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Religious Beliefs
The Cherokee Festivals
The Cherokee People
Social and Family Structure

The Cherokee People

The Cherokees called themselves the The Cherokees called themselves the Ani-Yun' Wiya meaning leading or principal people. The original Cherokees lived early times in Georgia, Alabama, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia. They formed the largest single tribe in the South. Other Native American tribes gave them the name Cherokee meaning People who speak another language. They adopted the name themselves as Tsalagi. Today the chief is elected by the people; all townships, some retaining clan names, are represented on the tribal council.


The Cherokee are a tribe of North American The Cherokee are a tribe of North American Indians that formerly inhabited the mountainous region of the western Carolinas, northern Georgia, and eastern Tennessee. An Iroquoian-speaking people, they originally lived near the Great Lakes, but after defeat by Iroquois and Delaware tribes (see Iroquois League), they migrated to the Southeast, eventually becoming the largest and most powerful group in that region. Their traditional culture included maize agriculture, settled villages, and well-developed ceremonialism.

The Cherokee aided the British during the American Revolution and continued their hostilities against the Americans until 1794. Thereafter, influenced by white culture, they adopted plow agriculture, animal husbandry, and cotton and wool industries, as well as slavery. A syllabic alphabet was invented (c.1820) by Sequoya, and in 1827 the Cherokee established a constitutional form of government. A series of fraudulent, land-acquiring treaties were imposed on the Cherokee in the 1830s. The Treaty of New Echota (1835), in which a small tribal faction sold 2.83 million ha (7 million acres) of Cherokee land, required their removal westward within 3 years. The vast majority of the Cherokee Nation repudiated this document, but under Gen. Winfield Scott, most remaining Cherokee were driven from their land and forcibly marched to Arkansas and Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in 1838-39. About 4,000 of the more than 15,000 Cherokee involved died of disease and exposure.

In Indian Territory, they joined the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole to form the so-called Five Civilized Tribes. Tribal lands were lost in the 1860s, after the Five Tribes sided with the South during the Civil War, and again in the early 1880s, when tribal ownership of lands was abolished. When Indian Territory became the state of Oklahoma in 1907, all tribal lands were opened for white settlement. At the 1990 U.S. census those identifying themselves as Cherokee numbered 308,132. Cherokee on or near the Oklahoma reservation number 95,435 (1991 est.).

The Cherokee who avoided the 1838 removal escaped into the Great Smoky Mountains and resettled in North Carolina, forming a tribal corporation in 1889. Cherokee on or near the North Carolina reservation number 10,114 (1991 est.).

Religious Beliefs

The Cherokees were a religious people, holding many of the things in their natural world to be sacred. Stories kept alive from generation to generation told of the spiritual being who created the earth, sun, moon, and stars. The one Supreme Being was named YOWA, was a unity of three beings referred to as The Elder Fires Above (CHO TA AUH -NE LE EH). When the Creator God, YOWA, had given form to the earth, he left the sun and moon to govern the world. They in turn appointed fire to take care of mankind using smoke as its messenger.

A belief in spirits and the afterlife was strong and a person's spirit was thought to retrace his places of residence after he had died. A Priest was singled out from childhood for a very special religious training. He was taught the use of herbs and of the sacred quartz crystals used in religious practice. The most sacred objects were kept in the council house, including the "ark" probably containing a large quartz crystal. Very little of the ancient ceremony or religion exists today. As a whole the Cherokee people have embraced the Christian religion and have a significant number of churches of various denominations on the Reservation. When the ancient religion was practiced, this is what it was like.

The Cherokee Festivals

There were seven festivals in the Cherokee Year, which wereThere were seven festivals in the Cherokee Year, which were:

  1. First New Moon Of Spring: March

  2. Green Corn Ceremony: August

  3. Ripe Corn Ceremony: September

  4. Great New Moon Ceremony: September

  5. Friendship Ceremony: October or November

  6. Bouncing Bush Feast: September

  7. The Chief Dance: every 7th year

The Cherokee People

Instruments used for music during the festivals and dances were the drum, gourd rattlesInstruments used for music during the festivals and dances were the drum, gourd rattles, turtle shell rattles, and flutes. The "Square" on a flat ground by the river and near the Council House, was an area designated and prepared for the ceremonies and dances. Green branches tied to high poles provided shade in the dance area, and the river close by provided the water for cold ceremony plunges. The six major annual festivals had their own rituals and manners of proceeding. All were celebrated at the magnificent national capital, where virtually the entire population of the nation would assemble in response to a summons sent out by the Uku. On such occasions, generosity and good will was the rule, every home in the capitol was open to visitors, and hospitality was freely and abundantly provided.

The First New Moon of the Spring Festival was celebrated about the time the new grass began to show itself. Second came the Sah-looh-stwknce-keeh-stoh-steeh, which was a preliminary event known as the New Green Corn Feast. It was held when the young corn first became fit to taste. Third was the Tung-nah-kaw-hoongh-ni, which was the Mature, or Ripe Green Corn Feast. It followed the New Green Corn Feast by 40 or 50 days, the time being determined by the corn's having become hard and perfect. Fourth was Hung-tah-tay-quah, the Great New Moon Feast that took place on the appearance of the first new moon of autumn, and it was the actual beginning of the festival cycle. Fifth came Ah-tawh-hung-nah, the Propitiation and Cementation Festival. It occurred after the New Moon Feast. Sixth was Eelah-uahtah-lay-kee, the festival of the Exalting, or Bounding Bush.


The Cherokee language is a soft and beautiful language. It doesn't use many of the sounds that English uses, but it is still very complex. What really makes Cherokee difficult to learn isn't because of the memorization of words and meanings, but because it is a totally different culture from the "European" mindset of today. For example the English word Lecture is called i-go-s-da-gi-s-di and literally means to eat raw. To learn and understand the language will give insights into the culture that no book can ever give. Cherokee is also a totally non-sexist language. Anything that refers to "him" can also refer to "her." This concept is almost totally foreign in the English language.

Another twist that makes Cherokee difficult to learn is that some words are totally different depending on how many people you are talking to, your position in relation to them, etc. These factors make it difficult to learn the Cherokee language. Another thing that makes the Cherokee language interesting is that there is no "proper" way to spell something. If you want to write it out, you say it and match it with the syllabary. For example, a couple of ways to spell the Cherokee word for tomato is du-ma-tli and du-ma-hli. Both are correct and when read, the reader, assuming they understand Cherokee grammar, will be able to read what it means when they sound the word out.

The Cherokee language is spoke by approximately 10,000 people in the Cherokee Nation, as well as speakers in the homelands (of the Eastern Band of Cherokee). The western and eastern dialects are different in many ways, although extremely similar. Here is the Cherokee Nation, which consists of a 14 county area in northeastern Oklahoma, there are many different dialects as well as slang words. Language is very important to preserving a culture - many words that are descriptive of cultural mannerisms, feelings, events, and ceremonies are only identifiable in the native tongue. There is no comparable word in the English language. All prayers and other ceremonies used at Stomp Dances and by Medicine people are in the Cherokee language, as well.

Social and Family Structure

The Cherokee people by nature,The Cherokee people by nature, were a rather peace-loving people. They were nevertheless both trained and prepared for fighting at any time. Warfare with other tribes, particularly with the Creeks to the South, was a common occurrence. Later when white men moved in, they were forced to fight often for their lives, land, and homes.

When war threatened the War chief and his organization took charge of the government and all warriors were called to the national headquarters. A war flag was raised, the war song sung, and a war dance performed. The War Chief promised in his speech that he would not stain his hands with the blood of infants, women, old men, or anyone unable to defend himself. The War Priest, his assistant, and two Medicine Men accompanied the four military companies, following in the rear. Four spies were used: one wore a raven skin around his neck; another wore a wolf skin, another wore an owl skin, and the other a fox skin. They signaled the warriors by making sounds corresponding to the animal they represented.

