Thursday, November 21, 2013

Cherokee Misconceptions, Part 2: Transportation

When you picture the ancient Native American, is he on horseback galloping across the prairie or paddling gracefully down the river in a birch bark canoe?  If so, you are not picturing the ancient Cherokee.

So, looking at the picture, what would you guess was the Cherokee’s favorite modes of transportation?

Well, I have already hinted that they may not have ridden horses.  So did they ride mules or burros?  Maybe they just used horses for hauling their things on sleds.  The fact is, horses were brought to America by the Europeans.  Before contact with Europeans, the ancient Cherokee walked everywhere except on water, of course.

This was true of all Native Americans, however, maybe in large part due to Hollywood, most of us imagine Native Americans as great horsemen.   When the Conquistadors travelled through what is now the United States, they left a trail of horses.  Many of the Plains Indians captured these wild horses and found them to be a great advantage in warfare with other tribes.  Then, after Spanish and Mexican settlers moved into the areas around Santa Fe and Albuquerque, the Native American tribes began to trade with them and the horse and rifle were prized trading items.

Meanwhile, the Cherokee were living a different lifestyle.  They were farming and hunting and living in settled villages.  When colonists arrived, the Cherokee saw them not as rivals but as equals and adopted many of the new ways of the colonists.  They used horses, mules, and burros for farming and hauling, just as the colonists did. 

The Cherokee did glide up and down the many rivers in a canoe before the European invasion.  But it may be a surprise to most that their canoes were hollowed out logs and not the more well-known birch-bark-style canoes.   Great logs were skinned of the bark and then the ends formed or “streamlined” for smooth passage through the water.  The centers were burned and then chiseled and hacked  until hollowed out.  Their canoes were sturdy and well-suited for stream travel

I once read an interesting take on the word “canoe”.  In 1882, Ignatius Donnelly,  a U. S. Congressman, wrote the book “Atlantis, The Antediluvian World” which has become the “cornerstone on which all modern study of the ‘Lost Continent’ depends.”  In his book, he cited countless examples of similarities between the new and old worlds—presumably the result of contact with the Atlantean culture.

He wrote, “If, then, we prove that, on both sides of the Atlantic, civilizations were found substantially identical, we have demonstrated that they must have descended one from the other, or have radiated from some common source.”

A critic of Donnelly’s book took him to task on a number of his comparisons including “canoe”.  He stated that Donnelly had claimed the canoe was remarkably similar to the Asian word for a similar boat proving that the word had a common origin.   The critic scoffed that when early explorers saw the American Indian boat, it reminded them of the Asian boat and so they called it “canoe” suggesting that Donnelly was guilty of a circular fallacy.

Ready for this?  What Donnelly actually said was , “The bark canoe of America was not unknown in Asia and Africa, while the skin canoes of our Indians and the Eskimos were found on the shores of the Thames and the Euphrates.”  Donnelly compared the boat, not the word.  And, ironically, the word canoa was first mentioned in a letter from Columbus who got the word from the Arawakan Indians he encountered in the Caribbean.  Their word was kana:wa canoe or, possibly, kenu.  And, in my research, I can find no Asian word similar to canoe for that type of boat! 

So, canoe probably did originate from a Native American term—another misconception busted?
Author of the "Cherokee Chronicles"
is currently available at a book store
near you or at Barnes and Noble


  1. Thank you for the very interesting information on the history of the Cherokee. Being part Cherokee I enjoy the information, as I do not know a lot of our history. Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge with us. Waiting for more. I will look for your new book. charlie

  2. Wado (Thx!), Charlie, for the kind words. My book is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble (online). Thanks for your interest.