Thursday, May 31, 2012

How The Earth Was Made

from Myths of the Cherokee and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees by James Mooney

The earth is a great island floating in a sea of water, and suspended at each of the four cardinal points by a cord hanging down from the sky vault, which is of solid rock. When the world grows old and worn out, the people will die and the cords will break and let the earth sink down into the ocean, and all will be water again. The Indians are afraid of this.

When all was water, the animals were above in Gälûñ'lätï, beyond the arch; but it was very much crowded, and they were wanting more room. They wondered what was below the water, and at last Dâyuni'sï, "Beaver's Grandchild," the little Water-beetle, offered to go and see if it could learn. It darted in every direction over the surface of the water, but could find no firm place to rest. Then it dived to the bottom and came up with some soft mud, which began to grow and spread on every side until it became the island which we call the earth. It was afterward fastened to the sky with four cords, but no one remembers who did this.

At first the earth was flat and very soft and wet. The animals were anxious to get down, and sent out different birds to see if it was yet dry, but they found no place to alight and came back again to Gälûñ'lätï. At last it seemed to be time, and they sent out the Buzzard and told him to go and make ready for them. This was the Great Buzzard, the father of all the buzzards we see now. He flew all over the earth, low down near the ground, and it was still soft. When he reached the Cherokee country, he was very tired, and his wings began to flap and strike the ground, and wherever they struck the earth there was a valley, and where they turned up again there was a mountain. When the animals above saw this, they were afraid that the whole world would be mountains, so they called him back, but the Cherokee country remains full of mountains to this day.

When the earth was dry and the animals came down, it was still dark, so they got the sun and set it in a track to go every day across the island from east to west, just overhead. It was too hot this way, and Tsiska'gïlï', the Red Crawfish, had his shell scorched a bright red, so that his meat was spoiled; and the Cherokee do not eat it. The conjurers put the sun another hand-breadth higher in the air, but it was still too hot. They raised it another time, and another, until it was seven handbreadths high and just under the sky arch. Then it was right, and they left it so. This is why the conjurers call the highest place Gûlkwâ'gine Di'gälûñ'lätiyûñ', "the seventh height," because it is seven hand-breadths above the earth. Every day the sun goes along under this arch, and returns at night on the upper side to the starting place.

There is another world under this, and it is like ours in everything--animals, plants, and people--save that the seasons are different. The streams that come down from the mountains are the trails by which we reach this underworld, and the springs at their heads are the doorways by which we enter, it, but to do this one must fast and, go to water and have one of the underground people for a guide. We know that the seasons in the underworld are different from ours, because the water in the springs is always warmer in winter and cooler in summer than the outer air.

When the animals and plants were first made--we do not know by whom--they were told to watch and keep awake for seven nights, just as young men now fast and keep awake when they pray to their medicine. They tried to do this, and nearly all were awake through the first night, but the next night several dropped off to sleep, and the third night others were asleep, and then others, until, on the seventh night, of all the animals only the owl, the panther, and one or two more were still awake. To these were given the power to see and to go about in the dark, and to make prey of the birds and animals which must sleep at night. Of the trees only the cedar, the pine, the spruce, the holly, and the laurel were awake to the end, and to them it was given to be always green and to be greatest for medicine, but to the others it was said: "Because you have not endured to the end you shall lose your, hair every winter."

Men came after the animals and plants. At first there were only a brother and sister until he struck her with a fish and told her to multiply, and so it was. In seven days a child was born to her, and thereafter every seven days another, and they increased very fast until there was danger that the world could not keep them. Then it was made that a woman should have only one child in a year, and it has been so ever since.

Monday, May 28, 2012

A Memorial Day Tribute to the Cherokee

Memorial Day means different things to different people.  For some it is a time to remember loved ones who have passed away or veterans who lost their lives defending our freedoms.  It was first enacted to honor those who served in the Civil War and later expanded to veterans of all wars.

