Thursday, December 26, 2013

Cherokee Misconceptions, Part 7: The Cherokee Princess

Have you been told or have you heard from someone that they are the descendant of a Cherokee princess?  Did you know that there were no Cherokee or Indian princesses?  The simple reason is that there were no Cherokee kings or Cherokee royalty.

A number of years ago I made the trip to Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the capital of the Cherokee Nation to research my family.  All I knew at that time was that my great, great grandmother had said she was full-blood Cherokee and her brother had petitioned under the Dawes Act to get the family recognized but had been rejected.  I wanted to know why the family had been rejected and to learn the truth.

I went to the Heritage Center and asked to speak with the resident genealogist.  A young man came out, took one look at me and began lecturing me on the fallacy of Cherokee princesses.  I didn’t say anything to prompt the lecture.  In fact, I had never heard of a Cherokee princess and knew enough about the Cherokee culture to know that there were no kings, queens, or princesses.  That concept comes from Europe.

But, apparently, he had run into this enough that it was a real sore spot with him.  Then I noticed later that he gave a speech on the subject at a conference.  So, perhaps he was practicing on me, I don’t know.

I still have never heard anyone claim that their ancestor was a Cherokee princess, but I do see it mentioned often in the literature and on blogs.  It is quite clear that anyone who makes this statement in the Native American community is going to get laughed out of town.

Here’s the truth.  Cherokee villages selected their leadership often by election.  Usually selection was based upon the merits of the person—something they had done to earn the respect of the community.  Positions of leadership included a Peace Chief, a War Chief, the Uku, clan elders, clan priests, and Beloved Women.   If, in your research, you discover that your ancestor held one of these positions, that IS something you can be proud of and mention with pride.
Little Miss Cherokee

So, where does this “princess” idea come from?  There are many theories.  Kimberly Powell, in her article “The Cherokee Princess Myth”, wrote: “During the 20th century it was common for Cherokee men to use an endearing term to refer to their wives that roughly translated as “princess”.  Many people believe this is how the princess and Cherokee were joined in the popular ancestry myth.”

Quoting from the Cherokee Heritage Documentation Center website, “Many people have the impression that the Cherokee historically had princesses.? In fact, there has never been a title of princess in the Cherokee culture. By definition of the word, there is the possibility that a Chief’s daughter may have been thought of as a princess by other visiting cultures, much like a King’s daughter would have been called.”

Christina Berry, in her internet article for “All Things Cherokee” wrote, “Another possibility is that families living in an intolerant white American culture wanted to emphasize the "civilized" side of their Indian heritage, using the term as a way to Anglicize their Indian heritage. Another possibility is that "princess" was used as a term of endearment for a beloved grandmother, but used out of context generations later.”

I think that the Pocahontas myth probably has been influential in promoting the “Indian Princess” myth.   In 1806, J. N. Baker produced the play "The Indian Princess or La Belle Sauvage" based on the Pocahontus legend from John Smith. 
And in 1841, William Watson Waldron of Trinity College in Ireland published “Pocahontas, American Princess: and Other Poems,” calling Pocahontas "the beloved and only surviving daughter of the king." 

And, then there is Princess Winona, who is the central Native American character in a “Lover’s Leap” romantic legend set at Maiden rock, Wisconsin Winona leaps to her death from Maiden Rock rather than marry a suitor she does not love.

Also adding legitimacy to the myth is Lake Trahlyta perportedly  named for Princess Trahlyta of the Eastern Band of Cherokees.

So, there are many possibilities why some people today may believe they have descended from a Cherokee Princess, unfortunately, however, they have just been misled somehow.
-- Courtney Miller
Author of "The First Raven Mocker"
Book One of the Cherokee Chronicles

Available at bookstores, Barnes & Noble, and

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Cherokee Misconceptions, Part 6: Cherokee Freedmen

It will surprise many to know that slavery has always been a part of the Cherokee culture.  Long before Europeans came over, anyone captured in war was enslaved at least temporarily.  Sometimes the Blessed Women would have them sent home or released.  Sometimes the slaves were adopted into the tribe.  But for many, they were tied up outside the house with the dogs and forced to perform menial work for the family.
Rounding up runaway Cherokee slaves

After the colonies were established, these slaves were sometimes traded for food and goods.  Then the English began capturing Native Americans for the English plantations in the Caribbean.  Between 1670 and 1715 it is estimated that between 24,000 and 51,000 were sold in the British Slave markets.

