History and Beliefs of the Cherokees

History of the Cherokees

The Cherokees form the largest Native American tribe in the United States and Canada.

(De Capua, 2006, p. 5). Numbering around three hundred thousand, they once lived in the Blue Ridge and the Great Smoky Mountains. They were a strong people and owned a large area of land in the 17th and 18th centuries (Voelker, 2006). The first Cherokee capital Tanasi gives its name to the state of Tennessee. The aboriginal home of the Cherokees was found in what is today the southern Appalachians of North America (Fox, 2003, p. 256). The main portion of their homeland was Western North Carolina but they also lived further south in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee.

The history of the Cherokees begins from the times when the ancestors hunted huge beasts in the mountains. Accounts from archaeology vouch for the facts. Mastodon bones with marks of spear points in them of about 11000 years of age have been confirmed. Historians believe that the Cherokees were descended from the Iroquoian people (Fox, 2003, p. 356). They call themselves Ani-Yunwiya which means “principle people”. Others believe that the Cherokee dialect point to the fact that that the Cherokee dialect arose from the pre-Cherokees and that both Iroquoian and Cherokee people descended from them.

With the warming up of climate, villages appeared. The life of the Cherokees included weapons like the carved fishhook, stone mortars and pestles to grind corn and soon they had agriculture, made their historic handicrafts and lived in towns. Politics and war were rampant as in any ancient tribes. The towns of 500 inhabitants had the houses built around a central plaza where meetings and cultural activities took place. They were ruled in a democratic manner with the involvement of all the elders (Thomas Legion). The towns were blockaded from enemies. Posts were placed six to eight inches apart with saplings and cane filling the spaces. Each village had a council house which was built near the stream to enable the residents’ ceremonial baths following rituals. General meetings and cultural activities were often held in the plaza. There was a peace chief, a war chief, and a spiritual leader.

The Cherokees were mainly farmers and hunters. Their agricultural crops included corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, sunflowers, and tobacco and women looked after them. The men were responsible for providing the meat. It was a matrilineal society (Fox, 2003, p. 356). The household was the landholding unit and the crops were for the household. Joint or extended families were the trend. The man would be living with the wife’s family. In winter they stayed in a conical house called asi which was placed over a pit and which had a hearth. Pursuing ‘duyuktv’, the right way, each person became a ‘real person’. Food was in abundance. They had appropriate shelter, clothes, utensils and herbal treatment for all illnesses they had. Men wore clothes of long deerskin in winter made of turkey feathers or animal fur. Fur cloaks were worn for warmth (De Capua, 2006, p. 22). Women wore deerskin skirts wrapped around their waists. They were mostly barefoot except in winter. Their belongings included prehistoric ceremonial paraphernalia like “atlatl weights, embossed copper plates, rock-art, temple statuary, and other stone figurines, carved shell cups, and gorgets, maskettes, smoking pipes, shell trade beads, shiny raw materials, birdmen, thunderbirds, pileated woodpeckers, turkey cocks, owls, copper and clay bears, underground or underwater panthers, various serpents and snakes, frogs, otters, trees, motifs of military strength and war, representations of mortuary treatment of corpses, symbols of death and the journey to an afterlife, symbols of the four directions and the axis mundi, other beings of the above and below realms of the cosmos, sun signs, floating islands, the weeping eye, and the eye-in-hand motif” (Carr, 2008, p. 503).

The first contact that Cherokees had with Europeans was in 1540 when a Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto, arrived with his army (De Capua, 2006, p.7). Then the Juan Pardo expedition reached in 1566-68. The mountains that the Cherokees called their home were named the Appalachians by the Europeans. The arrival of the Spanish was in search of gold where there was none. Cornelius Dougherty, an Irishman from Virginia, was the first White trader who lived among the Cherokees in 1690. More English traders then arrived. The immunity of the Cherokees could not withstand the illnesses that the Europeans brought with them. Their population was stricken and diminished greatly due to epidemics. The Cherokee population came down to the 11000s in 1715. Wars and conflicts did affect the population numbers but it was the disease that diminished it. The population decline was interpreted by the Europeans as a reason for pushing the Cherokees out of their lands (Perdue and Green, 2007, p.11). The Europeans realized that the Cherokees had a right to their land. The fact that they were not Christians appeared to be a sufficient reason for the Cherokees to be denied their right by the Spanish and the French who were on missionary efforts. Other reasons were that the Cherokees were uncivilized and had heathen rituals, lack of proper clothes, different government and war tactics, and family lifestyles.

