What if 1,000 years ago, in a remote Cherokee village, a village sentinel had discovered a stranger passing through his village and after a confrontation, the visitor was killed? How would justice have been administered?
For the ancient Cherokee, justice meant restoring harmony and balance. Ahnawake Carroll, a Juris Doctorate candidate at the University of New Mexico School of Law, puts it this way, “... Cherokees lived by ‘a clearly established pattern and structure to their lives, sustained by age-old customs, rituals, beliefs, ceremonies, and symbols guiding the rightful and eternal order of things. These prescriptions for conduct embodied “spiritual significance in every respect’ and ‘there was no secular area of life free from spiritual meaning’ because all aspects of Cherokee life were ‘woven together into a unified pattern of religious rules and connections involving harmony with the world above, the world below, and the world around….”
The Cherokee would have had several options for determining restitution. If the visitor were seen as an intruder, restitution could have been determined by the “Ghigua”, or “Beloved Women”. The Beloved Women were chosen by each clan based on their bravery in battle or outstanding qualities, and it was the highest honor they could achieve. The Ghigua headed the Council of Women and sat on the Council of Chiefs. The Ghigua decided the fate of prisoners and might also be called upon to be her people's sage and spiritual guide.
Again from Ahnawake Carroll, “Cherokee law was not a law of individual responsibility but of clan relationships: a law which consisted largely of procedural rules defining who could act, when he could act, and what form his action should take.”
William G. McLoughlin, in “Cherokee Renascence in the New Republic 10-11 (1986), states, “as an extended family the clan had the duty to avenge or seek restitution for loss by death (whether by malice or accident) of any of its members. Under traditional Cherokee homicide law, basically, when one Cherokee killed another Cherokee, their respective clans would settle the matter internally through restitution. There was an exception to this stringent rule, however, that involved the ability of an ‘individual who had innocently or by accident taken the life of another…[to] flee to one of four ‘free cities,’ or ‘sacred cities of refuge,’ where the murderer would be safe. A priest might offer the same protection on sacred ground in any town.’ It must be kept in mind, however, “[t]he purpose of clan retaliation was not punitive but rather to equalize the balance of things and to overcome the disorder brought by premature death.”
|Sculptor Troy Jackson|
If there were a question regarding the story of the killer, the “Ukus”, high priests, could be called in to determine the truth. Typically, the Ukus would consult their beads. They would hold a white bead in the tips of the fingers of their right hand and a red or black bead in the tips of the fingers of their left hand. Holding the beads up and grasping them as gently as possible, they would begin a chant designed to consult with the spirits who could see all things and tell them the truth. If the Uku felt movement in the white bead, then the killer had told the truth. If, however, he felt movement in the other bead, the killer was lying.
If restitution called for the death of the killer, often the family of the killer was responsible for carrying it out, typically by binding the hands and feet and pushing him off a high cliff.
To read Ahnawake Carroll’s complete article: