Monday, February 11, 2008

Facts About the Cherokee

Living outside of the Rez, it’s been a challenge for me growing up to connected with my people, but I’m hoping to keep my kids from having the same trouble. I figured since I’m teaching my children about how our ancestors lived, I thought it might be fun to share some of what they are learning with all of you as well.

Facts about the Cherokee People

In the Cherokee language the name of our people is Tsalagi which derives from a Muskogee word that means “speaker of another language”, though originally our people called themselves Aniyunwiya, "the principal people”.

There are two major bands of Cherokee (three if you count the The Echota Cherokee who is recognized only by the state of Alabama, which I do), the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and the Eastern Band of Cherokees. Now, this is not counting all of the sub-tribes. The band in Oklahoma was part of the group that was forced out upon the Trail of Tears. The eastern band hid in the Smoky Mountains to avoid displacement, or returned to the lands of their foremothers. My family is part of the second band.

There are seven clans of the Cherokee People, all clans are passed down from mother to child. Unfortunately, from what I’ve come to understand this means because my grandfather married a non-Cherokee, we are clanless. Here is what the tribal site says about each clan. This is the most accurate info I’ve found to date. :)

Blue (A NI SA HO NI), who made medicine from a blue-colored plant to keep the children well. Also known as the Pantheror Wild Cat Clan.
Long Hair (A NI GI LO HI), also known as The Twister, Hair Hanging Down or Wind Clan. They wore elaborate hairdos and walked with a proud, twisting gait. Peace Chiefs were usually of this clan.

Bird (A NI TSI S KWA), skilled hunters of birds, using blowguns and snares. They may have been messengers, as are the birds in many Cherokee legends.

Paint (A NI WO DI), who made red paint and served as healers and medicine men. They prepared teas for vapor therapy specific to each ailment.

Deer (A NI KA WI), keepers of the deer. Known for their speed afoot and success as deer hunters.

Wild Potato (A NI GA TO GE WI), gatherers of the wild potato in swamps along streams. Also known as the Bear, Raccoon, or Blind Savannah Clan.

Wolf (A NI WA YAH), the largest and most prominent clan. Most war chiefs came from this clan, the only clan allowed to hunt wolves.

When a Cherokee child was disobedient they were not verbally or physically reprimanded. They were simply ignored, or teased into behaving. Not just by there parent, but by everyone. Within the safety they were in no danger from such treatment, and I’m betting learned real quick how bad it sucked for the family to be mad at them.

As many people know, the Cherokee created their own alphabet. In fact this written version of the Cherokee language, called “talking leaves”, was formed through the work of a Cherokee man named Sequoyah. It quickly led to an almost total literacy among the Cherokee as a nation. I bet ya more of them could read then the settlers and soldier in the area.

Lets talk about one of my favorite topics, Cherokee food. Now there are tons of recipes, so traditional, and others developed because of the limited supplies on the Rez. Here are a few I’ve made myself.

Fry Bread

3 cups all-purpose flour (oat flours is a fine substitute)
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
Pinch of salt
1-1/3 cups warm water
Vegetable oil for frying
Honey Sugar and cinnamon mixed

Combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Add the water and knead the dough until soft. Roll the dough out on a lightly floured board until 1/4" thick. Cut out 4" rounds. Heat 1"-2" of oil in a saucepan or deep fryer. Fry the bread until puffed. Turn bread when edges are brown on both sides. Brush with honey and dip into cinnamon and sugar.

Potato soup

Peel white potatoes and cut them into small pieces. Boil in water with an onion or two until potatoes and onions mash easily. After mashing add some fresh milk (rice or soy milk can be used if you’d prefer) and gently reheat the mixture. Add salt and pepper if desired. Serve hot.

Fried Hominy (A-Ma-Gi)

2 strips of good bacon (fried and crumbled)
2 cups of hominy
2 or 3 green onions (cut into small bits)
Crumble bacon, and add onions. When the onions start appearing to be frying, add hominy and cook for about 10 to 15 minutes first on high heat, then on low.

