Before the Europeans brought their chauvinistic attitudes to America, Cherokee women enjoyed an unbiased equality in their culture. It was not uncommon for a woman to be peace chief of their village or nation. Women were war chiefs, high priests, and doctors. Women were just as likely to be a witch or a wizard as a man was. Even the most feared killer witch, the Raven Mocker, could be a woman!
And in some arenas, women clearly held a superior role! The Cherokee were a matriarchal society. The children were born to the woman’s clan, not the man’s. It was the woman’s family who taught the children their role in society. If a woman of the Ani Kawi, “Deer Clan”, married a man from the Ani Waya, “Wolf Clan”, the children would be raised to be hunters, not warriors.
In times of war, the fates of prisoners were determined by the Ghigau (Ghee gah oo), “Beloved Women”! A prominent woman from each clan would meet, dance, smoke sacred tobacco, and judge prisoners or criminals and set their punishment.
|Nanyehi drawn by Caitlan|
The European culture viewed the role of women in Cherokee government with disdain! In the early 1700’s, the trader Adair coined the phrase “petticoat government” to describe the prominence of the women’s role. By this time in history, Beloved Women were becoming rare. But, in 1738, in the Cherokee town of Chota, a most remarkable woman was born. Her name was Nanyehi (“one who goes about”). At age 14, Nanyehi married a Cherokee named Kingfisher. They fought side-by-side at the Battle of Taliwa against the Kusa (Creek) Tribe in 1755. When Kingfisher was killed, Nanyehi picked up his rifle and led the Cherokee to victory. For her bravery, she was given the title of Gighau (Beloved Woman). In 1781, when the Cherokee met an American delegation to discuss white settlements on the Little Pigeon River, Nanyehi was surprised to find no women in the American delegation and confronted the leader, John Sevier. Sevier countered that he was equally appalled to find a woman involved in such important work! Nanyehi’s moving response was, “"You know that women are always looked upon as nothing; but we are your mothers; you are our sons. Our cry is all for peace; let it continue. This peace must last forever. Let your women's sons be ours; our sons be yours. Let your women hear our words."