Cherokee Indians in North Carolina

The culture of the Cherokee Native Americans from North Carolina is a deep, complex narrative that everyone should delve into.  Protected by the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, the Cherokee culture can be read like a book.  There are over eleven thousand years of both invention and achievement, perseverance and survival.  This narrative portrays a peace-loving band of people who were forced to deal with the harsh reality of war and how they overcame the savagery of it.  It doesn’t completely cover what truly makes the Cherokee culture a true treasure for someone with the patience and curiosity to explore their history.

The Cherokee culture beckons.  It is an intricately woven tale; like the sturdy yet beautiful Cherokee baskets, originally designed and created with river cane and carefully dyed bloodroot.  You can explore the aged arts and crafts of the Cherokee artists at the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual Inc. You can actually see them made and demonstrated at the Oconaluftee Indian Village.  It has an amazingly vivid recreation of the olden Cherokee villages.  You can attend the awesome outdoor drama “Upon These Hills” under the light of the moon.  You can take a hike to Mingo Falls and feel the water that the historic Native Americans have felt throughout the ages.  You can look through the interactive historical exhibits at the Museums of the Cherokee Indians, or the dozens – or hundreds – of opportunities of the Cherokee culture that’s outdoors.

The Cherokee people have always been strong, and creative.  This is true in the present day as much as it was in the past.

Though plenty has changed in the every day world of the Cherokee people, some things remain the same.  This is true especially in the case of strength of character.  They still fish the rivers and live as a tight-knit community that support the good of the tribe, the education of their children, and their love for the land.  The important things are still alive.  The native tribal members who live today are descendants from the Cherokees who were able to stay on their lands, hide in the mountains, or move back to western North Carolina.

Getting to Know the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians:

The eastern band of Cherokee Indians is it’s own nation that has more than fifteen thousand members enrolled.  The incredible tale of the Cherokee Nation is something that truly reflects a people who have stayed strong in the face of huge conflict.  The Cherokee have always remained true to their values and long held principles.  Revolving around a great honor for the natural world and their connection to it, the ancient Cherokee values show us how to respect the earth and each other.  These people hold sacred to the world’s ancient principles while continuing to expose the reinvention of what it means to be a Native American in a modern world.

Cherokee Clans:

 There are seven Cherokee clans that are a traditional social organization of the society.  The customs of these clans have changed and grown since the past.  However, traditionalists still practice clan customs, especially regarding things such as marriage and social events.  Society in the Cherokee Nation is historically matrimonial.  This means that the clanship is passed down from the mother’s side of the family.  Among the Cherokee, women were the head of household; a startling difference from the early United States society.  This meant that the home and household were hers should she separate from her life partner.  The knowledge of someone’s clan is very important, for several reasons.  One of those reasons is about the marriage laws that the traditionalists still follow today:  you are not allowed to marry within your own clan, because your clan mates are considered to be your siblings.  It is also important to know a person’s clan when seeking out spiritual guidance and in traditional medicinal ceremonies, and in naming the clan.

Blue:  Historically, the Blue Clan made their medicine from a blue-colored plant.  This medicine was to make children better.  Alternative names include the Panther and the Wild Cat Clan.

Long Hair:  Clan members are known for their peace making skills: often times, Peace Chiefs came from this clan.  Prisoners of war, orphans, and those without a clan often found their home here, if they had no other Cherokee clan to take them in.  The people wore eccentric hairdos and walked with a proud, twisted gait.. They were also known as the Hair Hanging Down, or as Twister.

Bird: They were once known as messengers.  Since they believed that birds were the messengers between heaven and earth, these clan members were given the task of caring for birds.

Paint: The prominent healers of the clans were known as Paint. This is because medicine was often painted on a person after harvesting, mixing, and performing other aspects of the ceremony.  The clan members were in charge of creating a red paint and preparing teas for therapy for different ailments.

Deer:  As the name suggests, these people were fast runners and often in charge of hunting.  Even though they hunted wildlife for survival, they also respected and cared for animals who lived among the people. They were oftentimes messengers on a material level, going between villages or even between people.

Wild Potato:  These were the ‘keepers of the land’; meaning that they were the gatherers.  They would get the wild potatoes that were in swamps along the streams.  Alternative names include the Bear, Raccoon, or Blind Savannah.

Wolf:  This has been the largest and most recognized clan throughout history. When the government included a Peace Chief and a War Chief, the War Chief would almost always come from this clan.  They were known as the protectors of the people.

The Cherokee Language:

It was in the 1800s that things really began to change for the Cherokee Indians.  This included the creation and adoption of a written language and constitution.  This was the first step in the decimation of the Native American’s way of life.  It was shortly after this that the majority of the Cherokee were forced to move from their lands to Oklahoma.  The journey became known as the Trail of Tears; the most painful part of Cherokee history and culture.

