Principal Chief is today the title of the chief executives of the Cherokee Nation, of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, the three federally-recognized tribes of Cherokee.
The title of "Principal Chief" was first created in 1794 when the Cherokee began to formalize their national political structure, forming the original Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee Nation–East adopted a written constitution in 1827 creating a government with three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. The Principal Chief was elected by the National Council, which was the legislature of the Nation.
A similar constitution was adopted by the Cherokee Nation–West in 1833. A constitution for the reunited nation was adopted in 1839. In 1868, the Eastern Band adopted their own, separate, constitution and formalized the position of Principal Chief, though this position had, in fact, existed in the east since the time of Yonaguska.
The original Cherokee Nation's government was dismantled by the United States in 1906 (except for retaining limited authority to deal with remaining land issues, which lasted until June 1914). Then the Keetoowah Nighthawk Society organized under the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act and the Indian Reorganization Act in 1939 as the United Keetoowah Band, and their constitution was approved by the federal government in 1940.
The president began appointing a Principal Chief for the non-UKB Cherokee in 1941. In 1975, these Cherokee drafted their constitution as the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, which was ratified on June 26, 1976. Then in 1999, several changes to the constitution were approved, including the removal of the qualifying phrase "of Oklahoma" from their name, leaving it simply "Cherokee Nation".
Before 1794 the Cherokee had no standing national government. Various leaders were appointed by mutual consent of the towns to represent the nation to British, sometimes French, and later American authorities. The title the Cherokee used was First Beloved Man, "Beloved Man" being the translation of the title "Uku", which the English read as "Chief"; his only real function was to serve as focal point for negotiations with Europeans.
* Charitey Hagey of Tugaloo (1716–1721)
* Wrosetasatow of Keowee (1721–1729)
* Long Warrior of Tanasi (1729–1730)
* Moytoy of Great Tellico (1730–1741)
* Amouskositte of Great Tellico (1741–1753)
* Stalking Turkey of Chota (1753–1760)
* Standing Turkey of Chota (1760–1761)
* Attakullakulla of Tanasi (1761–1775)
* Oconostota of Chota (1775–1781)
* Savanukah of Chota (1781–1783)
* Corntassel of Chota (1783–1788)
* Little Turkey (1788–1794)
**opposed by Hanging Maw (1788–1794)
Chickamauga/Lower Cherokee (1777–1809)
In 1777, Dragging Canoe and a large body of Cherokee seceded from the tribes which had signed treaties of peace with the Americans during the American Revolution. They migrated first to the Chickamauga (now Chattanooga, Tennessee) region, then to the "Five Lower Towns" area —further west and southwest of there —in order to continue fighting. In time, their numbers became a majority of the nation, due to both sympathy with their cause and the destruction of the homes of the other Cherokee who later joined them. The separation, which was never truly complete, ended at a reunification council with the Cherokee Nation in 1809.
* Dragging Canoe (1777–1792)
* John Watts (1792–1802)
* Doublehead (1802–1807)
* The Glass (1807–1809)
Cherokee Nation East (1794–1839)
Little Turkey was elected First Beloved Man of the Cherokee (the council seat of which was shifted south to Ustanali near what is now Calhoun, Georgia) in the aftermath of the assassination by frontiersmen of Corntassel and several other leaders. Hanging Maw of Coyatee claimed the title as his right by tradition, being headman of the Upper Towns, and was recognized as such by many Cherokee as well as the U.S. government.
Little Turkey was finally recognized as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation by all the towns after the end of the Chickamauga Wars, when the Cherokee established their first nominal national government.
* Little Turkey (1794–1801)
* Black Fox (1801–1811)
* Pathkiller (1811–1827)
** Big Tiger (1824–1828); principal chief of the faction of those in the Nation following Whitepath's teachings inspired by the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake.
* Charles R. Hicks (1827), ''de facto'' head of government from 1813
* William Hicks (1827–1828)
* John Ross (1828–1839)
** William Hicks (1833–1835), elected principal chief of the faction supporting emigration to the west.
Cherokee Nation West (1810–1839)
Originally along the St. Francis and White Rivers in what was first Spanish Louisiana and later Arkansas Territory, the Western Cherokee eventually migrated to Indian Territory after the Treaty of Washington in 1828. They named their capital there Tahlontiskee.
John Jolly died while the Latecomers were arriving and John Looney succeeded automatically. Looney was deposed by the council and replaced with Brown with a view toward putting the Cherokee Nation West in a better position vis-a-vis the Ross party. After the murders of Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot (Treaty party members who supported the Old Settlers) in June 1839, the council had a change of heart about resisting Ross' autocratic demands and deposed Brown, replacing him with Looney. A sizable faction of the Old Settlers refused to recognize Looney and elected Rogers in his stead, but their efforts to maintain autonomy petered out the next year.
* The Bowl (1810–1813)
* Degadoga (1813–1817)
* Tahlonteeskee (1817–1819)
* John Jolly (1819–1838)
* John Looney (1838–1839)
* John Brown (1839)
* John Looney (1839)
* John Rogers (1839–1840)
Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (1824–present)
Formed on the basis of the Cherokee along the Oconaluftee River, the band formed after the treaties of 1817 and 1819 outside the boundary of the Cherokee Nation East. They were later joined by Utsala's band from the Nantahala River and those few from the Valley Towns who managed to remain in 1839.