By the eighteenth century, the English had established norms for considering the level of civilization. They triggered the idea that an uncivilized group of people like the Cherokees had no right to their land, more so now that their numbers had dwindled. The English made the strongest claim for the land. Soon the trade-in deerskins which brought the English to the Cherokee country led them to settle in the villages (Perdue and Green, 2007, p. 13). Within a short time, the number of English settlers increased and had taken up residence in most of the Cherokee communities. European manufactured goods and guns were the attractions for the Native Americans. Slave trading also inflicted casualties. Though most of the Cherokees depended on agriculture for their livelihood, they were described as hunters by the whites. In 1780, Thomas Jefferson made a statement to this effect. Though he mentioned agriculture, it was considered of secondary importance as women were in charge of it. The English had started colonization at around this time. They had also started adopting the Cherokee style of agriculture and were interested in acquiring land for sheep rearing (Perdue and Green, 2007, p. 14). Slowly the Cherokees were convinced of the opportunities of becoming rich by disposing of their land.

By 1684, the English and Cherokees had started negotiating treaties. These treaties implied that the Native Americans would be able to enjoy the rights of sovereignty or the rights to rule themselves. Alliances were made for traded goods first. In 1730, seven Cherokee headmen were brought to London where they signed a treaty acknowledging the English sovereignty to govern America. The Cherokees agreed to prevent other European powers from having any alliances with them and expose the slaves who sought refuge with them. Though the treaties involved only a few people and the other Cherokees did not consider things the same way and were still resisting, the English twisted things their way. They stressed that the treaties were binding on all Cherokees.

When the Europeans arrived, they had been extended a warm welcome. The Cherokees imbibed the culture of the new people especially the language which they called ‘the talking leaves. They then developed their language through a genius who knew no written language before this, Sequoyah. He introduced this language to the Cherokee National Council in 1821. The people became literate within a short period.

In the next few years, at the behest of the Seventh President of the US, Andrew Jackson, the Cherokees lost their empire to possess finally a quarter of what they had earlier. They also lost their importance as Allies against the French. They had to move to the west of the Mississippi, to Oklahoma. Their lands were eyed by real estate speculators who sold them to cotton owners. Though the Cherokees resisted they were bound by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. In 1838, they were forcibly removed from the East to the West to Indian Territory and the journey was named the “Trail of Tears” (Perdue and Green, 2007). One-fourth of the Cherokees who were moved, about 4000, died from starvation, illnesses, exposure, the tiring march, and the upset caused by exile. Today the Cherokees live in North Carolina and Oklahoma. The Cherokees in North Carolina mainly arise from the 12000 who were exempted from exile. Many had walked back from Oklahoma. In the treaty of the new Echoic of 1835, William Holland Thomas had arranged the exemption from the removal of many Cherokees who remained in North Carolina. The trail of tears has been described not just as a Cherokee tragedy or Indian tragedy but as an American tragedy (Perdue and Green, 2007, p. xvi). Many people were against the removal of the Cherokees and John Ross fought against it in the Supreme Court but this did not produce any favorable results. The promise of democracy was denied them. In 1907, Oklahoma was admitted to the Union to become the 46th state.


Different clans have been identified and the color of the feathers adorning their headwear would be different depending on the clans: aniwadi (paint clan), anigategewi (wild potato clan), anisahoni (wild cat clan), anigilohi (wind clan), anitsiskwa (bird clan), aniwahiya (wolf clan) and ani-awi (deer clan) (Thomas legion). The Indians (Ojibway) believed that they descended from the moon on a web spun by a giant spider (Kelley, 2005, p. 473). Some others believe they descended from the stars. Others say they came from the Pleiades.

The Cherokee were a religious people (De Capua, 2006, p. 27). They believed in one God Unayklanahi who was the creator of all things (Jahtohli Rogers, Cherokee nation). Every living thing had a spirit provided by the Creator. The spirits of birds and animals were used to carry messages to them. Their dreams also carried such messages from the spirits. The creator has been given a name that means “The Elder Fires Above”. The Creator is believed to have three parts which have names which mean “head of all power”, “place of uniting”, and “place below the breast”. The entrance of Christianity and the explanation of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit led the Cherokees to believe that this new religion had some similarities to theirs.

The beliefs of the Cherokees could be simulated to those of most aboriginal tribes all over the world. The world was believed to have been created with the moon and stars by beings that came down from high above (Thomas legion) at the time of a new moon and when fruits were ripe. The sun is worshipped to shower them with the abundance of food and to allay illnesses. The moon was important in religion and festivals were observed with each new moon. The fire was considered a blessing to them and a gift from the sun and moon. The morning star represented a wicked priest who killed people. He had escaped to the skies when a plan was made to kill him. The good would go to a pleasant place with plenty of light while the bad would reach one where they would be tortured. The soul would go back to the place where the person had lived for an equal period and then go to the place where he had earlier been in his other birth and so on till he completed the cycle of all his births and leaves for eternal fate. There are believed to be seven heavens and the Supreme Being is in the first.