At this point, Cherokee also purchased slaves including African slaves.   From the 1700’s through the mid 1800’s the Cherokee and the other “Civilized Tribes” purchased African slaves to help on their plantations.  By 1835, 7% of Cherokee families owned slaves.  When the Cherokee and the other Civilized Tribes were forced to relocate to Oklahoma, slaves accompanied their Native American owners on the Trail of Tears.
Cherokee Confederate Reunion 1903

In the American Civil War, the Five Civilized Tribes aligned with the Confederacy.  But, after his capture and parole, the Cherokee Chief John Ross sided with the Union and rejected the Confederate Treaty.  This led to a split amongst the Cherokee and two governments were formed.  The pro-Union government passed two emancipation acts in February, 1863 that established all slaves as “Freedmen.”

After the Civil War, the two factions continued and each tried to negotiate with the United States.   The Pro-Union faction was ultimately selected to represent all of the Cherokee and signed a reconstruction treaty that granted Cherokee citizenship to the Freedmen and their descendants.  The other Civilized tribes also signed treaties and only the Choctaw refused to include Freedmen as citizens of their tribe.

The Cherokee constitution was revised later that year to give Freedmen the option to return to Oklahoma and become Cherokee citizens or to leave and become United States citizens.   Differences of opinion continued to complicate the role of the Freedmen for the years following, including whether the Freedmen shared in Cherokee assets and property rights.

In 1887, the U. S. Congress passed the “Dawes Act” to promote the “assimilation of Native Americans by extinguishing tribal government.”  As a part of the act, the “Dawes Commission” required registration of the American Indians of each tribe in the Indian Territory under the categories: Indians by blood, intermarried whites, and Freedmen.  Even though some Freedmen had Cherokee parents or Cherokee blood, the commissioners usually listed them on the Freedman’s role.

In 1970, the former Five Civilized Tribes’ right to vote for tribal leaders was restored by Congress in the “Principal Chiefs Act.”  Freedmen participated in the election.   A new constitution was drafted in 1975 and it defined citizens as those proven by reference to the final Dawes Commission rolls. 

In 1983, Principal Chief Ross O. Swimmer issued an executive order stating that Cherokee citizens must have a “Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood” in order to vote.  The CDIB cards were issued based upon the Dawes Roles for “Indians by blood” category only.  This blocked Freedmen from voting.

On March 7, 2006, the Cherokee Nation Judicial Appeals Tribunal ruled in favor of Lucy Allen, a Freedmen descendant, that acts barring Freedmen descendants from tribal membership were unconstitutional giving back citizenship to Freedmen descendants.
Chad "Corntassel" Smith

But later that year, Principal Chief Chad “Corntassel” Smith called for a constitutional convention to amend the constitution to deny citizenship to the Cherokee Freedmen descendants.  The Tribal Council voted 13-2 in favor of the amendment and it went before the citizens for ratification.  In spite of appeals by the Freedmen descendants, the amendment passed once again denying citizenship to Freedmen descendants.  In 2011, after numerous court battles, Cherokee District Court ruled the 2007 amendment void by law because it conflicted with the Treaty of 1866 that guaranteed Freedmen rights as citizens, but this ruling was reversed by the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court.

And on it goes.   As of today, the Freedmen descendants are not recognized as citizens of the Cherokee Nation.  There are, of course, continuing lawsuits pending.
-- Courtney Miller

Author of "The First Raven Mocker"
Book One of the Cherokee Chronicles

Available at bookstores, Barnes & Noble, and

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Cherokee Misconceptions, Part 5: Noble Savage

The 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.”

Benjamin Franklin deplored the use of the term "savages" for Native Americans: “Savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours, which we think the perfection of civility; they think the same of theirs”.

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens had quite another opinion, “To come to the point at once, I beg to say that I have not the least belief in the Noble Savage.  I consider him a prodigious nuisance and an enormous superstition. ... I don't care what he calls me. I call him a savage, and I call a savage a something highly desirable to be civilized off the face of the earth....”