* William Holland Thomas (1838–1869)
* Salonitah, or Flying Squirrel (1870–1875)
* Lloyd R. Welch (1875–1880)
* Nimrod Jarrett Smith (1880–1891)
* Stillwell Saunooke (1891–1895)
* Andy Standing Deer (1895–1899)
* Jesse Reed (1899–1903)
* Bird Saloloneeta, or Young Squirrel (1903–1907)
* John Goins Welch (1907–1911)
* David Blythe (1915–1919)
* Joseph A. Saunooke (1919–1923)
* Sampson Owl (1923–1927)
* John A. Tahquette (1927–1931)
* Jarret Blythe (1931–1947)
* Henry Bradley (1947–1951)
* Jarret Blythe (1955–1959)
* Osley Bird Saunooke (1951–1955)
* Jarret Blythe (1955–1959)
* Olsey Bird Saunooke (1959–1963)
* Jarret Blythe (1963–1967)
* Walter Jackson (1967–1971)
* Noah Powell (1971–1973)
* John A. Crowe (1973–1983)
* Robert S. Youngdeer (1983–1987)
* Jonathan L. Taylor (1987–1995)
* Gerard Parker (1995)
* Joyce Dugan (1995–1999)
* Leon Jones (1999–2003)
* Michell Hicks (2003–present)
Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory (1839–1907)
After removal to the Indian Territory, on the Trail of Tears, a new constitution was put into place, unifying the former Eastern Cherokee with the Western Cherokee, which allowed for direct election of the Principal Chief. Though a holdout minority of the Old Settlers elected John Rogers as their principal chief, his government never gained any further support and soon faded away. The Ross faction also abandoned the established capital of Tahlontiskee and built Tahlequah instead.
During the Civil War, the Nation voted to support the Confederacy, and Ross acquiesed for a time. In 1862, however, he and many of his supporters fled to Washington, upon which Stand Watie was elected Principal Chief by a majority of the Nation. The remaining Ross group never supported Watie's election, though, and lived apart under their own officials outside of the Nation’s boundaries.
* John Ross (1839–1862)
* Stand Watie, (1862–1866)
**Thomas Pegg, acting principal chief of the Union Cherokee (1862–1863)
**Smith Christie, acting principal chief of the Union Cherokee (1863)
**Lewis Downing, acting principal chief of the Union Cherokee (1864–1866)
* John Ross (1866)
* William P. Ross (1866–1867)
* Lewis Downing (1867–1872)
* William P. Ross (1872–1875)
* Charles Thompson (1875–1879)
* Dennis Bushyhead (1879–1887)
* Joel B. Mayes (1887–1891)
* C. J. Harris (1891–1895)
* Samuel Houston Mayes (1895–1899)
* Thomas Buffington (1899–1903)
* William Rogers (1903–1905); deposed by the council
* Frank J. Boudinot (1905–1906); also president of the Keetoowah Nighthawk Society
* William Rogers (1906–1914); reinstated by the federal government
United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians (1939–present)
The UKB Cherokee are descendants primarily of Old Settlers who organized under the federal Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and the state Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act of 1936. They ratified their constitution and bylaws and were recognized by the federal government in 1950.
* John Hitcher (1939–1946)
* Jim Pickup (1946–1954)
* Jeff Tindle (1954–1960)
* Jim Pickup (1960–1967)
* William Glory (1967–1979)
* James L. Gordon (1979–1983)
* John Hair (1983–1991)
* John Ross (1991–1995)
* Jim Henson (1996–2000)
* Dallas Proctor (2000 – 2004)
* George Wickliffe (2005 – present)
Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma (1941–Present)
In preparation for Oklahoma statehood, the original Cherokee Nation's government was dismantled in 1906.
The office of Principal Chief was vacant after 1914 until J.B. Milam was appointed by President Roosevelt in 1941.
In 1971 an election was held, and the incumbent, W.W. Keeler, appointed by President Truman in 1949, was elected. The constitution of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma was drafted in 1975 and ratified on 26 June 1976.
* J.B. Milam (appointed; 1941–1949)
* W.W. Keeler (appointed; 1949–1971)
* W.W. Keeler (1971–1975)
* Ross Swimmer (1975–1985)
* Wilma Mankiller (1985–1995)
* Joe Byrd (1995–1999)
* Chad "Corntassel" Smith (1999–2011)
* S. Joe Crittenden (acting, 2011)
* S. Joe Crittenden (acting, 2011)
* Bill John Baker (2011-present)
*Brown, John P. ''Old Frontiers''. (Kingsport: Southern Publishers, 1938).
*Conley, Robert J. The Cherokee Nation: A History. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008).
*Hoig, Stanley. The Cherokees and Their Chiefs: In the Wake of Empire. (Fayeteeville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998)
* McLoughlin, William G. ''Cherokee Renascence in the New Republic''. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).
*Mooney, James. ''Myths of the Cherokee and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokee''. (Nashville: Charles and Randy Elder-Booksellers, 1982).
*Moore, John Trotwood and Austin P. Foster. ''Tennessee, The Volunteer State, 1769–1923, Vol. 1''. (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1923).
*Wilkins, Thurman. ''Cherokee Tragedy: The Ridge Family and the Decimation of a People''. (New York: Macmillan Company, 1970).