Cherokee Leaders



Various positions appear to have been common to all or most of the Southeastern Indians. They would have a peace chief, and a war chief. Among the Cherokees, each of these chiefs led a council.   The peace council was made up mostly of priests. They oversaw civil law and religion. The war council was made up of military leaders.  They managed all decisions during times of war, but the Peace Chief always had the right to overrule the War Chief’s decisions.
All tribal people were equal in terms of personal liberty. Recognition was based on merit—some superior ability or virtue. Cherokees were impressed by a tribe member’s speaking ability and often rewarded the speakers with power in their councils.
Once in power, the leader had to continue to demonstrate his abilities. If a war leader was thought to have spiritual impurity, Indians believed that this could lead to casualties or other disasters. If several warriors died in battle, the leader was believed to be out of divine favor, and could be demoted or even put to death.
One European observed that no government could be contrived "where the equality of mankind is more justly observed" than among the Chickasaw. This remark and other references indicate that all adult tribal members – including women – were free to make their own political choices, whether it was voting for a chief or joining with English or French traders.
Nonetheless, a tribal member's thinking was influenced by members of his or her clan, especially by the elder women.  Since marriage within the clan was forbidden and a male member of a clan went to live with his wife's family and clan, he could be influenced by them as well.
Spiritual leaders also had a great deal of influence, by virtue of their ability to contact and bargain with the Upper and Lower Worlds.

Guiding Question:

  • Who were some Cherokee leaders and why were they important?


  1. Students will identify factors that affected how much influence tribe members had.
  2. Students will explain the importance of Attakullakulla, Oconostota, Ostenaco, Dragging Canoe, Nancy Ward, and Sequoyah among the Cherokees.


  • Have students write short biographies of two major Cherokee leaders during the 1700s.

Advance Preparation:

Create a separate file folder or packet of info for each leader (articles and images).  Note:  the images are jpgs and do not have the titles on them.  As you print them off, be sure and write the name on the image.  Also the image of Atakullakulla is a drawing of the 1730 Cherokee delegation to London.  Historians think he is the younger-looking man on the far right.


  1. Divide the class into 6 groups of “historians.” Give each student the student handout about leadership roles in Cherokee tribes. After they have read the information, assess their understanding by asking questions. [i.e. What were the two types of chiefs? Peace & War chiefs. Which chief made decisions about tribal laws and religion? Peace. How did the tribes choose a chief? They elected them.]
  2. Assign a different leader (Attakullakulla, Oconostota, Ostenaco, Dragging Canoe, Nancy Ward, Sequoyah) to each group.
  3. Give each group a file on their assigned leader and have them examine the information.
  4. Have each group complete their portion of the Summary Chart for their assigned leader.
  5. Have each group use the material to create a poster on their assigned leader.
  6. Have teams share their information with the rest of the class. (Refer to the KEY to check their answers.)
  7. Hang the posters in the room or hall as a “Gallery of Cherokee Leaders”.


  • Have students research the family trees of the leaders studied to identify their relationships to each other and to non-natives.
  • Have students discuss the paintings and drawings. (They are not photographs and so may not be accurate. They tend to include items a European might expect a “ruler” to have and to show the Indians in European clothing.)
  • Have students prepare an oral report on the biography of someone who played an important role during this period of Tennessee history.
  • Have students research what daily life was like among the Overhill Cherokees during this time period, using Henry Timberlake’s Memoirs.


Grade 4 Tennessee Social Studies Standards:
  • Explain the cultures of the Western Hemisphere’s native people prior to European contact.
  • Describe cultures of Native American tribes.
  • Explore similarities and differences in how groups, societies, and cultures address similar human needs and concerns.
  • Identify customs, celebrations, and traditions of various cultural groups in early Tennessee.
  • Identify major Tennessee political leaders (i.e.,… Sequoyah and Nancy Ward).

            National History Standards:
Topic Two: The History of the Students' Own State or Region
The people, events, problems, and ideas that created the history of their state.
Standard 3A: The student understands the history of indigenous peoples who first lived in his or her state or region.
Grade Level
Therefore, the student is able to

Draw upon data in paintings and artifacts to hypothesize about the culture of the early … Native Americans who are known to have lived in the state or region… [Formulate historical questions]
Standard 3B: The student understands the history of the first European, African, and/or Asian-Pacific explorers and settlers who came to his or her state or region.
Grade Level
Therefore, the student is able to

Use a variety of sources to construct a historical narrative about daily life in the early settlements of the student's state or region. [Obtain historical data]