Cherokee War Rituals, Culture,
Festivals, Government, and Beliefs
"Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and assistance in researching your genealogy and heritage."
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|Eastern Cherokee Indian Nation, aka Qualla Boundary, aka Eastern Cherokee Indian Reservation
The towns of
the Cherokee were usually located near the mouth of small creeks where clear water could be obtained.
Cherokee Indian Rituals
The towns were protected
from enemies by stockade like structures. The towns lay on one side of the river. The stockades were built of posts spaced
about six or eight inches apart with the spaces filled in with saplings and cane. This kind of stockade represents the type
used after the Indians obtained guns from the white man, which made it necessary to place the posts as close as possible to
ward off bullets.
Council houses were always
built on a level place near a stream so the people could take their ceremonial cold plunges during or after ceremonies. The
council house would hold about 500 people and was the most important building in the town. Ordinary persons and women could
not attend the council, but each clan was represented at the council. The Seven Clans of the Cherokee were:
1. aniwadi (Paint Clan)
2. anigategewi (Raccoon
or Blind Savannah, Shawnee
or Wild Potato Clan)
3. ani-sahoni (Blue, Panther
or Wild Cat Clan)
4. ani-gilohi (Long Hair
or hair hanging down, or Wind Clan)
5. anitsiskwa (Bird Clan)
6. aniwahiya (Wolf Clan)
7. ani-awi (Deer Clan).
Cherokees in ancient times
wore feathers of different colors to indicate their clan membership.
There was a separation of
power and duties within the government of the Cherokees into two groups--a civil or peace organization and a military or war
organization. Probably the main reason for this separation between the military and civil organization was the fact that while
engaging in war, the warriors became unclean through killing the enemy or even touching a dead body. Whereas the civil organization
being also the religious organization of the communities felt it was necessary for such officials to be kept free from such
uncleanliness. Hence, the separation of duties was essential.
The head chief or principal
chief of the nation was not only the head of the civil government, but also the head of the religion, so he was not only a
chief priest. The chief and his right hand man, the chief speaker, and six counselors formed the main government. Other important
members of the head chief's entourage were his fanner, messenger, speaker, chief priest, and chief for sacrifice. All of these
people lived near the council house and were designated to care for the building as well as the furnishings and ceremonial
regalia that were kept in the building.
The officials of the military
government were the chief warrior and his three main officers and seven counselors. Another important official of the military
government was the War Woman or Beloved Woman. This was a title given to an aged and an honorable woman who may have been
the widow of a former principal chief, since at his death his wife usually officiated until his successor was chosen or it
may have been the eldest distinguished woman of each clan. The War Woman decided whether or not a captive taken in war would
be killed or adopted into the tribe. She also had a vote in deciding whether or not the nation would go to war. She played
a part in the most solemn ceremonies of the Cherokees in ancient times.
Under the old Cherokee code
only two crimes were punishable by death. One was to marry within the clan and the other was to kill a person. Those found
guilty of either of these charges were usually executed in one of the following ways: The sentenced person was sent to war
and pushed out in front so that he would be killed in the ensuing battle; or they might be stoned or killed by some weapon
by members of their own band; or at another time they were taken to the top of a high cliff, and having their elbows tied
behind them and their feet drawn up and tied under them in a sort of kneeling position, they were thrown over the cliff and
slashed to pieces on the rocks below.
|Cherokee Indian Membership and Genealogy
|Cherokee Genealogy Research and Cherokee Indian Membership
(Right) Cherokee Indians. From
Top, Left to Right: John Ross; Colonel Elias Cornelius Boudinot; Samuel Smith; Lilly Smith; Walini; Marcia Pascal; Lillian
Gross; William Penn Adair; Thomas M. Cook.
The six main festivals held
by the Chief each year were the first New Moon of spring, the New Green Corn Festival, the Green Corn Festival, the first
appearance of the October New Moon (Nuwtiegwa), establishment of friendship and brotherhood and "Bouncing Bush" Festival.
