Revitalizing Native Cultures

Cherokee Language & Culture

Student in Laura Pinnix’s Cherokee language classStudent in Laura Pinnix’s Cherokee language class

Traditional Cherokee society is a matrilineal clan system, meaning that an individual traces his or her clan membership through the mother. The most important man in a child's life is the mother's brother who is responsible for discipline. There were seven clans in Cherokee society and you couldn't marry anyone within your clan. Cherokee people were encouraged to marry someone within the maternal grandfather's clan or the paternal grandfather's clan.

Traditional Cherokee beliefs were based on nature and in many of the oral histories animals take on the roles of deities. As LeAnne Howe relates in Spiral of Fire, the Great Buzzard formed the earth by flying over the land, flapping his wings and making it dry and mountainous where the Eastern Band has lived for generations.

There were six traditional festivals or religious observances throughout the year:

  • First New Moon of Spring Festival usually in March. On the first evening, women performed a friendship dance. On the second day there was a ritual purification in water — as Bo Taylor puts it, "we were Baptists before there were Baptists." On the third, participants fasted. And on the fourth, they broke the fast and danced.
  • The Green Corn Ceremony was performed for four days when the corn ripened, usually in June or July. Participants did a stomp dance, feather dance and buffalo dance. It included fasting, playing stick-ball, sacrificing corn and feasting.
  • The Mature Green Corn Ceremony was held 45 days after the New Green Corn one. Again, cleansing and purifying ceremonies were performed along with a series of dances and feasts.
  • The Great New Moon Festival was held around October and marked the beginning of the Cherokee New Year. A series of dances, purifications, prayers and offerings culminated by a huge feast of meat, corn, pumpkin, beans and squash. This ceremony has now expanded into the annual Cherokee Fair seen in Spiral of Fire. The fair is held in the first week of October.
  • Ten days after the New Moon, the Fifth Cherokee Festival was held. The point of this four-day festival was to forgive old conflicts and start the new year in friendship.
  • The Winter Festival featured a feast and offerings of tobacco. Again, the stomp dance was the featured ritual.

Today, there are 26 Baptist churches alone in the Cherokee's Qualla Boundary. There are also Methodists, Catholics, Episcopalians and Mormons. Yet, the stomp dance, stick ball and other festivals continue to be performed.

There is a traditional Cherokee concept that still holds great power. It is expressed by the Cherokee word "Duyukdv" and is usually translated into English as 'Truth' or 'Dignity.' But it means more than that. It embodies the idea of balance, to be living your life "the right way" by traveling down a straight path. Duyukdv means balancing the rights of the individual with the good of the whole. It offers personal freedom within the context of responsibility to the family, clan and tribe.

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