For the Cherokee, the highest honor for their brave warriors was to be buried beneath their Council House in a large mound or in the floors of their houses.  They wished to have them close for spiritual reasons plus, in many cases, it was dangerous to venture far from the protection of the villages and desecration by enemies was a real concern.

Bodies were usually placed in their pits with their heads facing to the west.  Adults were often buried with shells, shell bowls, turtle-shell rattles and perforated animal bones. Shell gorgets, shell beads and Marginella shells were often found with babies.

Seven days of mourning were observed and during this time, everyone was to be pleasant and avoid feasting or over-eating.  Death contaminated the house so all food and furniture was disposed of.  The surivivors were unclean so a priest was invited to cleanse the survivors and their house.  The belongings of the deceased  were either buried with him or burned.  The priest would also cleanse the hearth and start a new fire with embers from the sacred fire that always burned beneath the Council House and smoke his special tobacco to purify the house.

Once the house was cleansed, the priest took the family “to water” where he prayed for them while they immersed themselves in the river for each of the seven directions - east, west, north, south, up, down, and center.  They then put on new clothes.  Afterwards, they were given special tobacco to “enlighten their eyes” and sanctified necklaces to “comfort their hearts”.  That night the family gathered in the Council House to receive well-wishers followed by a dance.

After the fifth day, the priest would kill a bird and cut a slice of meat from its right side.  It was tossed into the fire and if juices popped toward the family, it was a bad omen that sons of the family might die soon.  If it did not pop, it was a good omen. 

On the seventh day, the family prepared a meal for the village at the Council House.

Widows remained unbathed and let their hair go until her friends believed she had mourned enough.  Then they would go to her, bringing her new clothes, bathe her and fix her hair.

Whatever ritual we observe to honor our loved ones when they pass, Memorial Day gives us an opportunity to remember them.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

How the Cherokee Explained the Annular Solar Eclipse

Observing the sky was critical to the Cherokee to determine when the plant, when to celebrate sacred rituals, it was their calender.  Here is an account given to James Mooney in the early 1800's describing the Sun and Moon and even the solar eclipse!

"The Sun was a young woman and lived in the East, while her brother, the Moon, lived in the West. The girl had a lover who used to come every month in the dark of the moon to court her. He would come at night, and leave before daylight, and although she talked with him she could not see his face in the dark, and he would not tell her his name, until she was wondering all the time who it could be. At last she hit upon a plan to find out, so the next time he came, as they were sitting together in the dark of the âsi, she slyly dipped her hand into the cinders and ashes of the fireplace and rubbed it over his face, saying, "Your face is cold; you must have suffered from the wind," and pretending to be very sorry for him, but he did not know that she had ashes on her hand. After a while he left her and went away again.

The next night when the Moon came up in the sky his face was covered with spots, and then his sister knew he was the one who had been coming to see her. He was so much ashamed to have her know it that he kept as far away as he could at the other end of the sky all the night. Ever since he tries to keep a long way behind the Sun, and when he does sometimes have to come near her in the west he makes himself as thin as a ribbon so that he can hardly be seen.

Some old people say that the moon is a ball which was thrown up against the sky in a game a long time ago. They say that two towns were playing against each other, but one of them had the best runners and had almost won the game, when the leader of the other side picked up the ball with his hand--a thing that is not allowed in the game--and tried to throw it to the goal, but it struck against the solid sky vault and was fastened there, to remind players never to cheat. When the moon looks small and pale it is because some one has handled the ball unfairly, and for this reason they formerly played only at the time of a full moon.

When the sun or moon is eclipsed it is because a great frog up in the sky is trying to swallow it. Everybody knows this, even the Creeks and the other tribes, and in the olden times, eighty or a hundred years ago, before the great medicine men were all dead, whenever they saw the sun grow dark the people would come together and fire guns and beat the drum, and in a little while this would frighten off the great frog and the sun would be all right again.

The common people call both Sun and Moon Nûñdä, one being "Nûñdä that dwells in the day" and the other "Nûñdä that dwells in the night," but the priests call the Sun Su'tälidihï', "Six-killer," and the Moon Ge'`yägu'ga, though nobody knows now what this word means, or why they use these names. Sometimes people ask the Moon not to let it rain or snow.

