May 092013
 
Plains Indians by Caitlan
I am currently writing a seven book series titled “The Cherokee Chronicles”.  The Cherokee Chronicles was born out of the research I have done over the years on Native American cultures.  I discovered that what I thought I knew about Native Americans was based on the Hollywood fixation on the Plains Indians and the stereotypical ‘noble savage’.   In an introduction to the book “Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, Victor Wolfgang von Hagen wrote, “The acceptance of an indigenous ‘civilization’ demanded of an American living in 1836 a complete reorientation; to him an ‘Indian’ was one of those barbaric, half-naked tipi dwellers, a rude sub-human people who hunted with animal stealth.”

The Cherokee were nothing like the savage, nomadic, hunter-gatherers portrayed in movies and TV.  The Cherokee never lived in tipis; they have never worn feathered headdresses (except maybe to please tourists); they didn’t ride horses until the Europeans brought them over; there were no Cherokee princesses; they didn’t follow the buffalo around; the “squaw” didn’t humbly follow ten paces behind her husband; they didn’t worship a panoply of gods; they weren’t, by any definition of the word, savages.

Cherokee Chief in London 1762
When describing the “Ascent of Man”, author and philosopher Jacob Bronowski observed, “The largest step in the ascent of man is the change from nomad to village agriculture.”  Long before the Europeans came to America, the Cherokee had made that giant leap and were an agriculturally-based culture that built permanent, framed, mud stucco houses in well-organized villages secured by palisaded walls.  They had sophisticated social structures and highly developed government.   Each village was governed by a peace chief and a war chief.  During peace times, a white flag flew over the majestic, seven-sided council house and the peace chief ruled.  In times of war, a red flag flew over the council house and the war chief ruled.  Villagers were organized by families or clans.  Each clan had its purpose and responsibilities within the tribe and its members were governed and lived by the rules of each clan.   Each of the seven clans preserved and taught one of the seven tenants that enabled the pure to ascend through the seven levels of personal development.
Reconstruction of Cherokee house

The Cherokee were a matriarchal society.  The children were born into the clan of their mother and were raised by the tenants of her clan.  The women owned the houses and fields.  The highest ranking women were known as the “Beloved Women” and were responsible for divining justice.  Women could marry and divorce as they pleased.  When a man proposed, he brought a deer to her doorstep.  She would confide in her grandmother for advice.  If she decided to accept marriage, she simply brought in the deer and prepared an acceptance feast.  A divorce was simple.  The woman simply placed her husband’s belongings outside the house on the doorstep.   When he came home, he got the message.


If a clan member committed a crime, it was up to his clan to administer justice.  The punishment for murder might require his family to bind his hands and feet and push him off a cliff to his death on the rocks below. 
There were no Kings (and consequently no Princesses).  The Cherokee Government at both the local level and at the national level was bicameral – a “white” organization that governed over the peace and “red” organization that governed over war.  The person of highest authority in the white branch was the High Priest, known as the “Uku”.   Below him were assistants and priests from each clan and they were responsible for administering civil law, invoking blessings and prayers for religious well-being, removing the uncleanness from polluted persons to restore them to physical well-being, and they planned and supervised the important ceremonies and celebrations throughout the year.
The red branch of government consisted of a complimentary set of officials whose responsibilities were exclusively related to war.  Author Thomas E. Mails explained, “If either of the two organizations was in any way subordinate to the other, it was the red group, since the Great High Priest could make or unmake the war chiefs.  In addition, the red officials were at frequent intervals elected by popular vote, while the white officials were either to some extent hereditary or subject to appointment by the Great High Priest. … In most instances, red officials acquired their rank as the result of bravery in battle …”
Mails goes on to say, “An assemblage of Beloved Women … was present at every war council.  These served as counselors to the male leaders, and also regulated the treatment dealt to prisoners of war.”
The Cherokee maintained a well-organized military.  The Wolf Clan was primarily responsible for providing warriors, therefore, children of the wolf clan were trained in warfare from the time they could walk.  Many games were created to help develop children’s skills.  And some games became as prominent and important to the village and the nation as football, baseball, or soccer is to us today.   It is said that sometimes war between tribes was avoided by settling the dispute through an Anetsa (Ball Play game similar to La Crosse).
The Cherokee definitely don’t fit the stereotypes we attribute to Native Americans. They deserve to be remembered as a civilized society.

[Right: reconstructed Cherokee seven-sided Townhouse behind dance field — Cherokee Visitor Center, Tahlequah, OK.]

— Courtney Miller

  2 Responses to “Cherokee Misconceptions”

  1. […] Recently [May 9, 2013 issue], I wrote an article on Cherokee Misconceptions.  It was such a success, I am going to expand on it by popular request.  In this series, I will be addressing ten of the more common misconceptions about the Cherokee: […]

  2. My email will change in a few weeks as I am moving. I have known for a number of years that I belonged to the Deer Clan, but it just occurred to me today that there must be an organization associated with the clan. I came across this site and found valuable information on the history of the Cherokees. I don’t have a lot of time now; but when I get settled in my new home I will look further into this. Thank you.

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