Cherokee Religion

Doctrines Cherokee myth speaks of the Earth as a great island floating in the sea, held in place by four great cords placed at the four directions and attached to the sky vault, itself made of solid rock. When the Earth grows old and is worn out its cords will break so allowing the Earth to retire to the deep. Our world was first formed when a Water-Beetle brought some mud to the surface of the sea, at which point it grew and became the Earth. The animals, who until that time lived above the sky vault, came and made their homes on the Earth...once it was dry enough; in time humans would join them (Mooney:1995 pp.239-240).
Notably, animals, plants, and other natural phenomena, occupy prominant roles in origin stories; the story of Selu (corn) and the origin of medicine story, are two further examples. Also of interest is the story of Stone Coat, the living Rock, outlined below. It will be noticed that in the origin myth outlined above there is no reference to a Creator, and neither does the story begin with the first act of creation but with a world already inhabited with life, this latter condition, according to Mooney, holding true for all recorded native myths concerned with world origins (Mooney:1995 p.430). Also, in the aforementioned myth recorded by Mooney, it is stated that the maker of the plants and animals is unknown. The Cherokee myths collected by Mooney in the work cited, suggest little evidence of a Creator. Nevertheless, other authors have claimed there to be such a figure in Cherokee belief, some of whom are quoted by Mooney in the said work, and contemporary Cherokee certainly do speak of a Creator.
According to Payne, the Cherokee believed the world to have been created by a number of beneficent beings from an upper world; a similar belief is found among the Sioux people in the form of Wakan Tanka. The Sun and the Moon, having been created by these beings, were left to finish and rule the world, and in turn, according to Payne, were both adored as the Creator (Payne, about 1835, quoted in Mooney:1995 pp.436, 440). Also, the word that Mooney translates as the "great Apportioner" in the origin of strawberries myth, and which he identifies with the Sun, has been said by the Cherokee scholars Jack and Anna Kilpatrick to be used most commonly to designate the "Supreme Being: The Provider"; the identity of the Supreme with the sun is said to be in error, which assertion is supported by Payne's account above which states that Sun and Moon were created (Awiakta:1993 p.122).
A notable feature of Cherokee belief is the use of kinship terms in explanations of natural phenomena. The Sun and Moon, for example, are said to be sister and brother respectively, whilst humans are designated as the Sun's grandchildren and the younger brothers of the Moon. Also, the thunder is known in myth as the Little Men. These are the two sons of Kanati (the Hunter) and Selu (corn); "...when they talk to each other we hear low rolling thunder in the west" (Mooney:1995 p.248). In Cherokee myth there exists little difference between human beings and animals, and like humans the animals are organized into tribes with chiefs, townhouses and councils, and both are destined for the same afterlife in the Darkening land in the west. At one time humans and animals lived in harmony, but then humans began to kill the animals for food and showed them no respect. So the animals made war on humans and inflicted diseases upon them; the plants, however, were friends of humankind and gave them medicines (See the origin of medicine story, Ibid. pp.250-252).
According to Cherokee tradition, all tribal dances and songs originated in a single event, namely, the slaying and sacrifice of a monster called Stone Coat or the Stone Man (Nun'yunu'wi), so named for his "skin of solid rock". As Stone Coat burned in the fire made for him by the people, there issued forth from him songs, a gift to the people to aid them in all walks of life. These songs were to be learned and passed on from generation to generation. The songs were used at social gatherings, for success in hunting and warfare, and as medicine for all kinds of sickness. The Eastern Cherokee believed that the animal killed by the hunter following the use of a chant would come to life again, so preventing the decline of game (Speck/Broom:1993 pp.13-18, 84). Mooney states, however, that every animal is designated a certain life span, and if it is killed before its time its death will only be temporary and it is soon restored to life; the killing of the animal is thus a minor crime (Mooney:1995 p.262).

History The Cherokee are the only surviving representative of the southern Iroquoian peoples, the split between the ancestral Cherokee and the Northern Iroquoian occurring about 3,500-4,000 years ago; the Iroquoian languages appear to have broken up within the last 1,000-1,500 years (Snow:1996 p.9). The word 'cherokee' is foreign to the language of the people known commonly by that name, their self designation coming from a word meaning 'real people' or 'principal people'. (Mooney gives the native term as "Yun'wiya'" or "Ani'-Yun'wiya'", Mooney:1995 p.15; another source gives the native term as "Keetoowah", John Ross quoted in Josephy:1995 p.323).