The great Thunder and his sons, the two Thunder boys, live far in the west above the sky vault. The lightning and the rainbow are their beautiful dress. The priests pray to the Thunder and call him the Red Man, because that is the brightest color of his dress. There are other Thunders that live lower down, in the cliffs and mountains, and under waterfalls, and travel on invisible bridges from one high peak to another where they have their town houses. The great Thunders above the sky are kind and helpful when we pray to them, but these others are always plotting mischief. One must not point at the rainbow, or one's finger will swell at the lower joint."

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mound Builders

The Mound Builders

The southeast of the country is dotted with hundreds of mounds and theories abound on what they are and who built them.  Following is an explanation given to James Mooney by the Cherokee Medicine Man, Swimmer, 1887-1890:

Cherokee Mounds
Some say that the mounds were built by another people. Others say they were built by the ancestors of the old Ani Kitu’hwagi for townhouse foundations. The townhouse was always built on the level bottom lands by the river in order that the people might have smooth ground for their dances and ballplays and might be able to go down to water during the dance.
When they were ready to build the mound they began by laying a circle of stones on the surface of the ground. Next they made a fire in the center of the circle and put near it the body of some prominent chie or priest who had lately died - some say seven chief men from the different clans - together with an Ulunsu’ti stone, an uktena scale or horn, a feather from the right wing of an eagle or great Tla nu wa which lived in those days, and heads of seven colors, red, white, black, blue, purple, yellow, and gray-blue. The priest then conjured all these with disease, so that, if ever an enemy invaded the country, even though he should burn and destroy the town and the townhouse, he would never live to return home.

Sacred Fire
The mound was then built up with earth, which the women brought in baskets, and as they piled it above the stones, the bodies of their great men, and the sacred things, they left an open place at the fire in the center and let down a hollow cedar trunk, with the bark on, which fitted around the fire and protected it from the earth. This cedar log was cut long enough to reach nearly to the surface inside the townhouse when everything was done. The earth was piled up around it, and the whole mound was finished off smoothly, and then the townhouse was built upon it. One man, called the Firekeeper, stayed always in the townhouse to feed and tend the fire. When there was to be a dance or a council, he pushed long stalks of atsil sun ti (fleabane), "the fire maker" down through the opening in the cedar log to the fire at the bottom. He left the ends of the stalks sticking out and piled lichens and punk around, after which he prayed, and as he prayed, the fire climbed up along the talks until it caught the punk. Then he put on wood, and by the time the dancers were ready there was a large fire blazing in the townhouse. After the dance he covered the hole over again with ashes, but the fire was always smoldering below. Just before the Green corn dance, in the old times, every fire in the settlement was extinguished and all the people came and got new fire from the townhouse. This was called atsi’la galunkw it’yu "the honored or sacred fire." Sometimes when the fire in a house went out, the woman came to the Firekeeper, who made a new fire by rubbing an ihya’ga stalk against the under side of a hard dry fungus that grows along locust trees.
Some sat this everlasting fire was only in the larger mounds at Nikwasi, Kitu’hwa, and a few other towns, and that when the new fire was thus drawn up for the Green Corn dance it was distributed from them to the other settlements. The fire burns yet at the bottom of these great mounds, and when the Cherokee soldiers were camped near Kitu’hwa during the Civil War, they saw smoke still raising from the mound.

Sacred Things
The Cherokee once had a wooden box, nearly square and wrapped up in buckskin, in which they kept the most sacred things of their old religion. Upon every important expedition, two priests carried it in turn and watched over it in camp so that nothing could come near to disturb it. The Delawares captured it more than a hundred years ago, and after that the old religion was neglected and trouble came to the Nation. They had also a great peace pipe, carved from white stone, with seven stem-holes, so that seven men could sit around and smoke from it at once at their peace councils. In the old town of Keowee they had a drum of stone, cut in the shape of a turtle, which was hung up upside the townhouse and used at all the town dances. The other towns of the Lower Cherokee used to borrow it too, for their own dances.

