Some Cherokee Visions

( – promoted by navajo)

When cultures are undergoing rapid change, the people are often unsure, and sometimes afraid, of the future. At these times, people are more likely to turn to religion as a well of prediction about the future. Divination, often in the form of prophecy, is an important part of many religious traditions. In ancient Babylon divination was based on looking at the skies, in many African cultures it involves an examination of the entrails of a sacrificed ox, and in many Christian cultures it many involve an interpretation of Biblical passages.

During the first part of the nineteenth century, the Cherokee in the southeast were undergoing a great deal of change. In order to deal with pressure from the American government, they were adopting an American-style government; they were converting to Christianity; and they were changing from an egalitarian agricultural economy to a slave-based plantation economy. During this time of stress, a number of Cherokee prophets emerged who utilized the traditional Native vision or dream as their source of knowledge about the future.  

In the 1810, a fundamentalist religious movement began among the Cherokee. The leading prophet, Charley, told the people that the mother of the nation had abandoned them because they had taken up American agricultural practices and grain mills. Charley told the Cherokee that if they returned to traditional agriculture, if they returned to hunting, if they excluded Americans from their territory, and if they abandoned American clothes and material goods, then the Great Spirit would send them sufficient game. Charley appeared with two black wolves, one on either side of him, which were said to be spirits. As he told the people that Selu (corn) had abandoned them because they are now farming in the European way, the clouds parted in the sky.

Charley predicted that non-believers would be destroyed in a hail storm and that those who gathered with him on a high peak would be safe. The storm failed to appear and Charley’s influence faded.

In 1810, three Cherokee reported that they had been visited by a band of Indians who appeared out of the heavens riding black horses. The visitors told the Cherokee to return to the old ways and to give up their featherbeds, tables, and European dress. Corn was to be ground by hand rather than in the new gristmills.

The visitors reported that the Mother of the Nation was unhappy because the Cherokee had let the wild game be killed off. While the message was to return to the old ways, some of the new ways – reading and writing, for example – were acceptable.

When the vision was reported at the Cherokee National Council, Major Ridge, who would later support the American plan for removal of the Cherokee west of the Mississippi River, angrily declared that the vision was false.

In 1811, several prophets reported a vision which showed the Great Spirit angry with the Cherokee. The prophets told the people to turn their attention to reclaiming the sacred towns of Tugaloo and Chota, to restore traditional dances and ceremonies, and to use traditional medicines. Several of the prophets made predictions about world destruction and when these failed to happen, the prophets lost their credibility.

In 1819, Cherokee peace chief Yonaguska died and came back to life 24 hours later. He announced that he had gone to the spirit world where he talked with dead friends and relatives. In the spirit world, the Creator gave him a message to share with the people. As a result of this experience, Yonaguska organized a temperance society and banished whiskey from this people.

During this decade of rapid change, the Cherokee prophesies took on two different forms: (1) a total rejection of the new ways and a return to the mythical past, and (2) a partial rejection of the new ways while incorporating some of them into the culture. In all instances, when the prophets predicted that specific things would happen and these events failed to happen, their prestige in the community failed.