Cherokee Spirituality

Among the Cherokee, spirituality (religion) was embedded into everyday life and was not seen as something apart. In her book Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835, historian Theda Perdue writes:

“The Cherokees did not separate spiritual and physical realms but regarded them as one, and they practiced their religion in a host of private daily observances as well as in public ceremonies.”

Cosmology refers to the concept of the general order of the universe. The cosmos was seen as being composed of three levels: The Upper World which was the domain of past time and predictability and which was represented by fire; the Under World which controlled the future and change and which was associated with water; and This World which was the domain of human beings who mediate between the Upper World and the Lower World.

In This World, human beings do not have dominion over plants, animals, and the rest of creation. Instead, they live with creation, attempting to maintain balance within This World. Spiritual power can be found throughout creation. Thus plants and animals have spiritual power, as do rivers, caves, mountains, and other land forms. In their book The Columbia Guide to American Indians of the Southeast, Theda Perdue and Michael Green report:

“These features served as mnemonic devices to remind them of the beginning of the world, the spiritual forces that inhabited it, and their responsibilities to it.”

Sacred Fire

One of the common elements of the spirituality among the Indians of the Southeast is the sacred fire as a symbol of purity and the earthly representative of the sun. Among the Cherokees, the fire and the sun were viewed as old women. Out of respect, the fire was fed a portion of each meal, for if she were neglected she might take vengeance on them.

While the sacred fire represents the sun and the Upper World, water (especially water in springs and rivers) represents the Under World. Among the Cherokee, it is important to keep these two elements apart and therefore water is never poured on the sacred fire.

For the Cherokee, the sacred fire is seen as a grandmother and is human in thought, emotions, consciousness, and intent. Anthropologist Peter Nabokov, in his book Where the Lightning Strikes: The Lives of American Indian Sacred Places, writes:

“Fire was the medium of transformation, turning offerings into gifts for spiritual intercessors for the four quarters of the earth.”

The sacred fires are fed with the wood from the seven sacred trees: beech, birch, hickory, locust, maple, oak, and sourwood.

Balance

Among the Southeastern tribes, such as the Cherokee, the idea of balance is important. There is a spiritual view that the world is a system of groups which oppose and balance one another. In her book Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835, historian Theda Perdue says:

“In this belief system, women balanced men just as summer balanced winter, plants balanced animals, and farming balanced hunting.”

Illness and Healing

It was believed that illness was caused primarily by animals. Thus healing also had to come from animals. In his book A Law of Blood: The Primitive Law of the Cherokee Nation, John Reid reports:

“All human diseases were imposed by animals in revenge for killing and each species had invented a disease with which to plague man.”

The fish and reptiles, for example, would retaliate against humans by sending bad dreams that would cause them to lose their appetite, sicken, and die. To prevent disease, hunters would apologize to the animals which they killed and explain their great need.

Purity

An important concept in Southeastern Indian spirituality is that of purity. Maintaining purity involves the avoidance of pollution. Pollution occurs when things from two different categories – such as fire and water – are allowed to physically mix. Thus the maintenance of purity involves the separation of opposing forces or items.

One of the ways of overcoming pollution is to bathe early in the morning before eating any food. Among the Southeastern tribes, everyone went to the river in the morning to bathe. This ceremonial bathing was done year-round, even when the bathers had to break the ice on the river.

Green Corn Ceremony

One of the important ceremonies among the people of the Southeastern Woodlands was the Green Corn Ceremony or puskita (which became Busk in English) which was an expression of gratitude for a successful corn crop. The ceremony was held after the harvest and was a time for renewing life. Old fires were put out, the villages were cleaned, and worn pottery was broken. This was a time of forgiveness: debts, grudges, and adultery were forgiven. According to Theda Perdue and Michael Green:

“Held when the crop first became edible, the Green Corn Ceremony celebrated both the crop and the communitarian ethic that shaped their lives.”

The Green Corn Ceremony was also associated with the quest for spiritual purity. Fasting – one of the principle ways of attaining purity – was an important element in the ceremony.

