American Religious Experience

Cherokee Mythology and Culture

Daniel Dunai/M.A. Student, Pázmány Péter Catholic University

I was a child when I first encountered Native Americans and their cultures. My favourite youth novels were The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Winnetou and the Treasure of Silver Lake. I was also captured by the different Indian tribes religious, cultural diversity, and their related habits. My interest on the topic had been expanded, and as a sociologist I always strive to gain familiarity with human communities. Consequently, I considered it a personal privilege when I was able to widen my knowledge with the American regional cultures at the Pázmány Péter Catholic University, during the Religions In America: Communities And Movements seminar discourse. From these cultures – partly because of my childhood interests – I found the Cherokee Indians the most sociologically captivating. And, subsequently, I aim to write about the Cherokee culture and mythology for my dissertation.

The North-American Indians comprise one of the most divided nations of the world, but perhaps the majority of people still consider them in terms of a single template. In popular culture, one may notice a hard contrast between the old western movies and the Indians of the well-known film, Dances with Wolves. Maybe the opposed representations in these are clean indicators the duality of the white and the Indian relations. Of course a strong contrast between the Indians who remain traditionally close to the nature world, and the life of the modernized white Americans.

From the jagged Appalachian Mountains to Florida through the Gulf of Mexico and to the lower reaches of Mississippi and the dry lowlands of Southeast Texas, in the wet warm climate of fertile southeast, a wide variety of plants and animals may be found. Most of the people who lived in this area were farmer villagers. The Cherokee occupied this territory until 1830, when President Jackson, in direct opposition to the US Supreme Court, required that all of the Aborigines had to move to the west side of Mississippi, thereby opening the eastern region of the South to whites. After the forced migration the Indians who survived the march west could, theoretically at least, live free in their own territory. 

Yet in reality the westward advance of land-greedy whites was unstoppable. The Cherokee departed around 1835 and finally resettled in west of Fort Smith, Arkansas, in1839. Many of them, espcially children and the elderly, died along the way, which is why they described their plight as a Trail of Tears. This Indian territory which was appointed by President Jackson comprises current-day Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Corolado and some parts of Wyoming. The Cherokee settled in mainly in the hardscrabble territory of Oklahoma.

Despite the unconstitutional displacement, the Cherokee conserved their cultures and customs, and cosmology. The Cherokee have entirely different world view from the American whites. The Indians’ perception of time itself is also different. While the European think that time is linear, occupying a long straight line, which moves forward toward a remote point from the “here and now”, the Cherokee Indians imagined the temporal dimension in a concentric way–a way that is appointed by every living being, from birth, through development, to the point of death and rebirth. Everybody can see this system imprinted in nature, from the rising and setting sun to the cycles of the Moon and the stars.

In the North-American Indian cultures, they indicated the important, temporary periods of the human life–like birth, becoming an adult, marriage, death–with meaningful rites, and during these processes they ceremoniously reflected the transition from the old status to the new. Unborn or the newly-born children are particularly vulnerable, and because of this many tribes kept away anything that might afflict them with taboos. For example, they thought that if the Cherokee women had eaten spotted trout the children’s faces would also be spotted.

The Cherokee had holy companions, who were gifted in educating the youngsters on weighty matters such as the subdivision of the civic responsibilities and sacred obligations. These companions played a central role in the life of the Eastern Cherokee tribes of North-Carolina who managed to remain in the region. The political activities were tightly bound to the cycles of the most important religious ceremonies. The officials of the tribes belonged to the White Peace Organization or to the Red War Organization.

The chiefs of the White Peace Organization with their assistants and their seven aides were the religious tribunal. They were responsible for the ritual cycles, which contained the maize-, the concillatory-, the new moon- and the border bush ceremonies. Sometimes they provided civil oversight, such as criminal justice, determining marriage and divorce issues, and the training of youth for hunting.

The Red War Organization dealt with warfare, from recruitment to the cleansing rituals. One of the chiefs served as the head of the company, who was assisted by many aides, doctors, explorers, and a specially chosen matron. These matrons played a pivotal role in questions of warfare and over the fate of prisoners.

"Native groups ... enriched their narratives with new elements given to them by spirits who spoke to them in their dreams."

The North-American indigenous tribes’s stories about the created order are tales with characters which are typical to the place where the stories come from. In the story of genesis humans, animals and supernatural beings appear. The cosmic events reflect various elements of human experiences such as sexual union, separation, debates, major tests of strength and long, arduous journeys. The reports were conserved by word of mouth, and the indigenous holy men re-created those stories with every narration. And, as is the case with many other |Native groups, they enriched their narratives with new elements given to them by spirits who spoke to them in their dreams.

