Thursday, May 9, 2013

Cherokee Misconceptions

Plains Indians by Caitlan
I am currently writing a seven book series titled "The Cherokee Chronicles".  The Cherokee Chronicles was born out of the research I have done over the years on Native American cultures.  I discovered that what I thought I knew about Native Americans was based on the Hollywood fixation on the Plains Indians and the stereotypical ‘noble savage’.   In an introduction to the book “Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, Victor Wolfgang von Hagen wrote, “The acceptance of an indigenous ‘civilization’ demanded of an American living in 1836 a complete reorientation; to him an ‘Indian’ was one of those barbaric, half-naked tipi dwellers, a rude sub-human people who hunted with animal stealth.”

The Cherokee were nothing like the savage, nomadic, hunter-gatherers portrayed in movies and TV.  The Cherokee never lived in tipis; they have never worn feathered headdresses (except maybe to please tourists); they didn’t ride horses until the Europeans brought them over; there were no Cherokee princesses; they didn’t follow the buffalo around; the “squaw” didn’t humbly follow ten paces behind her husband; they didn’t worship a panoply of gods; they weren’t, by any definition of the word, savages.

Cherokee Chief in London 1762

When describing the “Ascent of Man”, author and philosopher Jacob Bronowski observed, “The largest step in the ascent of man is the change from nomad to village agriculture.”  Long before the Europeans came to America, the Cherokee had made that giant leap and were an agriculturally-based culture that built permanent, framed, mud stucco houses in well-organized villages secured by palisaded walls.  They had sophisticated social structures and highly developed government.   Each village was governed by a peace chief and a war chief.  During peace times, a white flag flew over the majestic, seven-sided council house and the peace chief ruled.  In times of war, a red flag flew over the council house and the war chief ruled.  Villagers were organized by families or clans.  Each clan had its purpose and responsibilities within the tribe and its members were governed and lived by the rules of each clan.   Each of the seven clans preserved and taught one of the seven tenants that enabled the pure to ascend through the seven levels of personal development.
Reconstruction of Cherokee house
The Cherokee were a matriarchal society.  The children were born into the clan of their mother and were raised by the tenants of her clan.  The women owned the houses and fields.  The highest ranking women were known as the “Beloved Women” and were responsible for divining justice.  Women could marry and divorce as they pleased.  When a man proposed, he brought a deer to her doorstep.  She would confide in her grandmother for advice.  If she decided to accept marriage, she simply brought in the deer and prepared an acceptance feast.  A divorce was simple.  The woman simply placed her husband’s belongings outside the house on the doorstep.   When he came home, he got the message.

If a clan member committed a crime, it was up to his clan to administer justice.  The punishment for murder might require his family to bind his hands and feet and push him off a cliff to his death on the rocks below. 

There were no Kings (and consequently no Princesses).  The Cherokee Government at both the local level and at the national level was bicameral – a “white” organization that governed over the peace and “red” organization that governed over war.  The person of highest authority in the white branch was the High Priest, known as the “Uku”.   Below him were assistants and priests from each clan and they were responsible for administering civil law, invoking blessings and prayers for religious well-being, removing the uncleanness from polluted persons to restore them to physical well-being, and they planned and supervised the important ceremonies and celebrations throughout the year.

The red branch of government consisted of a complimentary set of officials whose responsibilities were exclusively related to war.  Author Thomas E. Mails explained, “If either of the two organizations was in any way subordinate to the other, it was the red group, since the Great High Priest could make or unmake the war chiefs.  In addition, the red officials were at frequent intervals elected by popular vote, while the white officials were either to some extent hereditary or subject to appointment by the Great High Priest. … In most instances, red officials acquired their rank as the result of bravery in battle …”

Mails goes on to say, “An assemblage of Beloved Women … was present at every war council.  These served as counselors to the male leaders, and also regulated the treatment dealt to prisoners of war.”

The Cherokee maintained a well-organized military.  The Wolf Clan was primarily responsible for providing warriors, therefore, children of the wolf clan were trained in warfare from the time they could walk.  Many games were created to help develop children’s skills.  And some games became as prominent and important to the village and the nation as football, baseball, or soccer is to us today.   It is said that sometimes war between tribes was avoided by settling the dispute through an Anetsa (Ball Play game similar to La Crosse).

The Cherokee definitely don’t fit the stereotypes we attribute to Native Americans. They deserve to be remembered as a civilized society.

[Right: reconstructed Cherokee seven-sided Townhouse behind dance field -- Cherokee Visitor Center, Tahlequah, OK.]

-- Courtney Miller


  1. being Tsalagi (Cherokee) myself this is true. The Tsalagi and many other of the eastern tribes are descended from the "Hopewell" people a large very organized well governed people who we are really just starting to learn more about since many people in the early white history of the U.S. tried their best to keep this civilization a secret. Because they wanted the native to be known as ignorant savages so it would be easier to take their lands from them and place them on reservation or total destroy them all together. Thus we have the Trail of Tears. There are many things the Europeans stole from the natives of this country then committed acts of genocide to take everything from them.

  2. Thank you for your comment. It's hard to understand how the "noble savage" concept could be accepted in the 1800's with so much evidence to the contrary. The Cherokee were "civilized" at the time of colonization by any standard not to mention their ability to constantly adapt to the European standards -- developing writing and a constitution.