The Cherokee population for the 1600's has been estimated at about 22,000 (Thornton:1987 p.113) or about 30,000 by the late seventeenth century (Champagne:1994 p.103). In the eighteenth century, however, smallpox epidemics devastated the Cherokee, especially the 1738-1739 outbreak which halved their numbers; the disfigurement caused by smallpox led some Cherokee to suicide. From the 1760's to the early 1780's the Cherokee were almost constantly at war on their own land with European colonists; by 1782 they were, according to Mooney, on the verge of extinction only to be hit again by smallpox in 1783. Numbering little more than 13,000 by the early nineteenth century their numbers rose again to about 22,000 by 1835. By this time Cherokee lands, at one time immense, had shrunk to an area framed by the approximate coincidence of the States of North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama (Thornton:1987 pp.113-115). It is worth pausing for a moment to consider how Cherokee-European conflicts might be reflected in Cherokee ceremony.
The Booger Dance of the eastern Cherokee has been interpreted as "...a record of the anxieties of a people, their reactions against the symbol of the invader, and their insecurity in their dealings with the white man". Whilst the dances generally tell of the equilibrium of the Cherokee's relationship with their environment, animate and inanimate, the Booger Dance tells of a precarious balance. As humans the white invaders cannot be dealt with, but when, in the dance, they are transformed into "...mythical animals and frivolous demimen..." they can be dealt with; in this context the white invader blends into the fabric of the Cherokee universe and obeys its rules. The function of the Dance is thus to weaken the "...harmful powers of alien tribes and races, who, as living beings or ghosts, may be responsible for sickness or misfortune" (Speck/Broom:1993 pp.3, 37).
After the 1812 War most of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creeks, and Chickasaws, were still living in their homelands and intended to remain there; the tribal leaders, however, were convinced that their people's survival depended on their ability to adopt the White man's ways. Acculturation began seriously in 1817 with the arrival amongst the Cherokee of missionaries from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions; these taught the basics of agriculture, domestic arts, reading and writing in English, and Christianity.
Acculturation speeded up with the introduction of Sequoyah's Cherokee syllabary (a kind of alphabet) in the 1820's. Literacy grew rapidly and in 1828 a newspaper called the Cherokee Phoenix was published at the Cherokee Capital of New Echota; notably, the establishment of the Phoenix owed much to the missionary Reverend Samuel Worcester (Mooney:1995 pp.111, 217). In the same year the Cherokee established a political system based on that of the American Republic (Josephy:1995 pp.320, 322). The Cherokee at this time owned fifteen million acres of land and were rich in livestock and slaves; many spoke fluent English, whilst their educational, Judicial, and legislative systems were often praised (Dippie:1985 p.57). Nevertheless, in 1829 gold was discovered on Cherokee land and Cherokees were increasingly subjected to armed invasions by Georgians, "forcibly seizing horses and cattle, taking possession of houses from which they had ejected the occupants, and assaulting the owners who dared make resistance" (Mooney quoted in Thornton:1987 p.115).
On May 28th, 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act which set aside land "...west of the river Mississippi...for the reception of such tribes as may choose to exchange the lands where they now reside, and remove there..." This Act applied to all tribes east of the Mississippi River. According to President Jackson's annual message to Congress for December 7th, 1835, all tribes to the east of the Mississippi, "...with the exception of two small bands living in Ohio and Indiana, not exceeding 1,500 persons, and of the Cherokees...have entered into engagements which will lead to their transplantation" (Prucha:1975 p.71). In practice, despite the Act's suggestion of choice, removal was forced upon the Indian peoples; the usual justification for this was expressed by Jackson in the above annual message: Indians "...cannot live in contact with a civilized community and prosper". If Indians remained in contact with civilization their extinction was supposed to be inevitable; removal of the Indians was therefore a moral duty.
In the Worcester vs. Georgia case of 1832, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall determined that "...within their boundary they [the Cherokee] possessed rights with which no state could interfere..." (Ibid. p.61). Georgia, however, with President Jackson's encouragement, chose to ignore the Court's findings, and in 1833 Georgia held a lottery of Cherokee land and property again leading to the eviction of Cherokees from their homes and the stealing of livestock (Josephy:1995 p.328).
In 1835 Rev. John Schermerhorn was appointed U.S. Commissioner to the Cherokee. By this time the Cherokee were divided into the Ross and Ridge factions, anti- and pro-removal respectively. Schermerhorn signed a removal treaty with the Ridge faction at New Echota on December 29th, 1835, ceding all Cherokee land east of the Mississippi to the Government in return for five million dollars. For the Ridge party acceding to removal was the only way of preserving the Cherokee nation from death, but the sale of Cherokee land carried a death penalty; in 1839 Major Ridge, his son, and his nephew Elias Boudinot were assassinated for signing the New Echota treaty (Ibid. pp.329, 331). The majority of the Cherokee, those under John Ross, contested the validity of the treaty (as did some of their White supporters) to no avail; the Cherokee were given two years from the ratification of the treaty on May 18th, 1836, to leave their lands for Indian Territory in present day Oklahoma.
