Cherokee Religious Traditions

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CHEROKEE RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS . The Cherokee, an Iroquoian-speaking people, refer to themselves as Aniyvwiya, "the Real People," or as Anitsalagi, their traditional name. Today, they comprise the largest Native American group in the United States. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, approximately 281,060 people identify as being of Cherokee descent, and 260,000 of those are federally recognized tribal members. Over 230,000 Cherokee are citizens of the Cherokee Nation, located in Oklahoma. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, in North Carolina, has approximately 12,000 members and the United Keetoowah Band has about 16,000. Cherokee citizens can be found living throughout the United States as well as within the jurisdictional boundaries of the Cherokee Nation and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

The Cherokee originally occupied territory now comprising Tennessee and parts of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. In response to American expansionism, groups of Cherokee began emigrating to Arkansas Territory as early as 1810. In 1817 the U.S. government finalized the first treaty that called for cessions of Cherokee land in exchange for a tract of land in Arkansas for those who voluntarily emigrated west. Nineteen years later, in 1836, the U.S. Senate ratified the Treaty of New Echota, which authorized the removal of the Cherokee. Beginning in 1838, the United States sent troops, militia, and volunteers to forcibly remove the Cherokee to Indian Territory, which later became the state of Oklahoma. Those Cherokee who marched west endured hunger, extreme cold, inadequate clothing and shelter, and sickness. One-quarter of those removed, or approximately 4,000 Cherokee, died on what became known as the Trail of Tears. Only a few remnant groups, totaling approximately 1,400, avoided the removal west.

Prior to removal, the Cherokee had an agriculturally based society. They followed a ceremonial cycle linked to agricultural seasons, such as the first green grass and the first harvest of green corn. The Cherokee grew two types of corn as well as beans and squash, peas, potatoes, and pumpkins. They also gathered wild foods such as fruits and nuts, and they collected honey. The women, in the matrilineal and matrilocal world of the Cherokee, had primary responsibility for the fields and wild plant foods. Men hunted deer and other game during the fall months and assisted the women at planting and harvesting time. Husbands moved into the homes of their wives, who held proprietary responsibility for the houses, fields, and children. Such control afforded women an important place in the economic, political, and religious life of the Cherokee, which depended, in great part, upon the production of corn.

The Green Corn ceremony, the most important ceremony among the Cherokee, celebrated the harvesting of corn in late July or August. Everyone abstained from eating the new corn until they had performed the ceremony. The Green Corn ceremony marked a time of purification and renewal of individuals and society. Women swept out their homes, cleaned their fireplaces, and discarded old food and clothing. The men swept out the council house and removed the old ashes from the central hearth, whitewashed the buildings, and brought in new dirt for the ceremonial square ground. Purification rituals included fasting, scratching the body, vomiting induced through the use of emetics, and a type of bathing referred to as "going to water." Renewal involved restoration of harmony through forgiveness of wrongs and reconciliation of differences. The council also met during the Green Corn ceremony to consider national interests for the coming year.

Rituals and observances during the Green Corn ceremony reinforced the beliefs and values of the Cherokee and insured the continued well-being of the community. The ceremony recognized Selu or Corn Woman who, through the sacrifice of her body, gave the gift of corn to the Cherokee. Selu and Kanati ("The Lucky Hunter") symbolized the interdependent and complementary aspects of Cherokee society, including female and male roles, agriculture and hunting, and birth and death. They provided models for human behavior.

Cherokee regularly engaged in purification rituals before and during major events including the Green Corn ceremony, in order to restore balance and harmony to society. Scratching involved drawing a comb-like instrument across the arms, legs, and torso of the body until the blood flowed, thus purifying the body of impure or bad blood. Scratching was followed by "going to water," or submerging oneself four times in a moving stream to reinforce health and strength and to ensure long life. The men also purified themselves with White Drink, commonly referred to as Black Drink by Euro-Americans because of its dark color. Beloved women typically prepared this emetic, which the men consumed in great quantities and then vomited up, thus cleansing themselves.

