The Cherokee Origins and Traditions

Dan Bryan, March 26 2012

The Cherokee Homeland - Smoky MountainsPart of the traditional Cherokee homeland, now known as the Smoky Mountains.

No one really knows at what point or by what means the Cherokee arrived in the southeast of the United States. It is only known that they had lived there for as long as stories had been told about them.

Origins of the Cherokee tribe

Their language derived from the Iroquois family, which made them unique among the tribes who lived in the south. They Cherokee and the Iroquois also shared a distinctive, matriarchal social structure.

There is little but conjecture to explain the wide separation of the Cherokee from the Iroquois homelands in the Great Lakes, if indeed they lived together in the first place. There is speculation that perhaps some disagreement -- the details of which are lost to the ravages of time -- pushed the Cherokee southward.

The creation myth spoke of a world held up by four strings to a rock in the sky. In the beginning, everything had been water. At the end of time, when the world was worn out, the strings would break and again the world would sink into the ocean.

The Cherokee conceived of a reality with three worlds. There was one on top of the Sky Vault, which was a very exalted place. There was another world underneath the one on which we live. Both worlds were said to be populated with powerful spirits in opposition. As such, balance and purity were never to be forgotten. To attain this there were seven major ceremonies performed each year, and many more rituals within daily life.

Matriarchy and the Cherokee Clans

Cherokee society was defined by matriarchy and the clan. There were seven clans and much of one's life was determined by this association. Any given person had five clans they could marry into -- the clan of one's mother and father were forbidden by death. This was the Cherokee manifestation of the incest taboo, which would have been essential in a society with such small numbers of people.

Clan identity passed down through the mother. The clans held all property in common, and in this way property was passed down and inherited via the mother. A married couple lived near the bride's clan.

Some of the earliest visitors claimed to witness multiple marriages by the same men and women, as well as some form of divorce. If true, it would certainly seem that a matriarchal society would be better suited for such romantic freedom. Indeed, one of the necessities of a patriarchal system is that of enforcing monogamous values, without which there is no certainty on the parentage of a child. Where the identity of the father is less important, there is less of a need for this control. The matriarchal Iroquois of the north were also known to practice serial monogamy, contravening the sensibilities of their white chroniclers.

Whatever the frequency of romantic intrigue, the women of the Cherokee villages enjoyed as much freedom as one could wish for for in a society such as theirs -- and certainly more than the English women in the nearby colonies. They were included on decision making, and their power in this regard was strong enough that one early trader asserted that he had witnessed a "petticoat government".

Overthrow of the Ani-Kutani

The Cherokee were few in number, and they were spread over a wide area.

There were stories that the Cherokee had once been ruled by a powerful group of priests, called the Ani-Kutani. In these times, their society had been under centralized control and operated as a theocracy. The Ani-Kutani were said to have abused their powers over time, taking advantage of their positions for material gain and sexual gratification. Eventually this resulted in an uprising, whereby the priests were killed and eliminated.

When this happened is impossible to determine. With only oral traditions to rely upon, these events could have happened anywhere between four to eight hundred years ago. We also have no idea how large the Ani-Kutani were, if they were responsible for the mounds in the southeast, or if the Cherokee population was much larger when this group held power.

What is known quite certainly is that the Cherokee adopted a very decentralized way of life. There was no central chief of the Cherokee -- all of society was organized at the level of the town. Each town had a Town House, a Red Chief, and a White Chief. The older Town Houses were built as heptagons, with one side reserved for each of the seven clans. Here the Cherokee would gather for ceremonies and meetings.

Low population density and the lack of disease

While the Cherokee people occupied an area stretching from northern Georgia to Kentucky and western Virginia, there were only about eighty towns, with each town having about 200 to 250 people. Thus, the entire Cherokee population hovered around 15-20,000 people.

There are important consequences to this low density. One is that the spread of disease was held naturally in check. There were few plagues like those so often seen in Europe because without population density, the conditions necessary for epidemics were absent. This is not to make a preposterous claim that there was no illness, but only to say that such cases were more isolated and didn't compromise the health of the collective group so frequently.

Secondly, there were no conditions in place that so often domesticate man and strike at his freedom. There was no serfdom, no slavery, no debt peonage, no tyrants installed upon the throne. When the first Europeans arrived, they couldn't find a person in charge above the town level, and they regarded this as a very primitive quality.

How did the populations stay low? Some combination of warfare and birth control must be the answer -- the earliest historians of the Cherokee were quick to note the former practice, and either ignorant of the latter or incurious about the details. There were most likely herbal combinations which could prevent implantation, but that knowledge has not made it to the history books.

Economy of the ancient Cherokee

A Cherokee woman weaves a basket.A Cherokee woman weaves a basket. (painting by Dean Wittle)

For sustenance, the Cherokee relied on both farming and hunting. Their hunting grounds were what we now call the Smoky and Blue Ridge Mountains. The men hunted deer and other small animals, and the prestige of a man was largely based on his prowess in this regard. Long ago, even buffalo ranged as far east as the Cherokees' land, and they held an annual buffalo hunt.

The women tended to farms and gardens and grew a large variety of vegetables -- corn, squash, pumpkins, and beans. They also foraged the woods for berries, buts, mushrooms, and greens. Overall the diet was good if the food came in large enough quantities, but then again, there were not many people to feed.

This only begins to cover the nuances of Cherokee society, but in this general fashion they subsisted in balance and equilibrium for many centuries.

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About the Author

Dan Bryan

Dan Bryan is the founder and editor of American History USA. He holds a B.A. in American History from the University of Chicago. He has created this site to empower Americans of all backgrounds to increase their historical literacy.

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