constitution, under the name Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, which was ratified on June 26, 1976. The tribe has also conducted litigation using this name. In 1985 Wilma Mankiller was elected as the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation.
The Cherokee Nation was seriously destabilized in May 1997 in what was variously described as either a nationalist "uprising" or an "anti-constitutional coup" instigated by Joe Byrd, the Principal Chief. Elected in 1995, Byrd became locked in a battle of strength with the judicial branch of the Cherokee tribe. The crisis came to a head on March 22, 1997, when Byrd said in a press conference that he would decide which orders of the Cherokee Nation’s Supreme Court were lawful and which were not.
A simmering crisis continued over Byrd's creation of a private, armed paramilitary force. On June 20, 1997 his private militia illegally seized custody of the Cherokee Nation Courthouse from its legal caretakers and occupants, the Cherokee Nation Marshals, the Judicial Appeals Tribunal and its court clerks. They ousted the lawful occupants at gunpoint. Immediately the court demanded that the courthouse be returned to the judicial branch of the Cherokee Nation, but these requests were ignored by Byrd. The Federal authorities of the United States initially refused to intervene because of potential breach of tribal sovereignty. The State of Oklahoma recognized that Byrd's activities were breaches in state law. By August, it sent in state troopers and specialist anti-terrorist teams. Byrd was required to attend a meeting in Washington, DC with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, at which he was compelled to reopen the courts. He served the remainder of his elected term. In 1999 Byrd lost the election for Principal Chief to Chad Smith but was elected to the Tribal Council in 2013.
A new constitution was drafted in 1999 that included mechanisms for voters to remove officials from offices, changed the structure of the tribal council, and removed the need to ask the Bureau of Indian Affairs' permission to amend the constitution. The tribe and Bureau of Indian Affairs negotiated changes to the new constitution and it was ratified in 2003. Confusion resulted when the US Secretary of the Interior would not approve it. To overcome the impasse, the Cherokee Nation voted by referendum to amend its 1975/1976 Constitution "to remove Presidential approval authority," allowing the tribe to independently ratify and amend its own constitution. As of August 9, 2007, the BIA gave the Cherokee Nation consent to amend its Constitution without approval from the Department of the Interior. Certain non-Cherokee groups contest the viability of this constitution.