In 1879, Captain Pratt opened the first Native American boarding school.  This was an attempt to get Indians to adopt mainstream society.  “Kill the Indian and save the man,” was Pratt’s motto.  In an attempt to achieve this ‘goal’, Native American children throughout the country were forcibly taken away from their families and given new names, wardrobes, and haircuts. They were forbidden to speak any language other than English.  Yet today, the Cherokee language is still used.  This is an achievement that should be an inspiration to all; reminding everyone of the Cherokee’s great will to survive and carry on their culture despite overwhelming opposition.
Cherokee History:

The Cherokee people were originally hunters and gatherers that ferreted the Great Smoky Mountains and the lowlands of the Southern Appalachians for food while they hunted, fished, and trapped wildlife for their homes and families.  By 2000 BC, the Cherokee way of life had spread over thousands of acres of land, mostly mountains, that were governed by clans and town leaders.  They passed on religious beliefs through ceremonies, dances, and storytelling.  The Cherokee people were one of the greatest tribes in the southern part of the United States.

Strangers:  It was in 1540 that the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto first came through North Carolina, on a hunt for gold.  He demanded food, fought, enslaved people… he was not a good man.  Unfortunately, the diseases he brought with him were even worse than he was.  Lacking immunity toward these particular disease, many people were completely eradicated, victimized by plagues such as measles, influenza, and smallpox.  Despite this, the Cherokee people worked with the newcomers for two hundred years.

19th Century:  It was in 1828 that gold was first discovered in Georgia.  This led to America’s first gold rush and shifted the entire idea of the region.  The pressure from land-owners and perspective white settlers made the Cherokee people nothing more than an inconvenience. President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830.  This offered the territory out west in exchange for the Cherokee’s current homeland. Five years later, without permission of the tribal government, the Treaty of Echota was signed.  This allowed the federal government to remove the Cherokee from their homes east of the Mississipi; resulting in what is now called the Trail of Tears.  Over sixteen thousand Cherokee were gathered and forced to walk over six months toward the west to what is now Oklahoma.  Over four thousand Native Americans died due to disease, starvation, and rough living conditions.  The North Carolina Cherokees fought against this expatriation.  Along with other Cherokee who had escaped the removal process or who came back later, the group established the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

The Renaissance:  The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is still proud, strong, and healthy.  Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort has successfully provided the important income for the members of the tribe.  Millions of visitors come to the Cherokee area annually.  Their economic success can be found across the Qualla Boundary; something that emanates a future for other tribes to strive for.

Legends of the Cherokee:

There are many legends that the Cherokee people still cherish.  While there are too many to list, there are a few that continue to please the Cherokee people and the people who are interested in learning more about their clans.

Unelanvhi:  This is the Cherokee word for “Great Spirit”, or God.  It is believed to be a divine spirit that has no human form.  

Jistu:  This is a special rabbit to the people.  

Uktena:  The dragon-like horned serpants of the Cherokee legend, the first of the Uktena were said to have transformed from a man in his failed attempt to get rid of the sun.  Many Cherokee legends about the Uktena are about great warriors who have slain the giant horned beasts.  They are described as dangerous and evil beings who seek to destroy their lesser prey.

Aniyvdaqualosgi or Ani-Hyuntikwalaski: Though thought to be generally friendly to humans, they are also considered amazing “Thunderers” who live in the sky and control lightening and thunder.  They can take on human form if they wish, and are very powerful and dangerous.

Tlanuwa:  Giant birds of prey that are blessed and adorned with metal feathers that make them impenetrable.

Yunwi Tsundi: In English, you might refer to these small humanoid creatures as dwarfs or fairies.  They are usually invisible to the human eye, though they are also described as “little people” or “child-like”. They are believed to be benevolent creatures who sometimes help humans.  They also possess great powers and have been known to punish the people who seek to harm or disrespect them.

Nunnehi:  Known to the Cherokee people as great or regal warriors, these are benevolent spirits who often interfere on the battlefield.  They are sometimes invisible, though they are known to be especially sympathetic in helping the Cherokee when they need it.

Yanudinehunyo:  About a mile over the junction between the Tuckasegee and Oconaluftee rivers, is a the place where the people of the Cherokee nation say the water bears live in a deep hole.  There is a nearby pond that the Cherokee people say purple water resides – it is called Yanunatawastiyi (“where the bears wash”).  It was said to have great pwoers.

Tsul’kalu: a huge giant of legend, who sometimes left footprints along the shores of Tuckasegee.

Finding out if You’re Cherokee:

A lot of the community of the United States want to know if they are of Cherokee descent.  Enrollment in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is headed by the Cherokee Code, Chapter 49, Enrollment.  It follows this process:

1. You must have a direct lineal ancestor on the 1924 Baker Roll of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

2.  You have to have at least 1/16 degree of Eastern Cherokee Blood.  An important note:  Blood Quantum is measured from your ancestor that must be listed on the 1924 Baker Roll.  No DNA or blood testing is performed or accepted.

The Enrollment Office provides a Cherokee genealogy research service that searches records kept before the3 1924 Baker Roll.  These date back to 1835 and list the members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians that are located within the limits of North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama.  It does not help in determining eligibility for enrollment with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.