Sacred Places

Land often has special spiritual significance for Indian people. Among the Cherokee there are a group of spirits known as the Immortals who are invisible, except when they want to be seen. The Immortals have town houses within the mountains, and especially within the bald mountains (those mountains on whose peaks no timber grows). The Immortals like to drum and dance. The rumbling coming from the mountains is evidence of the drumming and dancing of the Immortals within the mountains.

The Cherokee view the Little Tennessee River as a benevolent spirit whose head rests in the Great Smokies and whose feet touch the Tennessee River. According to anthropologist Peter Nabokov:

“For Cherokee who bathed in his body, who drank from him and invoked his curative powers, the Long Man always helped them out.”

Nabokov also writes:

“At every critical turn in a man’s life, the river’s blessings were imparted through the ‘going to the water’ rite, which required prayers that were lent spiritual force with ‘new water’ from free-flowing streams.”

The Traditional Cherokee Family

When the Europeans began their invasion of the Americas, the Cherokees were an agricultural people whose villages could be found throughout the American Southeast. Cherokee families were based on matrilineal clans. Matrilineal clans are extended family groups with names, tradition, and oral history. Membership in each clan is through the mother: you belong to your mother’s clan. To be without a clan was to be without human identity. The clan is also exogamous, which means people cannot marry a person from their own clan.

With regard to the Cherokee family, historian John Finger, in his book The Eastern Band of Cherokees 1819-1900, says:

“Most incomprehensible of all to non-Indians was the Cherokee family system.”

With regard to inheritance, the matrilineal system meant that children did not inherit from their fathers. Instead, men had a special relationship with their nephews – their sisters’ children – as these were members of their clan.

Folklorist George Lankford, in his book Native American Legends: Southeastern Legends: Tales from the Natchez, Caddo, Biloxi, Chickasaw, and Other Nations, writes:

“Another consequence of matrilineality, which both outraged and delighted Europeans, was that unmarried women were free to seek pleasure or children from anyone they chose.”

The Clans

The Cherokee had seven clans:

  • Blue: (A ni sa ho ni) Also known as the Panther or Wild Cat clan
  • Long Hair: (A ni gi lo hi) The Peace Chief was usually from this clan
  • Bird: (A ni tsi s kwa)
  • Paint: (A ni wo di) Many of the medicine people were from this clan
  • Deer: (A ni ka wi)
  • Wild Potato: (A ni ga to ge wi) Also known as the Bear, Racoon, or Blind Savannah clan
  • Wolf: (A ni wa yah) Many war chiefs came from this clan

Looking at the Cherokee clans from a legal perspective, law professor John Reid, in his book A Law of Blood: The Primitive Law of the Cherokee Nation, reports:

“Clanship was the most fundamental of all Cherokee legal rights. Membership was too exact to be legally challenged.”

Fathers had no official relationship to their children because their children belonged to a different clan. Fathers might love their children and provide them with some care, but still the children belonged to the mother’s clan. A father did not have the right to punish his children. In fact, if a father were to harm his children, the children’s clan (that is, the clan of their mother) could hold him responsible.

The traditional roles of uncles—more specifically, the mother’s brothers—was very important in Cherokee culture. Law professor John Reid writes:

“Avuncular responsibility was the keystone of Cherokee education. So too was avuncular authority.”

For a young boy, this meant that the most important men in his childhood were his uncles, not his father. In her book Seven Clans of the Cherokee Society, Marcelina Reed writes:

“The primary responsibility for discipline and instruction in hunting and warfare rested not with the child’s father but with his maternal uncle.”

Law professor John Reid puts it this way:

“The uterine uncle was, by necessity of law as well as social custom, the disciplinary and tutorial authority in the family.”

If there was no blood uncle, then another male from the mother’s clan would assume these duties (known as a classificatory uncle).

Marriage

Among the Cherokee, individuals were not allowed to marry members of their own clan or members of their father’s clan. They were, however, encouraged to marry members of their maternal grandfather’s clan or their paternal grandfather’s clan. In general, marriage was regulated by the women of the village.