Okay, there was no tribe listed for this last one when I found it years ago, but its sooooo good I thought I’d share. it's become a family tradition in our home.

Salmon Cakes

1 lb canned salmon, flaked (including liquid)
4 juniper berries, crushed
1/3 cup corn meal
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 cup milk

Instructions: Mix all ingredients together, spoon into a well-greased muffin tin. Bake 350 degrees, for 30 minutes. Even my kids like these.

The Cherokee lived in two kids of homes depending on the season. The summer home was generally made with small trees and stalks of a bamboo-like river plant called switch grass, or of logs. Post made the frame of the rectangular summer house and the grass was woven to make the walls. Then the walls were covered in a fine layer of mud. The roof was made with bark shingles and the deerskin door was often left open to keep the inside cool during the day.



The winter home was called Asi, and was round in shape. It had a thatched roof that was cone-shaped. There were no window in this home, and only a small hole for a door you crawl in to enter. Thick mud walls kept out the cold. A fire burned inside the hearth at the center of the Asi all winter and kept everyone inside comfy and warm.

A really cool thing about Cherokee leadership is there were two chiefs. One for war time called the Red Chief, and one for peace times, called the White Chief. From each clan there was a man who rules with the White Chief his council. This didn’t mean the women didn’t have a voice my any means. In fact during war time a council of women called War Women or Beloved Women was on every war council. Many of those women had warrior son or had won war honors in battle themselves.

Instead of battles on the field, often despites with enemies were settled in a game of stickball. That’s not saying playing the game was that much safer. It wasn’t uncommon for player to get seriously injured or die. The game was also called the “little brother of war” and the losers often lost large areas of land to the winners. So, as you can imagine the games got rough. The game of lacrosse came from the game of stickball.

Storytelling was a huge pastime in a Cherokee village. During the winder games and stories passed the time, and all year round they taught ethics and other important lessons to the children of the tribe. I’ve listed several of the stories I plan to read to my kids (once the printer is fixed or a memorize them well enough)

The Origin of Medicine
Rattlesnake Story by Eagle Woman (look for the video link at the bottom of the page there)

For the clothing I thought it might be fun to let pictures do the taking. In the summer the women didn’t wear tops, so to keep things pg13 lets look at some winter gear and men’s clothing.


I’ll start with this picture. This is a current photo, but it’s traditional garb. This is Chief Red Hawk. He is a Cherokee Indian and former Chief of the Bird-Band for the American Cherokee Confederacy of Georgia. He is an old-style, traditional dancer and master storyteller.



Cherokee speaker Diamond Brown stands in front of a teepee during a presentation called “Touch the Earth with Native People” at the Whitfield County Career Academy.


And of course the familiar tear dress. I bet ya’ll can guess what that was named after.

Once the Cherokee were a vast empire which stretch over a much lager territory then many know of them today. There first documented exposure to non-Indians was Hernando De Soto and his lot, but it was nearly a hundred years before they began trading with the first white settlers.

In 1822 the first Cherokee Supreme Court was founded and not long after that law began to be written for the tribe, by the tribe courts. They wrote their own constitution, elected Chief John Ross, all the views of democracy our country is suppose to uphold today. Too bad the treaties they made with the American government were far less fair and on the up and up then the Cherokees own laws were.

Around 1829 or so the Georgian government abolishes the tribal government. The Cherokee fight and win a case with the US Supreme Court, whose judgment is later ignored by President Jackson. By 1838 the horror that is the Trail of Tears had begun. During the journey more than 4,000 Cherokee died from exposure and disease.

For those who what to learn more there’s a wonderful independent newspaper call the Cherokee Observer, which is certainly worth a look see.

And cause I got to give props where its due…
Chief Wilma Mankiller, First Woman Leader of the Cherokee Nation
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