of the Cherokee Nation
“As lightning splits the dark sky,
so does faith split the darkness of our soul.
Both are windows to the other world.”
-Chief Charles “Jathohi” Rogers
The ancient Cherokee cosmology
consisted of a spirit world and a physical world. In the spirit world,
there lived the archetypes of all the living beings in the physical
world. These archetypes were not merely spirit images of living things,
but were much greater, as in the Judeo-Christian religion, man was made
in the image of God, but God is much greater than man. There are many
documents today that survived the efforts of the missionaries to
There is a legend among the
Cherokee that says about 3500 years ago the Cherokee were visited by a
spiritual being who taught the people how to live in peace with animals
and other humans as well as to have a deep respect for nature. This
legend has caused many people to believe that it was Christ, or someone
like Christ, who appeared and gave instructions and prophecies to their
people. The reason for this are the similarities between ancient tribal
beliefs and many texts found in the Christian Bible. Further
comparisons can be found in James Adair’s book first printed in 1775.
In it he presents 23 arguments as to the ancestral heritage of the
Cherokee and other tribes of the southeast to the Jews of biblical
times. You should read it sometime.
According to the old stories,
the ancient Cherokee concept of the world is very “now.” There are very
few “concept words” in the language. No word for “music” or “art.”
There are words for drum - çº-, flute - ç"¡"Œï, rattle - ‡€"ï. What was
important was today - what they can see and touch. They believe there
are three levels of the world: the world above- a spirit world, the
world around them- where they live, and the world below - also a spirit
The world above was described as
a “sky vault” and it was here the “above beings” lived. These beings
had magical powers such as having the ability to change shape, and they
did not have the physical constraints that govern humans. This world
was symbolized by the color white, which stood for peace, order,
well-being, and harmony.
Another world existed directly
beneath this one, only the seasons were reversed. They knew this
because of the springs that flowed from the mountains. The water
emerging was always colder than the surrounding air during the summer
and warmer during the winter. It was also through these “openings or
passage ways” that the spirit guides could take them into this other
The underworld was symbolized by
the color red and divided into two regions; one having an abundance of
game, fruits, and flowers, where the spirits of the people who lived
according the teachings went after death. A person gained access to
this region by demonstrating a life of wisdom, hospitality and bravery.
The other region was a mirror
image of the first and this was where the spirits of the people who
failed to live properly went when they died. There is a legend of the
Raven-mocker who would come and try to steal the spirit of the person
during the first night after his or her death so the body had to be
protected all night by a loved one.
It is said that when someone is
sick or dying in the settlement, the Raven Mocker goes to this place to
take the life. They are of either sex and there is no sure way to know
one, They usually look old and withered because they have added so many
lives to their own. The Raven Mocker flies through the air in a firery
shape, with arms outstretched like wings with sparks trailing behind
and a rushing sound like the noise of a strong wind. While he flies he
will sometimes make the sound of a raven and that is when the people
know. That is the story.
Now, this region of the
afterworld was characterized by change, disorder, struggle, strife,
danger, and war. The spirits sent here were relegated to an existence
of hunger, hostility and darkness and had to live within hearing
distance of the happiness and rejoicing of the spirits who lived in the
other region. They also had to contend with ghosts, monsters, witches,
cannibals and other threatening creatures.
The Cherokee lived their lives
on the middle surface and it was important for them to maintain a
balance between these three worlds. The more tension between these
worlds, the greater the need to develop more consistent and elaborate
religious doctrine to address them.
With Hindu and Christian
theology there is extreme tension and therefore strong religious
doctrine and emphasis on the “next world.” But in traditional Cherokee
culture there is no concept of themselves as being divine instruments
destined to carry out the will or divine plan of a Divine Spirit or
God. Instead the important thing is to live properly and to avoid
mis-deeds during your lifetime. Cherokee religion does not contain a
salvation theology. There was no guilt but there were rules of social
and ceremonial behavior.
During the Green Corn Dance, a
celebration of renewal, however, all mis-deeds are erased. Long ago,
broken pottery was replaced, old fires put out and a new fire was
started from the ceremonial fire and old clothes were also thrown away
at this time and new ones put on. Some traditional Cherokee do this
today No one asked for forgiveness, it was just given during this time.