The Cherokees have their version of how the Earth was made. Once there was nothing but water, it seems. All animals lived above the Sky Rock or Galunlati in the Cherokee language. As it was crowded, a decision was taken to send one of them to find out what was under the water. A water beetle volunteered but failed to find dry land. It came back with some mud from the bottom of the water and this mud is believed to have grown and spread to form the Earth, floating on water and being held up by four cords attached to the Sky Rock (De Capua, 2006, p. 29). Another belief was that the earth was flat and wet. Next, the birds went in search of dry land. When the Great Buzzard took his turn, he flew and reached Cherokee country where whenever his tired wings failed him, they would flap against the earth to make valleys. Whenever they recovered, the mountains were formed. As the animals realized what was happening, they called him back for fear of more mountains being created. Cherokee is believed to be full of mountains due to this episode. To dry the earth that they had, they got the sun on a track to cross the wetland (Perdue and Green, 2007, p. 2). The home of the Cherokees consisted of the mountains, valleys, and the gentle sun.

The first human beings were a brother and sister after the plants and animals. The brother is believed to have struck his sister with a fish causing her to give birth every seven days. This incident is associated with fertility. The large number of people being born gave them a fright that the space on their land would not hold them all if something was not done to stop the “speedy deliveries”. The pattern changed and the women would give birth only once every year (Perdue and Green, 2007, p.2). The first humans, Kanati and Selu had problems similar to Adam and Eve’s. Kanati had sheltered some animals in a cave from where he would secure meat for the population with him. Selu used to make corn edible by rubbing her abdomen and armpit in the storehouse. Their son and another child who had emerged from the river found Kanati’s and Selu’s secrets. They killed Selu thinking she was a witch. Selu instructed them to drag her body around a large circle seven times. They did not bother to do it as she wanted and dragged it around only two times (Perdue and Green, 2007, p. 3). This is the reason implied for corn not growing everywhere and hoeing having to be done twice. The two boys spoken about above did one more thing. When people came from afar to get corn for their plantations, the boys gave them seven grains and asked them to plant every evening. They obtained seven ripe ears of corn every night. On the seventh night, they fell asleep and they did not get anything in the morning. It is believed that the Cherokees have had to wait for six months to reap their corn since then.

The Cherokees or Northern Iroquoians have a peculiar but essential element of warfare and prisoner sacrifice: that of taking heads, scalps, and other trophies as a reward for triumph. (Williamson, 2007, p. 190). War was usually raged not for securing land but for avenging the murders of family or friends. Being noticed as a brave warrior is the method to achieve prestige and admiration for young men.

The Cherokees were experts in killing animals and eating them. It is believed that animals decided to make war on humans. The attempt failed. The deer used its spiritual power to afflict humans with rheumatism. Plants helped humans by providing medicines. The Cherokees performed rituals to avoid illnesses caused by animal spirits and emphasized the need to respect all living things (Perdue and Green, 2007, p. 4).

The lives of the Cherokees are wrought in spiritual forces. They associated spiritual powers with plants, animals, rivers, mountains, and caves. The mountains are evidence of the great Buzzard’s tale and Kuwahi is believed to be the mountain where the animals met to plot revenge on the humans. The Nantahala river was a place that was frequented by a monster who had the shape of an old woman and ate people (Perdue and Green, 2007, p. 5). The Cherokee landscape as it is seen now has many stories behind them including those of moral value.

Religious principles of the Cherokees were not recorded anywhere but handed down by word of mouth and the land was proof of various incidents. They associated the directions with colors. Blue was for the North and meant “trouble and defeat”. White was for the south and meant peace and happiness. Red was for the east and meant success and victory. Black was for the West and meant death. Directions and colors were invoked by conjurors to help their clients achieve things (Perdue and Green, 2007, p. 6). The Cherokees were very attached to their land. Forcing them to go west, which was a direction of death, in the Trail of Tears was an action tantamount to leading them to death. Killing animals did not stop but they appeased the spirits by having rituals following the killing. Ceremonies, prayers s and songs filled the atmosphere when the killing was over. Another significant point was that the Cherokees used all parts of the animals killed. Nothing was wasted. The meat was eaten, hides were tanned, tools were made from bones and antlers and sinews as thread. Claws, teeth, and feathers were ceremonial items (Perdue and Green, 2007, p. 7).

The Native Americans have a long journey before they reach the economic status of other populations in America (Duffy and Stubben, 1998, p. 53). Low-paying jobs, seasonal work, and part-time work are what the Native Americans look for. Other statistics are also influenced by the poor economic status.


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Chapter 8 in (Eds.) in “The Taking and Displaying of Human Body Parts as Trophies by Amerindians” By Richard J.Chacon and David H.Dye, Published by Springer Science and Business Media.