In 1838 the Cherokee were rounded up by troops with rifle and bayonet and placed in stockades where hundreds died. Following on the heels of the troops a "lawless rabble" made "Systematic hunts... for Indian graves, to rob them of the silver pendants and other valuables deposited with the dead" (From Mooney's account quoted in Thornton:1987 p.116). Thornton states that Mooney's estimate of 4000 deaths as a direct result of the removal is probably far short of the true figure, which, he believes, may have been over 8000 (Ibid. p.118). In his 'Farewell Address' of March 4th, 1837, President Jackson explained the benefits of removal: "The States which had so long been retarded in their improvement by the Indian tribes residing in the midst of them are at length relieved from the evil... the safety and comfort of our own citizens have been greatly promoted by their removal..." (Prucha:1984 p.242. Italics are my own).
During the Civil War (1860-1865) the Cherokee were again divided, and whilst formally siding with the Confederacy factions fought in both Confederate and Union armies. Cherokee homes were raided not only by these two armies but by opposing Cherokee parties. Cherokees were driven from their homes, schools and houses were burned, and orchards destroyed along with churches and public buildings. Mooney claimed that the War reduced Cherokee numbers from 21,000 to 14,000 (Mooney:1995 pp.149-150).
The General Allotment or Dawes Act, passed in 1887, authorized the Government to divide up Indian land into discrete units to be distributed among individual Indian families, whether they agreed with the arrangement or not; 'surplus' Indian land, that remaining after its distribution, was offered to White settlers. At this time, however, the Five Civilized Tribes - the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole - were exempt from the Act's provisions, but this changed with the passing of the Curtis Act in 1898. The Five Nation's lands were now to be alloted as above and tribal government's were to be dissolved on March 4th, 1906, though they functioned until Oklahoma became a State in 1907; at this time 'Indian Territory' ceased to exist.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Cherokee power was at its height. The people lived in concentrated, palisaded communities with extended family groups in Winter and Summer dwellings centered around a ceremonial town house. Cherokee society was organized on matrilocal and matrilineal lines and the mother did most of the work in the fields, where corn, beans, squash, and other vegetables were cultivated. With the coming of the Europeans, however, the Cherokee adapted their lifestyle according to new needs and European pressures. The Cherokee community now featured individual farms, nuclear families, patrilineal descent, men turned from warfare to farming (the Cherokee became an agricultural nation in the 1820's Champagne:1994 p.269), whilst women learned the domestic arts. By about 1900 some crafts among the eastern Cherokee were in danger of disappearing. With the advent of wage labour, for example, came a decline in spinning and weaving as more Indians bought ready made clothing; there were also few potters and basket weavers, though by the late 1920's these saw an impressive revival as the tourist trade met Cherokee culture, made possible most notably by the rapid growth of the automobile industry (Finger:1993 pp.14, 59).
Although in 1900 some eastern Cherokee still participated in traditional ceremonies such as the Green Corn Ceremony, these had been modified and were less frequently practised. It has been stated that the religious meanings in Cherokee dance and drama have now been lost and are " more than artistic conventions" (Speck/Broom:1993 p.2). In 1900 an ever growing majority of Cherokee attended Christian churches, but sermons were in Cherokee and there were strong elements of traditional cosmology in religious practices, thus evoking a highly syncretic Christianity. By 1913 there were ten churches on the Qualla Boundary reservation in North Carolina, all but two with Indian preachers preaching in their native tongue; some of these were traditional medicine men and ceremonial leaders who saw no conflict between traditional religion and Christian teaching. Council meetings always opened with a Christian prayer.
On April 6-7th, 1984 at Red Clay, Tennessee, for the first time since 1837, the Eastern and Western Cherokee met in Council " discuss mutual concerns about health, education, legislation, economics, and cultural preservation" (Awiakta:1994 p.100) and to affirm their brotherhood. This meeting was also the first of its kind since the Trail of Tears in 1838, which divided the Cherokee into what became the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and the Eastern Band of North Carolina. Among the resolutions passed by the Council was a demand for the return of skeletal remains exhumed from archaeological sites. During 1988-1989, in a further show of brotherhood, Cherokees all over America remembered the Trail of Tears. This act of remembrance continues with the annual Trail of Tears sings hosted by the Snowbird Cherokee in Graham county, North Carolina. Through such events some Eastern and Western Cherokee reestablished family ties (Finger:1993 p.180). Nevertheless, whilst acknowledging their common heritage with the Western Cherokee, the Eastern Band affirm their own identity as a unique tribe with a distinctive history.
