The Cherokee had great respect for all living things and tried to live in harmony with them. In Part 4, The Deer Clan, I talked about how a hunter would apologize to a deer before killing it and explain why he needed the meat to feed his family. The same held true for birds. The Ani Tsiskwa, The Bird Clan, was responsible for keeping the birds. It was believed that birds were the messengers between the world and the upper world or between human beings and the spirits, therefore the Ani Tsiskwa were usually called upon to be the messengers for the village. They were keen observers and adept at interpreting the messages brought to dreams by birds.
Only the Bird Clan was allowed to provide bird feathers for the tribe. The most sacred bird for the Cherokee was the eagle and its feathers were considered sacred and vital to many ceremonies especially anything relating to war. In ancient times, killing the eagle for its feathers involved the entire village, but under the tutelage of the Bird Clan and conducted by one special individual, the Eagle Killer, who was trained in the proper method for killing an eagle. The eagle had to be killed only in winter or late fall after the crops were gathered and snakes had retired to their dens. If an eagle was killed in summer, an early frost would kill the corn and the eagle dance would so rile snakes that they became extremely dangerous! When an Eagle Killer was called in, he would set out alone with his bow and arrows into the mountains where he would pray and fast for four days. Then he would hunt down and kill a deer. He would carry the carcass to an exposed area on a cliff, then hide and chant softly the song to call in the eagle. When the eagle landed on the carcass, the Eagle Killer would shoot it with an arrow and then pray to it to not seek vengeance on his tribe. In later times, he would tell the dead bird that a Spaniard had killed him, not a Cherokee! Then he would return to the village and proclaim that he had killed a “Snow Bird” (to insure against the vengeance of any eagles that might overhear) and then return home, his work completed. The villagers would wait for four days to allow the insect parasites time to leave the carcass, then a delegation would go to the cliff and skin the deer, remove the feathers from the eagle and wrap them in the fresh deerskin. Both carcasses were left as a sacrifice to the eagle spirits. The feathers were placed in a special”Feather” hut near the dance field and a special dish of venison and corn provided to “feed the hungry feathers”. That night, the Eagle dance was performed. In addition to bow and arrow, the Ani Tsiskwa were skilled in using blowguns and snares for hunting birds.
It is believed that the Ani Tsiskwa were once three clans since the clan had three subdivisions – the Eagle, Turtledove and Raven. The clan was represented by the color purple, their sacred wood was maple and their flag is blue with red stars.
Each clan was responsible for teaching the life lessons for achieving higher levels of development for the upper world. There were seven levels of development, just as there were seven clans. The Tsiskwa were responsible for teaching the importance of both the positive and negative events on the harmony of life.
The Cherokee were very conscious of their clan heritage and could readily tell of their degree of relationship to their relatives. Today, however, many Cherokee no longer know their clan. Think you might be of the Ani Tsiskwa? Here are some notable surnames related to the Bird Clan:
Adair, Alexander, Alred, Angus, Arkensas Baker, Barr, Bear, Bell, Bird, Bolin, Boss, Brasheres, Brown, Brownwater, Bunch, Burk, Burntwing, Byles, Choate, Cody, Cooper, Cousart, Crouch, Cummingham, Cuthand, Cutting Dalondeegah, Danedeesdee, Davis Eades, Eagle, Ewery, Fair Hair, Feather, Field(s), Finley, Frost, Ghigooie, Gibson, Goingbird, Goosey, Grant Hill, Hull, Jarrett, Jimmesen, Joran, Justice (Ooweena), Kee, Ketcher, Kingsnake, Leflor, Leuking, Light, Lipe, Little, Love, Mayes, McCraken, McCrigger, McDaniel, McDonald, Miller, Moore, Moss, Negro, Old Tassel, Oowodagee, Otter Lifter, Owl, Perry, Pigion, Pool , Quail Raincrow, Rains, Rainwater, Ray, Red Crow, Red Eagle, Reid, Reynolds, Rogers, Sanders, Saughtery, Scofield, Shory, Sinnawah, Stalking Turkey, Starr, Terripin, Thomas, Toy, Turky, Waters, Webb, West, Young Bird
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