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Traditional Religion
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 destroy them.

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 world.

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 world.

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 hunting party.

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 take revenge.

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.

Cherokee Religion

Go and sit on sanctioned rocks boldly stationed along talking rivers.
Go and sleep on breathing mountains looking over murmuring valleys.
The Spirits are there, ever listening, ever hearing and ever speaking to you.

Marijo Moore - Cherokee

copyright © 2012 Cherokee Nation of Sequoyah
     Must have permission to use or reprint by Chales Jahtlohi Rogers MD.

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