Everyone started new and fresh each year.
Sin, as we know it today, did
not exist among the Cherokee until the missionaries brought it with
their theology and world-view.
In the Cherokee world-view,
spirits, ceremonies and rituals directly affect what happens in their
lives today as a community. Ritual and ceremonial activity were
oriented not toward individual salvation, but rather toward achieving
community prosperity, individual and community health and well-being,
victory in war and community harmony.
Very basic to the Cherokee
belief system is the premise that good is rewarded, while evil is
punished. Even though we strictly believe in this type of justice,
there are times when things happen that the system simply does not
explain. It is often believed that these unexplainable events are
caused by someone using medicine for evil-purposes.
For instance, men who joined war
parties always prepare by fasting and taking part in the rituals of
purification and honoring of the spirits in order to ensure their
protection. This “Going to Water” ceremony was seen as no different
than the “baptism” the missionaries preached. Simply stated, failure to
perform the proper rituals and purification further endangered the
mission and the lives of the men in the war party or success for a
From the Cherokee point of view,
the universe is composed of two great forces, red and white. The
spirits of the underworld were thought to creep into the world of men
through the rivers, lakes, and caves; and caused disease, death, and
harm to humans. The doctors and priests were called on to elicit
protection from the Above Beings against the spirits from the
underworld. I might add that Christianity is no different on this
issue. The Cherokee were thought to be in balance if the opposing
forces were in balance.
Cherokee values reflect
principals of opposing forces. A person endeavored to maintain harmony
in social relationships and with the unseen spirits and forces of the
world around them. In fact, many of the social laws were designed to
insure that the individual and communities would abide by the teachings
and whenever there was a disruption, trouble and calamity were sure to
follow. If the people abused or mistreated nature, for instance, nature
would strike back as she has along the Rio Grande River that has now
become so polluted that some of the children being born there sometimes
have no brains and they soon die.
This egalitarian attitude toward
nature is demonstrated even in the language in which he, she, and it
are the same pronoun. The revenge principle of the clan system was a
big part of the order and is another example of balance. Whenever a
member of one clan injured a member of another clan, restitution and
balance had to be restored. Very similar to the old Jewish teaching of
“an eye for an eye.” Consequently, nature can not - by Cherokee law -
be treated any differently than anyone else and must be treated with
respect if the balance is to continue.
For example, special ceremonial
precautions were necessary when hunting and killing animals. If these
ceremonies are not performed, the spirit of the dead animal return and
brings sickness and other problems or even death on the hunter for
causing the animal"s death without the proper respect.
The legend of Ahwiusdi - “Little
Deer” demonstrates this belief. The over killing, sport killing or
unnecessary killing of animals caused the animals spirits to return to
For the Cherokee, there was
little distance between the spirit world and their world. The spirits
and the dead moved back and forth with little effort and that they
could communicate with the ancestors through dreams and visions and
through special omens and signs given to them by the spirits.
How many of you have seen a
ghost or thought you"d had a vision?
These Cherokee values of order
and harmony in interpersonal relations, with nature and with the
spirits, contrast sharply with secular Western values that emphasize
the exploitation and transformation of nature for the benefit of man.
From the Cherokee point of view, to exploit nature or other persons for
creation of wealth is a violation of justice and harmony with fellow
Cherokee and with nature, and would incur retaliation and misfortune.
Cherokee values cast them in
direct opposition with the European society’s values when the
missionaries and traders showed up in the 1700s. It was inevitable that
such sharp value contrasts toward nature would cause the
well-socialized and balanced Cherokees to stop and seriously consider
whether to readily adopt the views and orientations of the Europeans or
not. The first introduction of the Christian religion began in 1817
with the arrival of missionaries from the American Board of
Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Today, there are many Christian
preachers among the Cherokee who still attend the traditional stomps
and ceremonies and see no conflict. They just don"t make it public.
For more information read Institutional
& Cultural Order in Early Cherokee Society: A Social
Interpretation Duane Champagne, The Journal of Cherokee
Studies, Volume XV, 1990.
Go and sit on sanctioned rocks boldly stationed along
Go and sleep on breathing mountains looking over murmuring valleys.
The Spirits are there, ever listening, ever hearing and ever speaking
Marijo Moore - Cherokee