During the Green Corn ceremony and other ceremonials the Cherokee drew upon elements from the Above and Below World to purify and renew themselves and This World. Fire, the symbol of purity, is understood by the Cherokee to be the messenger between human beings and the Provider. The smoke of the fire carries prayers upward. The Cherokee also use tobacco in their rituals to disseminate the power of their thoughts. According to Cherokee belief, the power to create resides in thought, and tobacco that has been made efficacious through thoughts that have been spoken or sung is, in turn, burned during rituals for protection or curing.

Approaches to Ethics and Daily Conduct

The Cherokee emphasis on maintaining harmonious or peaceful relations between human beings and between humans beings and animals or supernatural beings is reflected in Cherokee social conventions. The Cherokee reinforce amiable relations by sharing their time and material goods with each other. They reinforce harmony among themselves through acts of reciprocity and redistribution, of giving to others. The idea is that if everyone gives, everyone will receive according to their needs. Thus, one who has been fortunate in obtaining goods would share those goods with others less fortunate.

The structures of Cherokee society also serve to maintain balance between individuals, towns, and outsiders. Historically, their clan system, which consists of the Wolf, Deer, Bird, Paint, Blue, Wild Potato, and Long Hair clans, determined social, political, and religious responsibilities. Cherokee society was also organized on the basis of either the White or the Red Path. The White Path is the path of peace and the Red Path is the path of victory or war. In historical times the state of affairs (peace or the disruption of it) determined the leadership of Cherokee towns. During times of peace, White leaders oversaw the daily concerns of Cherokee society. However, during times of conflict, Red leaders became prominent in the decision making. Certain highly respected men and women, referred to as Beloveds, were charged with mediating for peace and mitigating bloodshed. They were expected to extend hospitality to all who came to their homes or their Mother Towns, beloved sacred places. The most well-known beloved Cherokee woman is Nancy Ward, a Supreme Beloved Woman, who protected American captives and military personnel as well as Cherokee during the American Revolution. Balance was maintained during wartime through a division of responsibility based on council status, gender, and age. War councils declared war and the women's council decided how war was to be conducted. Red leaders (young warriors) and White leaders (elders) sat opposite each other during council meetings, and Beloved women had special seats within the council chamber.

Religious Resistance Movements

In response to changes brought about by contact with Europeans and, later, Americans, Cherokee people struggled with issues surrounding acculturation to Euro-American ways and retention of indigenous cultural characteristics. Various ceremonial practices reflected the changes that the Cherokee underwent. A number of winter dances, for example, featured masked dancers symbolizing visitors from distance places. They danced to protect themselves from malevolent people and to prevent disease. By the late nineteenth century the repertoire of masked winter dances had expanded to include masked caricatures of Europeans called "Boogers." The Booger Dance developed in response to devastating diseases introduced by Europeans and the disrespectful treatment of Cherokee women by white males.

The eighteenth century, an era of tumultuous change for the Cherokee, witnessed the rise of several religious movements. In February 1811, three Cherokeea man and two womenhad a vision in which the Provider, the Supreme Being, warned the Cherokee to return to their former way of life and to rid themselves of the trappings of white society. Ten months later another Cherokee man told of receiving a vision in which the Provider expressed displeasure that whites had built a house on a sacred hill and that the Cherokee people were no longer expressing thanks for the fruits of the land. By February 1812, stories of apocalyptic visions were spreading among the Cherokee. These prophecies arose at a time when Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee Prophet, and his brother, Tecumseh, were urging native people throughout the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys to join a confederacy of tribal nations to resist American encroachments. Some Cherokee responded to both Cherokee and Shawnee prophecies; however, the outbreak of the War of 1812 diverted attention away from the prophecies.

The concern of the Cherokee continued to increase as land cessions and emigrations to the west signaled major disruptions in their way of life. A movement that became known as White Path's Rebellion arose in 1827 when a group of traditionalists again tried to halt rapid acculturation by advocating the abolishment of the newly formed Cherokee constitutional government and a return to the practice of traditional dances and rituals. The traditionalists agreed to discontinue holding meetings in opposition to the Cherokee council's actions in order to present a united front against the United States' efforts to remove them from their homelands.