The myth of the land-diver is unique to the Cherokee. In the beginning the Earth was covered by an eternal ocean without lands. At the request of a creature, a few animals discharged to the ocean floor, in order to dredge up mud. Finally, one of them succeeded, and the mainlands were formed by the mud he brought to the surface of the waters. These animals are the land-divers, the little, modest heroes in the myth of creation. The Cherokee believed that the land-diver was the diving-beetle.

The Cherokee also followed a relatively uncomplicated belief system. Many of the elements of the original system remain in place with traditional Cherokee today. Although some of these elements have evolved or have been modified, this belief system is an integral part of life for many.

Certain numbers play an important role in the ceremonies of the Cherokee. The numbers four and seven repeatedly occur in myths, ceremonies and stories. The number four represents the familiar forces, and also the four cardinal directions. These directions are north, east, south and west. Certain colors are also associated with these directions. The number seven represents the seven clans of the Cherokee, and are also associated with directions. In addition to the four cardinal directions, three others exist. Up (Upper World), down (Lower World) and center (the here and now). The number seven also represents the height of purity and sacredness. In old times, it was believed that only the owl and the cougar could reach that level, and because of this it had a special meaning to the Cherokee. The pine, cedar, spruce, holly and laurel also attained this level and played an important role in Cherokee ceremonies. Cedar is the most sacred of all and its colors set it off from the others. The wood from the tree is considered very sacred, and in ancient days it was used to carry the honored dead.

Because of these early beliefs, the traditional Cherokee have a special regard for the owl and cougar. They are honored in some versions of the Creation story, because they were the only two animals, who were able to stay awake during the seven days of Creation. And today, because of this, they have nocturnal habits and exceptional night visions. The owl is seemingly different from other birds, resembling an old man as he walks.

The circle is another symbol familiar to traditional Cherokee. Their dances in ceremonies involve movements in a circular pattern. In ancient times, the fire in the council house was built by arranging the wood in a continuous “X”, so that the fire could burn in a circular path.

The everyday cultural world of the Cherokee also may include appearances of spiritual beings. Even tough the beings are different from people and animals, they are not considered “supernatural”, but they are very much a part of the natural, real world. Indeed, the Cherokee know such demarcation between the natural and supernatural. All that has being is natural.

Most traditional Cherokee at some point in their lives will have an experience with these spiritual beings. An important group of spiritual beings has been described as Little People. They can’t be seen by humans unless the spirits wish it. When they allow themselves to be seen, they appear very much like any other Cherokee, except they are very small and have long hair. The Little People live in various places; rocky shelters, caves or in laurel thickets. They like drumming, dancing and they often help to find the way of lost children—not just those who are geographically lost but also those who are morally losing their way. They are also mischievous. 

The Little People should be respected and approached with great care. They don’t like being disturbed and may cause a person who continually bothers them to remain “puzzled” throughout life. Because of this, traditional Cherokee will not investigate or look when they believe they hear Little People. If one of the Little People is accidentally seen, or if he or she chooses to show him/herself, it is not to be discussed or told of for at least seven years. It is common practice to not speak about the Little People after sunset. Traditional Cherokee also believe that the person who dies, will continue to live as a ghost. They believe that ghosts have the ability to materialize, and yet not everybody can see them.

It is important to note that witchcraft among the Cherokee bears little resemblance to that found among non-Cherokee cultures. There are ordinary witches and there are killer witches. Ordinary witches are considered the more dangerous, because the person can never be sure he is dealing with one, and because of this the witchcraft is harder to counteract. They may even deceive a medicine person and cause them to prescribe the wrong cure if the medicine person is not careful.

One killer witch still spoken of by traditionalists today, is the Raven Mocker. Today, although many Cherokee still consult with medicine people regardiCherokee Medicine Womanng problems, both mental and physical, some will not see a medicine man for any reason and refuse to acknowledge their powers. Some believe in using both Cherokee medicine and licensed, alleopathic medical doctors.

The knowledge held by the medicine men or women is very broad. They work and study for years committing to memory the syllabary manuscripts passed on by ones who taught them. Many formulas have been documented in Cherokee syllabary writing in books ranging from small notebooks to large texts. If the healing words are not spoken in the Cherokee language, they have no affect. Until the words have been memorized, the medicine person may refer to his/her book. This doesn’t compromise his abilities; modern doctors often refer back to their medical texts and other reference books as well. The writing in these traditional books are strictly guarded and everyone who is deemed unqualified is forbidden to read these books. The spoken words are usually accompanied by some physical procedure, such as the use of a specially prepared drink. Medicine people must themselves be completely healthy for their powers to be at peak.

The proper way to find a medicine person is to be part of a Cherokee community and ceremonial ground, or develop trustworthy ties to an individual or family and come to know the healer through those connections.

Even though, as a Hungarian, I am geographically far removed from the Cherokee, their deep cultural closeness to nature fascinated me. I think the European cultures could learn much from them, if we who live on this continent are open-minded enough.


Larry J. Zimmerman: Native North America

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