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Native American Cultural Assessment: The Cherokee

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Native American Cultural Assessment: The Cherokee

The word Cherokee comes from a Creek word "Chelokee" meaning "people of a different speech." In their own language the Cherokee called themselves the Aniyunwiya or "principal people" or the Keetoowah, "people of Kituhwa."

The Cherokee are perhaps one of the most interesting of Native American Groups. Their life and culture are closely intertwined with early American settlers and the history of our own nation’s struggle for freedom. In the interest of promoting tolerance and peace, and with regard to the United States government’s handling of Native affairs, their story is one that is painful, stoic, and must not be forgotten.

The Cherokee people were a large and powerful tribe. The Cherokees' Macro-Siouan- Iroquoian language and their migration legends demonstrate that the tribe originated to the north of their traditional Southeastern homelands. Linguists believe that the Cherokee migrated from the Great Lakes area to the Southeast over three thousand years ago. The Cherokee language is a branch of the Iroquoian language family, related to Cayuga, Seneca, Onondega, Wyandot-Huron, Tuscarora, Oneida and Mohawk. Original locations of the Cherokee were the southern Appalachian Mountains, including western North and South Carolina, northern Georgia and Alabama, southwest Virginia, and the Cumberland Basin of Tennessee, Kentucky, and northern Alabama. The Cherokee sometimes refer to themselves as Ani-Kituhwagi, "the people of Kituhwa". Kituhwa was the name of an ancient city, located near present Bryson City, NC, which was the center of the Cherokee Nation.

Long before Columbus discovered the "New World" or Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto arrived, the Cherokee territory stretched from the Ohio River to the north, and southward into Georgia and Alabama. Their homelands extended over 135,000 square miles. Cherokee villages had populations of about 350 to 600 persons. Before contact with Europeans, families built round, earth-covered homes for the winter. For the warmer summers they built larger, rectangular homes. The rectangular homes had upright poles forming a framework. The outer covering was bark, wood or woven siding coated with earth and clay.

The Cherokee were primarily an agricultural people. They relied heavily on corn, beans, and squash, supplemented by hunting and the gathering of wild plants. Corn was their most important crop, so important to them they had a ceremony when the corn began to get ripe in hopes that the corn would continue to grow well. The Green Corn Ceremony was the most important ceremony. It did not have a certain date because it occurred when the corn became ripe. This ceremony marked the end of the old year and the beginning of a new year for the Cherokees. The ceremony was the time of thanksgiving and of a spiritual renewal. Other crops planted were beans, squash, and sunflowers.

The Cherokee also hunted. The main two animals that were hunted were white-tailed deer and wild turkey. Other animals that were hunted are bear, quail, rabbit, and squirrel. The Cherokee traveled quite a bit to other towns to trade. They traveled by streams or rivers in canoes. The canoes were quite large at thirty to forty feet long and about two feet wide. About fifteen to twenty men could travel in these canoes. Cherokee hunting trips were important events. Only men who were fully cleansed and fit were allowed to go on the hunt. When the men needed to go on a hunt they had to obtain a priest’s permission.

Cherokee society reflected an elaborate social, political, and ceremonial structure. Their basic political unit was the town, which consisted of all the people who used a single ceremonial center. Within each town, a council, dominated by older men, handled political affairs. Individual towns sent representatives to regional councils to discuss policy for the corporate group, especially issues of diplomacy or warfare. Towns typically included thirty to forty households clustered around a central townhouse that was used as a meeting place. Houses were square or rectangular huts constructed of locked poles, weatherproofed with wattle and daub plaster, and roofed with bark. These houses were built by the men and took quite a while to build. Construction began in early spring to get the boards from trees. When summer came around the men stopped with the houses and turned to planting crops. As fall arrived the men began to actually put the houses together. Often men from other towns came to help their fellow Cherokee.

The Cherokee society was organized into clans, or kin groups. There were seven major Cherokee clans, each identified by a particular animal totem. A variety of clans was represented in each community and performed significant social, legal, and political functions.

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