Cherokee Festivals

There were six main festivals or religious observances before the forced removal. These festivals were to be observed at the capital. The ugu (or ouga, or uku, which is a derivation from the Cherokee word for Chief), seven Principal Counselors and people from all seven Cherokee clans participated.

The first festival was the First New Moon of Spring. This festival was held in March. The seven Principal Counselors determined when the moons would appear and a messenger would announce the upcoming festival to all the Cherokee people. There were designated hunters to get the game for the feast, the dressing of a deer and the preparation of white deer skins, seven men were put in charge of the festival and seven men for food preparation.

The first evening was when the selected women performed the friendship dance. The second day, all went to the water for ritual purification. The third day, the people fasted. The fourth day everyone participated in friendship dances and ended the ceremony.

Afterwards the Seven Counselors scheduled the sacred night dance. They would have a religious dance, a new sacred fire was built and all old fires in the Cherokee homes were put out. They also had a scratching ceremony and medicine taking prepared by the Medicine Men. At the end, white deer skins were presented to the Festival Priests.

The Green Corn Ceremony was traditionally celebrated during late June or early July for about four days. The dates scheduled for the celebration depended upon the time the first corn ripened. The ceremony was held in the middle of the ceremonial grounds. Included in the rituals were the stomp dance, feather dance and buffalo dances.

At certain points of the ceremonies the people fasted, played stickball, had corn sacrificing and took medicine. Then after the ceremonial fasting they would feast. Another ritual observed was rinsing themselves in water and having prayer.

It is believed when you recieve a cleansing it washes away impurities or bad deeds and starts a new life. The cleansing ceremony was performed by a priest which was followed with fasting and praying and other sacred practices.

The third Cherokee festival was called the Mature Green Corn Ceremony which was held about 45 days after the New Green Corn Ceremony. Before the festival, honorable women performed a religious dance and decided when the festival would be held. Hunters were sent out to bring back game and there was a committee appointed for the festival.

An arch was built with green branches, making an arbor in the ceremonial grounds. The evening before the Green Corn Ceremony, all the clans took a branch that they used the next day during a noon ritual. Participants drank a special tea called a "Black Drink" which was used for cleansing and purifying. The people would have a dance for days while feasting on game and corn. The ceremony lasted for four days.

The Great New Moon Festival was held around October. This marked the beginning of the Cherokee New Year. It was believed that the world was created in the season of Autumn.

The main counselors determined when the new moon would appear. Again as previous festivals, hunters were sent out to catch game seven nights before the festival. Seven men were selected to take charge of all the planning and seven honorable women were chosen to prepare the food. When the Cherokee people gathered for the feast, each family gave food to the priest. Types of food were corn, pumpkin, beans among others. The evening before the main gathering, the women performed a religious dance. Again during the ceremonial part they went to the river for purifying, giving offerings to the sacred fire and praying.

The fifth festival was held about ten days after the Great New Moon Festival. It was called the Propitiation and Cementation Festival or Friends Made Ceremony. The purpose of this festival was to renew friendships, make new friends and for cleansing.

Participants were assigned tasks such as helping with the preparation of the various ceremonies, song leaders, musicians, the cleansing of the council house area, hunting game and cooking.

A new sacred Fire was built by the Fire Keeper and his assistants. The Fire keeper his assistants fasted for seven days before the festival. There was a dance the night before the festival.

Others fasted during special designated days. This festival renewed the Fire, and the people. It also brought friendship by ceremonially forgiving conflicts from the previous year. This was seen as a brand new start. There was also a cleansing ritual that was performed at the river in running water. This festival would last four days.

The sixth festival was held during the winter. Tobacco was gathered from the people who participated in the feast. The people used pine or spruce in a dance. The first dance movement was a march by alternating pairs of males and females. During the dance, women wore their turtle shells, formed a circle with the men in a single file and moved counter-clockwise in a circle. Each dancer took two twigs of the spruce and waved them up and down like pigeon wings. The fourth night, they made offerings to the sacred fire.

Today, many Cherokee traditionalists still observe these festivals. Many ceremonial grounds observe some, and a few observe all of the occassions.

Information provided by the Cherokee Nation Cultural Resource Center. For information regarding culture and language, please contact: culture@cherokee.org.