Messengers were sent through the nation to notify the people of the Festivals. Although there was some variation in the number
of days of a Festival, they were always completed within seven days.
At most festivals a sacrifice
of meat was made, the people took ceremonial baths in the water by plunging under seven times. Religious dances were held
most of the night, special wood was gathered for the kindling of special fires, and tobacco was used in a special ceremony.
These festivals were held as a Thanksgiving to God for the fruits of the earth. Prayers were said that God might bless the
corn and meat during the year and make the people healthful. The preliminary Green Corn Feast was held in August and the main
Corn Feast was held in the middle or latter part of September, when the corn was ripe.
The Nuwatiegwa was held
at the time of the first appearance of the October New Moon, when the leaves began to turn yellow and fall. It was held in
honor of the Great New Moon. The Indians believed the earth was created at that season, and their year began at that time.
It was believed that at
this festival each person might look into a crystal to see if he would live through the next year. If they could see themselves
erect as they looked into the stone, it was believed they would live, but if they appeared to be lying down, they would die
before the first spring moon. Those who were to die fasted all day and then had the priest consult the crystal again. If on
the second trial he appeared standing erect, he was ordered to the river and bathed several times and he would be safe.
Today’s Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are direct descendants of the Cherokee Indians who avoided
the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears.
Beliefs of the Cherokees
The Cherokees had a belief
that there were certain beings that came down from on high and formed the world, the moon and the stars. It was believed that
the world was created at the time of the new moon of autumn, when the fruits of the earth were ripe. The sun seems to have
been the principal object of worship to which they prayed to bring abundant crops, to prevent sickness and so forth. The moon
was also considered to be important in religion and at every New Moon Festival special honor was paid to the moon. Fire was
supposed to have been appointed by the sun and the moon to take care of mankind. It was considered as being intermediate to
the sun and the smoke is symbolized as the messenger of the fire that would make known the petitions of the people to the
sun. The Cherokees believed the morning star was once a wicked priest who killed people by witchcraft. When the Indians planned
to kill him, he took all his shining crystals and flew away to the sky where he appeared as the morning star ever after.
The Cherokees believed that
those who had been good went to a place where it was always light and pleasant and those who had been bad would go to a place
where they would be tortured. It was also believed that a soul lingered about a place where a body had died for as long as
a period of time as the body had lived there and then went back to the place where the person had previously lived for a similar
period of time and so on to each place, staying there as long as the body had stayed. When this regression process was completed
at the person's birth place the soul took its final leave to meet its eternal fate. It was believed there were seven heavens,
with the Supreme Being residing in the first heaven.
Priests and others who had
special religious offices were designated in infancy or childhood, and set apart for that purpose. It appears that some families
had a hereditary right or claim to certain religious offices. The hereditary right or claim was probably inherited through
the mother's family and passed from a man to his sister's name if there were no other women (daughters) to the family.
The Ritual of War
When the chief war officers
became too old to serve the warriors, they nominated someone from among their own war council to replace them. This nomination
was sent to the great chief of the nation, and if he and his counselors approved of the nominee, the candidate was consecrated.
This was done usually at the feast of the Green Corn in August. However, if there was danger threatening the nation, it was
done within twenty days of the time he was nominated. The old war chief selected four distinguished officers to escort the
candidate to the council house. One of the officers walked in front of him carrying a handful of red paint, one walked at
his left with an eagle feather and the other two walked behind him in silent meditation. A special war dress was made for
him of deerskin which was dyed a deep red color. Everything from his leather shirt to his belt, leggings, garter and moccasins
was a deep red color. In the new war chief's acceptance speech, he said he would not stain his hands with the blood of infants,
women, or old men or anyone that for some reason or another is unable to defend himself.
When war was threatened,
the warriors met at the national headquarters where they came under the command of the chief for warfare. During an emergency
such as a threat of war, the red flag of war was raised. The flag was a long pole painted red which had red painted deerskin
fastened to the top. During a war it was carried by a special flag warrior and was set up at the war party campsites where
they met together after a battle. During these encampments they sang the song and then had the war dance.