The Cherokee became expert in the making of weapons to be used in warfare. Utilizing available materials they fashioned the weapons listed below. Hand-made weapons of the Cherokee: shields (made of hickory or buffalo hide); breastplates (made of buffalo hide); helmet (made of 3 inch strip of buffalo hide); bowstring guard (made of buffalo hide); war club (made of sycamore with a stone ball); bound with rawhide; battle-ax (made of stone axe head on a wooden handle; commonly called the tomahawk); and bow (made of several types of wood used including sycamore and hickory. They were shaped dipped in bear oil, and seasoned by the fire). They also had arrow (made of shafts of cane, heads of flint, feathers of the eagle); quiver (made of buffalo skin); spear (made of shafts of wood sometimes tipped with flint); sling (made of wood, about 2 1/2 ft. long); knife (made of flint kept in a sheath fastened to their belt); blowgun for small game hunting, not war (made of river cane); and darts (made of locust and feathered with thistle-down). Even though the Cherokee Empire was vast, it had a national government that was effective and efficient.

It was divided into a peace or civil organization and a war organization. The war organization always wore red. The peace chief, though installed in yellow, customarily wore white. Each main town maintained it's own system of government on the local level patterned after the national one. The chief was head of the nation in both a civil and religious capacity. He had two primary men who ruled with him, his right hand man and a speaker, both of whom had seats beside him in the Council House. The right hand man, along with six other men, formed a group of seven counselors, to the chief. Thus, the main government was composed of nine people. There were, however, seven honored women who shared in the government. Their duties included whether a war captive would be killed or adopted into the tribe. "Seven" was a very significant and sacred number to the Cherokee people.

In addition to the seven counselors and seven women there were seven Cherokee clans, seven mother towns to serve as clan headquarters, and a seven-sided council house with a section of seats for representatives from each clan. The council house held approximately five hundred people and was off-limits to all but designated officials. Clan membership was inherited from ones mother and retained for life. Each person had a close relationship with four of the seven clans: the mothers clan (of which he was a member), the fathers clan, the paternal grandfathers clan, and the maternal grandfathers clan. A person was expected to marry into one of the latter of the two of these four clans. Marriages took place in the council house with a priest officiating. Residence after marriage was usually with the family of the wife. In any single town all of the clans were represented, and all members of any one clan considered themselves to be brothers and sisters.

Clan membership was indicated by the color of the feathers one wore. The civil peace government conducted the religious ceremonies of the tribe and acted in both a judicial and legislative capacity, holding court and making the laws. Murder and inter-clan marriage were both punishable by death. Most criminal acts, however, were avenged by members of the wronged family and were seldom left up to the government. In times of a war a war chief, Kalanu, and his organization replaced the civil peace organization. The Seven clans and their colors and tree types were as follows:

Clan Name Color Tree Type Function in Society

Clan 1

Wild Potato

(Ani Glotigewe)



They were gatherers of wild potatoes and were farmers raising vegetables.

Clan 2


(Ani Waya)



The function of the clan was wolf keepers, hunters, and warriors.

Clan 3


(Ani Kawi)



They were farmers raising livestock and providing milk. They raised deer and were skilled deer hunters.

Clan 4


(Ani Tsisqua)



They were farmers. They raised birds for meat and eggs. They also provided feathers for their people.

Clan 5

Long Hair

(Ani Gilohi)



They were farmers growing wheat. They collected clay and gathered reeds. Another function was assisting in funerals. They were known for their long, elaborate hair do's.

Clan 6

Panther or Blue

(Ani Sagoni)



They were hunters and provided meat.

Clan 7


(Ani Wodi)



 They were collectors and provided herbs, stones, and greens.

When a Cherokee has a sacred fire, it consists of Locust, Maple, Hickory, Sycamore, Oak, Ash and Beech.

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