Marriage was not seen as a binding contract and divorce was common. In his book The Qualla Cherokee: Surviving in Two Worlds, sociologist Laurence French writes:

“Monogamous marriages were of short duration among the early Cherokee with some sources suggesting that it was not unusual for individuals to change spouses as frequently as three or four times a year.”

In their book The Columbia Guide to American Indians of the Southeast, Theda Perdue and Michael Green report:

“When marriages dissolved, husbands simply left their wives and children, who were not blood relatives, and returned to the houses of their mothers and sisters.”

In examining the non-Indian notion that Cherokee girls could be required to marry someone, law professor John Reid writes:

“Cherokee marriage was not binding on either husband or wife, and to imagine that a girl could be compelled to wed ignores the fact that no relative—neither her mother, her uncles, nor her brothers—exercise compulsory authority over her.”

Cherokee men often married women from outside of their own village. The men were expected to live in their wives’ village (matrilocal residence).

Premarital chastity was unusual and there were no cultural prohibitions against fornication or adultery.

Among the Cherokee, a widow was encouraged to marry the brother of her deceased husband. Similarly, a widower was expected to marry the sister of his deceased wife.

The Cherokee wedding ceremony was brief and simple. According to Grace Steele Woodward, in her book The Cherokees:

“The ritual merely entailed the exchange of gifts, in lieu of vows, between a bride and her groom, and lasted but half an hour.”

Children and Birthing

With regard to Cherokee child birth, historian Theda Perdue, in her book Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835, reports:

“During delivery, a woman stood, knelt, or sat, but she never gave birth lying down. Usually no one bothered to catch the baby, who simply fell on leaves beneath the mother.”

It was a good omen if the child fell on its back and a bad omen if the child fell on its breast.

Among the Cherokee as well as the other tribes, deformed infants were simply abandoned in the woods. Infanticide was used as a means for controlling population growth. Among the Cherokee, however, only the mother had the right to abandon a child.

The Omaha Family

Anthropologists have long used the Omaha as the classic example of a family structure which is centered around a patrilineal clan. The Omaha clan is a named, extended lineage in which members observe common restrictions concerning food and have certain ritual obligations because of clan membership. Clans were exogamous, meaning that one could not marry someone from the same clan. There was also a prohibition from marrying within the mother’s clan. Membership in the clan is through the male line (patrilineal descent) which means that each individual, male or female, belongs to the father’s clan.

Among the Omaha, the ten clans were divided into two moieties: the Sky People and the Earth People. The Earth People were in charge of the physical welfare of the people, while the Sky People were the custodians of ceremonies relating to creation, the stars, and cosmic forces. While the Omaha clans were exogamous, the Omaha moieties, were not required to be exogamous. However, marriage outside of one’s own moiety was considered to be ideal.

During the buffalo hunt camps, the Sky People would camp in the northern half of the camp circle and the Earth People in the southern half. The Earth People included the Elk Clan (which controlled the sacred tent of war and war ceremonies), the Buffalo Clan (also called the Black Shoulder Clan), the Leader Clan (this clan traditionally provided the keepers for the tribe’s sacred objects), To the Left of the Leader Clan (this was a collection of sub-clans), and Kansa Clan. The Sky People included the Gray Wolf Clan (also known as the Earth Maker Clan), the Buffalo Tail Clan, the Deer Head Clan, the Red Newborn Buffalo Calf Dung Clan, and the Flashing Eyes Clan.

With regard to marriage among the Omaha, Bradley Ensor, in an article in Ethnology, reports:

“Marriage often involved individual choices sanctioned by the parents.”

There were times when a marriage was arranged by the girl’s parents. In an arranged marriage the groom was usually a mature, established man who paid a bride price.

In their entry on the Omaha in the Handbook of North American Indians, Margot Liberty, Raymond Wood, and Lee Irwin write:

“Most marriages took place through elopement, which was confirmed when the couple returned to the lodge of the husband’s father, where a feast was held and gifts were exchanged between the two families.”