In the war dance every warrior
carried his main weapon. The dance itself was lead by the right hand man of the war chief. There was no singing involved but
merely the war hoop and the sound of the drum. The warriors went around the circle each one with his left hand pointing to
the center of the circle where the fire and the war flag were located. It is thought this was a kind of dedication by the
individual warriors to do their best in the upcoming battle. The war dance was known as a "te yo hi." The drum used in the
war dance was a pottery jar that had the top covered with raccoon skin with small bells fastened around the rim.
In marching to war, the
first company of warriors was led by the chief warrior. Then came the second company, headed by this right hand man, and then
the third company headed by his speaker, and the fourth company headed by another officer. The last persons in a war party
were the war priest, who was called the fire carrier, his assistant and two of the medicine men.
On the march, there were
four spies or scouts who played an important part in the operation (during the Civil War, they were referred to as "pickets").
Their duties were similar to the enfilade movement of the modern warfare in that they were responsible for protecting the
main force from ambush from the front, the rear and both flanks. The raven spy had a raven skin tied around his neck and scouted
in front; another who had a piece of wolf skin tied around his neck on the right hand side; one with an owl skin scouted on
the left; and one with a fox skin scouted to the rear. The course was marked by the raven spy who went ahead, breaking bushes
and leaving other signs to guide the march.
The battles themselves were
usually brutal hand to hand combat operations carried on in very close quarters. The Cherokees lacked the long range weaponry
that is commonly associated with the Indian wars and the winning of the West simply because that type of weaponry had not
yet been developed.
Following the battle and
upon the war party's return home, the spoils of war were given to the warrior's wife or nearest woman relative. The warriors
who had killed someone or had touched a dead body were considered unclean for a period of four days afterwards. To purify
themselves, it was necessary to bathe themselves and drink only a particular potion. They bathed seven times every night and
every morning. During this time the victory (scalp) dance was danced every night. Sometimes other dances were also performed,
but the warriors were not allowed to dance at all with the women. All the men did not go on the war parties. Someone was needed
to protect the towns. Particularly any warrior who was worried about his wife, family, or property was told to stay at home.
The weapons and equipment
which were used for war were: shields, battleaxes, slings, war clubs, knives, breastplates, spears, helmets, bows and arrows.
(See: Cherokee Indians: Weapons and Warfare.)
The Cherokees in More Recent
The tribe adopted a constitution
and organized a modern government in 1827. About that same time the Georgia legislature passed an act annexing all Cherokee
lands in Georgia and white settlers descended upon the Indian lands of Georgia.
The lands were surveyed into lots, land lots of 160 acres and gold lots of 40 acres each were given to citizens of Georgia
at a public lottery. The Cherokees were not considered citizens of Georgia
thus they were not granted any land allotments for their own lands.
A delegation headed by Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation John Ross was elected and authorized by the National Council of Cherokees to go to Washington
in 1835 to make a plea for federal protection of their land. Immediate results were not forthcoming but at least important
officials in government were made aware of the Cherokee situation. Still, later the Rev. John Schemerhorn induced some Cherokees
to sign the Treaty releasing their lands. However, the Principal Chiefs were all absent and the legality of this Treaty is
questionable. Regardless, the westward immigration began in 1837 with the first group of 466 Cherokees leaving for Oklahoma.
Eventually, 17,000 Cherokees will have traveled on the "Trail of Tears" (enforcement of the Indian Removal Act and Treaty of New Echota in 1835), some old people and children in wagons, but most of the people on foot. One company of aged and sick were sent by water.
Two thousand remained behind.
The land route from Hiwassee
Agency in Charleston, Tennessee, went down the Hiwassee
River to the mouth and then crossed the Tennessee
by ferry and took an old trail south of Pikeville, through McMinnville to Nashville, Tennessee.