All the old things are gone now and the Indians are different.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Becoming a Cherokee Medicine Man

a Cherokee Medicine Man
circa 1880
Think you might want to be a Cherokee medicine man?  Are you ready to commit 15 to 20 years studying the 7 disciplines required?  Cherokee medicine, nvwoti (noo wat ee),  is a practice that has developed over the last 3,000 to 4,000 years  and can’t be mastered overnight!  A Cherokee medicine man, Didanawisgi, typically started studying very young as an apprentice with the dream of one day becoming the high master or  Uku!

Following is a list of the seven disciplines as described by Cherokee Medicine and Ethnobotany - ©David Winston, AHG, 2001:

1. Herbal Medicine - an in-depth knowledge of 400-600 plants, their medicinal and ceremonial uses as well as the plants "personality".
2. Physical Medicine - including the unique Cherokee massage (hiskoliya) using persimmon wood stampers, moxabustion, minor surgery, & midwifery.
3. Dreamwork - not only how to interpret dreams, but how to use them for personal growth, healing, and to gain knowledge.
4. Language/Myths/Laws - Cherokee is a language of amazing subtlety and power. The tsila learns not only the subtleties of every day spoken Cherokee, but a separate "medicine" language. Stories, myths, and laws give meaning to the world and help us to understand our place in the Great Life.
5. Ceremonies - the Cherokee traditionally had 7 major ceremonies, 6 of which marked the important yearly cycles, such as the first new moon of Spring, green corn harvest, mature corn harvest, falling leaves festival, and the beginning of winter/exulting ceremony. Many of these ceremonies are still done today and are as meaningful now, if not more so, than in times past. Ceremonial practice also
includes various types of personal, family, community, and national ceremonies that help maintain balance within the individual, the family, the community, and the nation.
6. The laws of nature - keen observers, the Cherokee have for thousands of years paid attention to the world around them. This collected body of knowledge is extensive and it explains why things act as they do and the cause and effect of their interrelationship - why animals behave certain ways, how the sun and moon interrelate, how men and women interact, the nature of water, the fire, the
earth (ela), and so on.
7. Conjuring - although there is no really good word in English to describe this, various words - conjuring, magic, manipulation, partially explain this practice. This is the ability to enlist the aid of spirits and elemental powers to change things, to heal or doctor, to "change one's mind", to bring luck and to protect the sick or weak from negative influences.

The Cherokee credit two sources for much of their knowledge of medicine .First from the plants (refer to  my  April blog, “A Better Healthcare Plan”).  The second from the ancient cannibalistic monster/wizard known as Stone-clad (nvyunuwi).  He was almost impossible to kill because of his incredible wisdom and because he wore  complete body armor made of stone.  But he met his end when he approached a village and the villagers went to their most knowledgeable wizard and asked for his help.  He summoned seven women, from the seven clans who were in their period, and placed them in the path of the advancing Stone-Clad.  James Mooney, in his "Myths of the Cherokee" describes what happened next,

"with each one that he saw his step grew weaker until
when he came to the last one, with whom the sickness had just begun,
the blood poured from his mouth and he fell down on the trail.

Then the medicine-man drove seven sourwood stakes through his
body and pinned him to the ground, and when night came they piled
great logs over him and set fire to them, and all the people gathered
around to see. Nuii'yunu'wi (Stone-Clad) was a great ada'wehi and knew many
secrets, and now as the fire came close to him he began to talk, and
told them the medicine for all kinds of sickness. At midnight he
began to sing, and sang the hunting songs for calling up the bear and
the deer and all the animals of the woods and mountains. As the
blaze grew hotter his voice sank low and lower, until at last when
daylight came, the logs were a heap of white ashes and the voice
was still."

So, the conjures and songs of Stone-clad and the medicinal plants formed the foundation for the last and first disciplines.  The rest were developed over time and taught orally to each generation.  Ready to enroll?