Divorce was common and the children and the home remained with the wife.

When a young man married he lived with his wife’s family until the birth of their first child. Then he and his family would return to his father’s home where he would live.

A man was obliged to marry his brother’s widow. Ethnographers Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche, in their 1911 book The Omaha Tribe, report:

“Should he fail in this respect, he was liable to suffer in person or property, either by the act of the woman herself or by that of her near kin, in order to force him to recognize or make good her rights.”

The Omaha had a number of in-law avoidance practices. According to R.H. Barnes, in his book Two Crows Denies it: A History of Controversy in Omaha Sociology:

“A man would not speak to his wife’s parents or grandparents but had to converse with them by addressing his wife or child and requesting them to repeat the question or statement. A reply would be made through the same channel.”

The birth of a child was seen as more than an addition to the clan and tribe. Ethnographers Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche report that a child is

“a living being coming forth into the universe, whose advent must be ceremonially announced in order to assure it an accepted place among the already existing forms.”

Four days after birth, certain symbols would be placed on the child. Eight days after birth, a ceremony would be held to introduce the child to the world.

Public Lands and Denise Juneau

One of the differences between Native Americans and the Europeans who invaded this continent is the view of land ownership. Europeans viewed land as something that was supposed to be owned by individuals and developed by them for their personal gain. American Indians, particularly those living on the Northern Plains viewed land differently. Land was owned communally and its resources belonged to all of the people. When the people harvested the buffalo, for example, the meat was shared with the entire band, including those who had not taken part in the hunt.

In the United States today, the controversy of private land versus public or communal land continues. One the one side we have those who argue for private ownership of land or at least private management of public lands so that resources—oil, gas, mineral, timber—can be extracted for the benefit of the wealthy. On the other hand, there are people who feel that public lands should somehow benefit the public, not the privileged few.

Politically, Republicans tend to favor private ownership or private management of lands, while Democrats are concerned with keeping public lands public.

In Montana, Denise Juneau is running for Montana’s only seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Denise Juneau is an enrolled member of the Mandan Hidatsa tribes and a Blackfoot descendent. She graduated from Browning High School on the Blackfeet Reservation and obtained her bachelor’s degree in English from Montana State University. She continued her education and earned a master’s from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She was elected Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2008 and re-elected in 2012.

With regard to her position on public lands, this is what her website says:

https://denisejuneau.com/

Public lands offer a promise to every hardworking Montana family that they can access and enjoy the best our state has to offer. A promise that says these places are for all of us, not just for the wealthy or the privileged. That is a promise Denise Juneau will keep to the people of Montana. She will always fight to protect access to our public lands, and is 100 percent opposed to the transfer or sale of our land.

 

It’s long past time that we fully fund and permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The fund is why we have city parks in every corner of the state, baseball fields in Butte, Lake Elmo in Billings, Giant Springs in Great Falls, and Spring Meadow Lake State Park in Helena.

 

But, the House’s Interior Appropriations bill that Congressman Zinke just voted for cuts $128 million from an already shrinking LWCF. We must do better so that parks, fishing access sites, and trails are available for future generations.

 

It’s also time we tackle the growing maintenance backlog in our national parks and forests. Between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, 5 million visitors spend nearly $500 million enjoying our parks – we need to make sure the National Park Service and Forest Service have the resources they need to keep our outdoor spaces safe and open to the public.

Montana’s Republican Congressman Zinke generally offers platitudes about protecting public lands, but his actions in Congress show a different picture. Congressman Zinke supported a massive federal government budget that proposed selling off our public lands for profit, endangering Montanans’ access to places where they have hunted and fished for generations. He voted for a proposal that 115 conservation groups opposed because it could lead to the loss of clean water, wildlife habitat and recreational use of public lands.

Denise is facing a tough election. She is running as a Democrat is a Republican state. As an Indian, she faces an anti-Indian, racist sentiment among many of the state’s conservatives. To find out more about Denise Juneau, her policies, and how to help, check out her website.