Southeast: The Cherokee Order of the Universe
Perhaps one of the most well known of the North American Indians is the Cherokee tribes of the Southeast. In fact though the term Cherokee was actually given to the tribe by their neighbors the Choctaw for the Cherokee refer to themselves as the Ani-Yunwiya (principal people). For the sake of this post I will refer to them as the Cherokee since most anthropologists and archaeologists call them by this name to avoid confusion. It is interesting that there are a lot of people out there that claim they have Cherokee ancestry and where some of them are using it to right it on their college application it is not farfetched to think that a good chunk of people are in fact a small percentage Cherokee.
The Cherokee are the largest group in the Southeast and are related to the Iroquois of New York from whom they split over 4,000 years ago. The Cherokee originally lived in the Carolinas but by 1800 they had grown so large they moved into areas across Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas (Rochete 2010).
The most interesting thing to me about this North American group and the subject on which this post will focus on is the beliefs of the Cherokee, more specifically the order of the universe. The first thing to understand is that the Cherokee believed in a dichotomous universe. So basically they believed everything had two sides: war/peace, good/evil, winter/summer, male/female. These categories though had to be maintained equally otherwise they feared a tip in the balance of harmony would disrupt the universe (Rochete 2010).
Also in addition to the dichotomous universe they believed that the world was divided into three planes. These three planes were the psychical world (which is at the center) the upper world (which is at the top a place of order and harmony, deities and the dead) and the underworld (the lower plane which is a place of chaos and pollution). They believe that before the creation of this physical world only the other two existed separated by water (Rochete 2010).
When the world was all water, as the Cherokee believed it was, the animals lived in the upper world but it become over crowded so the new world was created. The way the story went is that Beaver’s Grandchild water beetle dove into the water all the way down to see what the new world was like. When he reached the bottom water-beetle discovered soft mud which he then picked up and smoothed and spread it until it became the great island which is now earth. The Cherokee believed that this island was a literal island that was floating above the sea which was suspended at four points by cords of rock (Rochete 2010).
Over this island the Great Buzzard flew and when the earth was still soft and wet his wings struck the ground creating the valleys and mountains. The other animals stopped him though before he made the whole world mountainous (this is why the Cherokee land in the Appalachians was supposed to be so mountainous). Along with that the Cherokee believed that the first two Cherokee were Kana’ti and his wife Selu. These two are the fixtures of which the Cherokee hunting and farming came from (Rochete 2010).
The stories go that their sons let all the animals escape from the great vault which is why the people have to hunt them. Also Selu got pregnant and gave birth to both corn and beans overnight; because of her son believed she was a powerful witch and killed her. As a result of her death corn and beans sprouted from her blood but as a punishment Selu’s sons had to work to grow and produce it from then on (Rochete).
Like I had mentioned before balance was major part of the belief system of the Cherokee. One of their stories that shows this well is the myth of the origin medicine. This myth starts out with the human populations growing so much that they crowded the animals and killed then greatly reducing their numbers. This chaos through the world out of balance but it was ultimately restored according to the myth. The animals banded together and cursed the humans saying that they had to say a prayer each time they killed an animal otherwise the humans would suffer from disease. This worked for awhile but shortly after humans started dying off as they were forgetting to say a prayer each time. The plants though felt sorry for the humans so they gave them up for cures to the diseases that were created by the animals. Since then these medicinal plants were treasured as gifts from the spirit world (Rochete 2010).
Cherokee believed that mountains were a scared part of the universe. People would journey to the mountains to have religious experience and visions. On the flip side because of their powers mountains were also thought to be dangerous places. To drive this fact home to the young people the story of the Stone Man was told to them. The Stone Man was a shaman but also a terrifying cannibal with the skin of solid rock who stalked the mountains in search of victims (Rochete 2010).
Lastly the Cherokee also believed that water was also a very sacred part of the universe, particularly the river water or Yunwi Gunahita (which means Long Person). Like the mountains, journeying to the water was a great religious experience. Like many other religions around the world they believed water was a sign of purification and rebirth. Mothers would bather their new born children in the river, men would purify themselves before games, rituals and war and the sick would go to the river to cleanse themselves of their ailments. Running water was said to be a conduit or pathway to another world and only women were thought to be pure enough to bear water. In fact men carrying water was considered a disgraceful act (Rochete 2010).
2010. Anth 146 Lecture for September 20, 2010.
The Pennsylvania State University.