According to anthropologist Duane King, the Eastern Band have retained more of their myths, legends, and traditional dances (though modified in form) than the Western Cherokee, although in both groups the native language is fast disappearing. Some progressives are, however, resigned to the passing away of the old traditions. In 1988 Chief Youngdeer said: "We hate to lose them, but the old ways don't put bread on the table" (Quoted in Finger:1993 p.182). Nevertheless, kinship and tribal identity, whilst not easily defined, continues to be important and according to Finger the Cherokee wish to retain their land base whilst moving toward greater self-sufficiency (Ibid. p.183).

Symbols The Sacred Fire. According to Payne, the New Fire Ceremony was part of the annual Spring festival, and was presided over by seven persons commissioned to kindle the new fire; the old fires had been extinguished. The sacred fire used "...the inner bark of seven different kinds of trees. This bark was carefully chosen from the east side of the trees, and was clear and free from blemish" (Payne quoted in Mooney:1995 p.502). Once the sacred fire was kindled the women drew from it a flame which was used to light a new fire in every home in Cherokee country. "One man, called the fire keeper, stayed always in the townhouse to feed and tend the fire" (Ibid. p.396). A contemporary Cherokee states that on the trail of tears in 1838 (see History section) someone secretly carried the sacred fire, kept it alive. "The fire", she says, "signified the spirit of the Creator, of the sun [the life-giver], of the people - and the Cherokee have kept it burning for centuries" (Awiakta:1993 p.108). The fire also shares the essence of the Creator, the All-Mystery (Ibid. p.177).
The East direction. The east is said to be the direction of triumph, and of the red light immediately preceding sunrise "...which the Cherokee say is 'impregnated with miraculous creative power'. East is the heading for hope and determination and life" (Ibid. p.16), it is the direction from which comes that life-giving power that stirs all beings into motion with the coming of the dawn. This suggests the significance of using the east facing bark of the tree for the sacred fire, itself a symbol of, and indeed, a requirement for life.
Sacred numbers. It is the numbers four and seven that are sacred to the Cherokee. The number four is significant of the four directions and of wholeness, but it is the number seven which seems to be the most prominant. There are seven clans; seven councillors presided over regular festivals (recall the New Fire Ceremony above); there was a regular sacrifice every seventh day, and in "remote times" a sacrifice was held once every seven years (Payne quoted in Speck/Broom:1983 p.7).
It is said that following the Trail of Tears in 1838, the elders of the Cherokee Nation prophecied that in the seventh generation the people would be strong again; this prophecy is believed to have been fulfilled with the reunion of the Eastern and Western Cherokee at Red Clay, Tennesse in 1984 (Awiakta:1993 pp.108, 151, 181. See also History section). Arvol Looking Horse of the Sioux Nation and Keeper of the Sacred Pipe, also states that the healing of that Nation has now begun, in the seventh generation (Talking Stick Journal Winter/Spring 1996). One significance of the number seven is said to be "renewal and return" (Ibid. p.36), which, seen in the context of the New Fire ceremony above, alongside the symbolism of the east and of the fire itself, defines well that ceremony's meaning.

Adherents The population of the Eastern Band for January 1990 was 9,590 (Finger:1993 p.159), whilst the population of the Western Cherokee today has been estimated at more than 175,000 (Champagne:1994 p.104). There are no figures, however, for how many Cherokee continue to practice some form of traditional Cherokee religion. If Speck and Broom are correct in pronouncing that traditional Cherokee dance and ceremony among the Eastern Band are now devoid of religious significance for the participants, then it would seem to follow that traditional religion is no longer practiced (See History section p.5); but it does not follow that the contemporary Cherokee holds no traditional beliefs, for example, the notion of kinship between humans and other natural phenomena such as corn or the sun, which belief is still held among the Cherokee. Also, it must be remembered that for any community the perception of what is traditional changes with time and need. If the religious life and culture of contemporary Cherokee is to be given its due these changes must be accepted and viewed not as a deterioration, a tragic loss, or a step in the wrong direction (which views have a long history, including those of anthropologists), but as a development, to be given equal weight in the studies of native peoples today as is given to the past.

Main Centre
 Although still having no formal relationship with each other, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and the Eastern Band alternate special council meetings once a year at Cherokee (a Qualla Boundary reservation community, North Carolina) and Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation's capital (Finger:1993 p.180)