After crossing the Cumberland River, it went by way of Hopkinsville,
Kentucky across the State of Kentucky to
Galconda ferry on the Ohio River. The route led across southern Illinois
and crossed the Mississippi to Cape Girardeau,
Missouri, and then onto Indian Territory. Most of the Cherokees
settled in the northeast corner of Oklahoma. Four thousand died either in detention
camps on the journey or afterwards in Indian territory due to exposure on the journey.
In 1865 the State of North
Carolina assured the permanent residence of the Cherokees. In 1868, a general council of the Eastern
Cherokees was held to form a Tribal Government. Nimrod Jarrett Smith was the clerk of the Council. On December 1, 1870, the new government
was inaugurated. The Council members represented Birdtown, Painttown, Wolftown, Yellow Hill, Big Cove and Snowbird. There
are twelve council members. A chief's term is four years.
The economy of the Reservation
is largely dependent upon the tourist industry. A great many tourist attractions are in the immediate vicinity for vacationers
and visitors to see and enjoy.
The Reservation receives the services
of other governmental agencies both local and federal, and steps are taken toward the solution of various problems that are
common to this area.
Source: The Great Smoky Mountains National Park Service Library
Recommended Reading: James Mooney's History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees (768 pages).
Description: This incredible volume collects the works of the early anthropologist
James Mooney who did extensive studies of the Eastern Cherokee Nation (those who remained in Appalachia) at the turn of the
century. The introduction is by Mooney's biographer and gives a nice overview of both Mooney and the Cherokee Nation,
as well as notes on Mooney's sources. It then goes straight into the first book "Myths of the Cherokee", which starts with
a history of the Cherokee Nation. Continued below...
It progresses from the earliest days, through de Soto, the Indian wars,
Tecumseh, the Trail of Tears, the Civil War and ultimately to 1900. Continuing, it explores Cherokee mythology and storytellers.
This book is truly monumental in its scope and covers origin myths, animal stories, Kanati and Selu, the Nunnehi and Yunwi'Tsundi
(little people), Tlanuwa (thunderbirds), Uktena (horned water snake), interactions with other Nations and numerous other myths,
as well as local legends from various parts of the Southeast (North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, etc). There is also a section
of herbal lore. Mooney closes with a glossary of Cherokee terms (in the Latin alphabet rather than the Sequoya Syllabary)
and abundant notes. We advance to the next book, Sacred Formulaes of the Cherokee, which covers a number of magical texts
amongst the Cherokee Nation. This book does a wonderful job talking about such manuals, mentioning how they were obtained,
going into depth about the Cherokee worldview and beliefs on magic, concepts of disease, healing ceremonies, practices such
as bleeding, rubbing and bathing, Shamanism, the use of wording, explanations of the formulae and so forth. It then gives
an amazingly varied collection of Cherokee formulae, first in the original Cherokee (again, in the Latin alphabet) and then
translated into English. Everything from healing to killing witches, to medicine for stick ball games, war and warfare. Both
books include numerous photographs and illustrations of famous historical figures, Cherokee manuscripts and petroglyphs and
a map of Cherokee lands. Again, this is a truly massive book and even today is considered one of the essential writings of
Cherokee religion. Anyone with an interest in the subject, whether anthropologist, descendant of the Cherokee or just a curious
person interested in Native culture, should definitely give this book a read. I highly recommend it.
Recommended Reading, try: Cherokee Indians, Eastern Band of Cherokee History,
1830 Indian Removal Act, 1835 Treaty of New Echota, 1838 Trail of Tears, and Cherokee Culture and Customs.
Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Nation,
Tribal, Tribe Membership Enrollment Requirements, Blood, Qualla Boundary, Cherokees, North Carolina Indians, Treaty of New
Echota, Trail of Tears, Researching Cherokee Indian Family Lineage, Genealogy, Ancestry, History, Heritage, Folklore, Myths,
Culture and Customs, Eastern Band of
Cherokee Indian Nation, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Tribal Enrollment Membership, Eastern Band
of Cherokee Indian Nation, Tribal, Tribe Membership Enrollment, Census Data and Genealogy Tools.