Those Cherokee who survived the forced removal to Indian Territory faced the uncertainties of living in an unfamiliar region. They no longer had access to their sacred places, and many of their elders, the carriers and purveyors of ritual knowledge, had died on the march. Many turned to missionaries for spiritual comfort, and Cherokee leaders advocated Western education as a means to survival. Over time the clan system declined, and ceremonies like the Green Corn ceased to be practiced among the Western Cherokee, although remnants of the ceremony remained among the Eastern Cherokee. For many rural fullbloods, Baptist churches replaced ceremonial grounds as social and religious centers. In 1859 Evan Jones, a Baptist missionary among the Western Cherokee, organized the Keetoowah Society among the fullbloods, many of whom became resistance fighters in the period before and after the Civil War. Many fullbloods did not like the political focus of the society, however, and in 1879 an amendment was drawn up to make it a religious group as well.

Shortly after the Civil War ended a number of medicine people told of a prophecy they had received through which they had learned that the son of Pig Smith would lead the Cherokee through difficult times. As a result, Pig Smith arranged for his son, Redbird, to be taught in the ways of the Keetoowah. Redbird Smith and his followers formed their own organization, known as the Nighthawk Keetoowahs. Redbird Smith turned to medicine people and their sacred formulas (ritual prayers) to access traditional Cherokee knowledge. The invention of the Cherokee syllabary in 1821 by Sequoyah (George Guess) enabled the medicine people to record their formulas, which they carried with them to Indian Territory. Through use of medical knowledge, seven sacred wampum belts, and the clan system, Redbird Smith taught the Cherokee the way of the White Path. In 1902 he built the first stomp ground of the Nighthawk Keetoowah. Soon the Cherokee had twenty-two ceremonial stomp grounds.

Contemporary Contexts

Today, the stomp dance remains the major Cherokee traditional ceremonial. Stomp dances are held primarily during the summer season. Each year Cherokee from all over the country gather in the southern part of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma for a major stomp dance held on the anniversary of Redbird Smith's birthday. Another major stomp dance is held each year during the Cherokee National Holiday on Labor Day weekend. Stickball games, once a means for resolving disputes between towns, are now a way of reinforcing harmony and community among the Cherokee. Communal feasts reflective of the Green Corn Dances of earlier times promote ideals of sharing and reciprocity. Wampum belts, White Drink, tobacco, fire, and doctoring remain strong elements of Cherokee ceremonial life.

Protestant churches, especially Baptist churches, also continue to be an important part of Cherokee religious life. Missionization among the Cherokee began as early as 1736, when Christian Priber, a Jesuit, went to Cherokee country. In 1801 the Moravians, or United Brethren, established a mission at Springplace, Georgia. Two years later Gideon Blackburn, a Presbyterian, arrived among the Cherokee, followed by the Baptists of Georgia in 1815. By 1817 the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions had established its first mission among the Cherokee at Brainerd, in Tennessee. The Cherokee syllabary also enabled translations of the New Testament, hymnbooks, and other religious works in the Cherokee language, thus facilitating missionary work. By 1832, 5 to 6 percent of the 5,000 or 6,000 Cherokee in Evan Jones's mission region were Baptists and a slightly greater number were Methodists.

Today, Baptist and Methodist churches flourish among the Cherokee people. Cherokee gospel-singing is popular, and large tents filled to overflowing with audiences gathered to hear Cherokee gospel songs can be seen at the annual Oklahoma Cherokee festival held on Labor Day weekend. In 1985, Eastern and Western Cherokee reunited at Red Clay in Tennessee. The reunion emphasized traditional ritual symbolism, including the use of sacred fire in a Ceremony of Flame held in Cherokee, North Carolina. The following year the two groups met in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, again reuniting relatives who had been separated since the removal of 1838.

Revivals and gospel-singing are popular events in Cherokee country, East and West. For some Cherokee, Christian churches provide the structure for maintenance of Cherokee identity and culture that the Green Corn ceremony and stomp grounds once did. The church is the place where Cherokee can gather for communal feasts, share stories, and hear the language spoken and sung. However, it is not unusual to find Cherokee who are participants in both Christian churches and traditional stomp grounds. Cherokee healers are valued as much as Western doctors by many Christian and traditional Cherokee. For both groups, relationships to the land in Northeastern Oklahoma or in North Carolina remain integral to their identity as Cherokee.


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Michelene E. Pesantubbee (2005)

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Cherokee Religious Traditions

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