“The term noble savage (French, bon sauvage) is a literary stock character that expresses the concept of an idealized indigene, outsider, or "other" who has not been "corrupted" by civilization, and therefore symbolizes humanity's innate goodness.  It first appeared in a 17th century play by John Dryden." [wikipedia]

This “noble or good savage” idea has hung around and was adopted by Hollywood as the stereotypical American Indian. 

So, what is a “savage?”  Well, Mr. Webster (Merriam Webster Dictionary) has a couple of definitions that relate to culture: 1 lacking the restraints normal to civilized human beings, and 2 lacking complex or advanced culture, uncivilized.
Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man

Ok, well, in the first definition, a lot depends upon what  “normal” is.  Certainly, to the Europeans, the American Indian was far from normal.  In the second definition, the key word is “uncivilized”.  So, what does it take to be classified as civilized?  For that, I will turn to Jacob Bronowski.

Jacob Bronowski was a Polish-Jewish British mathematician, biologist, historian of science, author, poet, and inventor.  He was definitely a brilliant man, but I know him for his fantastic book and BBC TV documentary “The Ascent of Man” which aired in 1973.  There are so many wonderful quotes from his books but I will try to limit myself to a few.  For instance he pointed out that, “Every animal leaves traces of what it was; man alone leaves traces of what he created.”

So what did this wise man have to say about civilization?  “It took at least two million years for man to change from the little dark creature with the stone in his hand, Australopithicus in Central Africa, to the modern form, Homo Sapiens.  … But it has taken much less than twenty thousand years for Homo sapiens to become the creatures that you and I aspire to be … .  That is the pace of cultural evolution … .  Twenty thousand years ago man in all parts of the world that he had reached was a forager and a hunter, whose most advanced technique was to attach himself to a moving herd … .  By ten thousand years ago that had changed, and he had begun in some places to domesticate some animals and to cultivate some plants; and that is the change from which civilization took off. … It is usually called the ‘agricultural revolution’.”

Many scholars believe that we have gone through two more revolutions since then—the “industrial revolution” and the “technology revolution”.   Having been born and raised on a farm, I tend to find the other two stages just revolting.

If we take Bronowski’s definition, we would have to classify the Cherokee as civilized.  Long before their encounter with the arrogant Europeans, the Cherokee had made that leap from “forager and hunter” and adopted and adapted to the agricultural way of life.  They built permanent houses, had a sophisticated form of government and military, farmed, educated their children, followed a holistic form of healthcare and religion.

Again from Bronowski, “With that there comes an equally powerful social revolution.  Because now it became possible—more than that, it became necessary—for man to settle.  I believe that civilization rests on that decision.”

From the beginning, though, the Cherokee and the other eastern tribes were not recognized as civilized.  George Washington considered the Native American equal as a person, but inferior as a society.  He developed a plan or policy to encourage the “civilizing” process.  Historian Robert Remini wrote, “they presumed that once the Indians adopted the practice of private property, built homes, farmed, educated their children, and embraced Christianity, these Native Americans would win acceptance from white Americans.”

Government Agents were appointed to teach, through example and instruction, the Native Americans how to “live like whites”.  And although the southeastern tribes, including the Cherokee, adopted Washington’s policy and established schools, adopted yeoman farming practices, converted to Christianity, built homes like their colonial neighbors, developed their own alphabet and wrote their own constitution, it was not enough.

Henry Knox wrote to George Washington, “How different would be the sensation of a philosophic mind to reflect that instead of exterminating a part of the human race by our modes of population that we had persevered through all difficulties and at last had imparted our Knowledge of cultivating and the arts, to the Aboriginals of the Country by which the source of future life and happiness had been preserved and extended. But it has been conceived to be impracticable to civilize the Indians of North America – This opinion is probably more convenient than just.”
Andrew Jackson
Directed removal of Cherokee

Despite being recognized as one of the “five civilized tribes”, in 1836, under the direction of President Andrew Jackson, the Cherokee were forced to leave their native lands and relocate to Oklahoma.  The harsh conditions of the move resulted in the death of an estimated 4,000 Cherokee and came to be known as “The Trail of Tears.”

