The Cherokee most likely arrived in present-day Tennessee, the Carolinas, Alabama, and Georgia 3,000 years ago from the Great Lakes region, isolating themselves from the rest of the Haudenosaunee. During the Trail of Tears, most of the Cherokee (16,000) were forcibly removed to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) from1836 to 1839, along with their slaves, resulting in around 4,000 (likely more) deaths. Other Native American groups were also relocated during this time. Today, the Cherokee Nation is one of the three federally recognized tribes of Cherokee, located on nearly 7,000 square miles of land in northeastern Oklahoma, the capital being Tahlequah. The other two tribes are the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, also headquartered in Tahlequah, and the Eastern band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), located in western North Carolina.

The residential school system in the 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States and Canada caused many indigenous children to lose their mother tongue, as teachers discouraged and even punished students for speaking any language but English. The Cherokee were no exception. For example, the Cherokee Boarding School in Cherokee, North Carolina operated from 1890 to 1954. Some elders today (and certainly many in their parents’ generation) were former students at such boarding schools. As the school system instilled a sense of shame for speaking Cherokee, many elders refrained from passing down the language to their children, instead raising them speaking English.