-- Courtney Miller

Author of "The First Raven Mocker"
Book One of the Cherokee Chronicles

Available at bookstores, Barnes & Noble, and

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Cherokee Misconceptions, Part 4: The Term Squaw

I don’t remember when I first heard it, but I suspect it was in the 1990’s.  I do know that I hear it often now when I meet someone and they learn that I write Native American Antiquity or Native American historical fiction.  They are often proud to share with me that the word “squaw” is offensive to Native Americans because it refers to a woman’s private parts—specifically the vagina.

Until recently, I never bothered to research it and halfway believed it myself.  It turns out that it actually has an interesting etymology.  If you look it up in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which is the only dictionary that my high school English teacher would accept, it says:

[of Algonquin origin: akin to Natick squaas woman] 
1 an American Indian woman 2 woman, wife – usu. used disparagingly.

In the mobile app version:

1 often offensive: an American Indian woman
2 usually disparaging: woman, wife
Origin: Massachusetts squa, ussqua woman
First use: 1634
I think that these definitions, in a way, support the notion that "squaw" may mean more than just woman or wife which might lead one to jump to the conclusion that the rumor is true.  But, what is the truth?  The following is quoting Marge Bruchac, an Abenaki woman:
Algonquin village, 1600
“Squaw is NOT an English word.  It IS a phoenetic rendering of an Algonkian word that does NOT translate to “a woman’s private parts”.  The word “squaw” – as “esqua,” “squa,” skwa,” “skwe” and other variants—traditionally means the totality of being female, not just the female anatomy.  The word has been interpreted by modern activists as a slanderous assault against Native American women.  But traditional Algonkian speakers, in both Indian and English, still say words like “nidobaskwa”=a female friend, “manigebeskwa”=woman of the woods, or “Squaw Sachem”=female chief.  When Abenaki people sing the Birth Song, they address “nuncksquassis”=”little woman baby.”

The earliest use of the word was in the early 1600’s, some say specifically 1621, when English settlers in the state of Massachusetts adopted the Indian word “squa” from their Massachusett-speaking neighbors .  It simply meant “female or younger woman”. 

In 1973, the book “Literature of the American Indian”, by Thomas E. Sanders and Walter W. Peek, stated, without offering evidence, the theory that “squaw” derived from the Mohawk word “ojiskwa” meaning “vagina”.   The English settlers in Massachusetts would not have made contact with the Mohawk at that time, but the notion caught on and was widely circulated in the activist community.
Suzan Harjo on Oprah 1992

The controversy increased when Oprah Winfrey invited the Native American activist Suzan Harjo onto her show in 1992. Harjo said on the show, "The word squaw is an Algonquin [sic] Indian word meaning vagina, and that'll give you an idea of what the French and British fur trappers were calling all Indian women, and I hope no one ever uses that term again."

After her appearance, organized efforts began to remove the word “squaw” from place names.  This campaign continues today with mixed success.

Ives Goddard, the curator and senior linguist at the Smithsonian Institution, writes:

“I have no doubt that some speakers of Mohawk sincerely believe that it is from their word oj√≠skwa 'vagina' (though I know that other Mohawks laugh at the whole idea), but the resemblance (if there is one) is entirely accidental. "Vagina" was not a meaning that was ever known to the original users of the word, and although it appears in a college anthology published in 1973 (Random House, 2000), it was not widely known before Suzan Harjo's appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1992.

“It is as certain as any historical fact can be that the word squaw that the English settlers in
Massachusetts used for 'Indian woman' in the early 1600s was adopted by them from the word squa that their Massachusett-speaking neighbors used in their own language to mean 'female, younger woman,' and not from Mohawk ojiskwa', 'vagina,' which has the wrong shape [sound], the wrong meaning, and was used by people with whom they then had no contact. The resemblance that might be perceived between squaw and the last syllable of the Mohawk word is coincidental."

It is true that over time some white’s used the term in a disparaging  fashion.  But the insult was more in the disrespectful way they said it, not as an obscene insult.  So, go ahead and use the word “squaw” if you want to, just be careful of your tone.
Book One of the Cherokee Chronicles
available in book stores, Barnes & Nobles, and