Cherokee Stomp Dance

A firekeeper and his assistant begin at dawn building a fire; one intended to last for the duration of the stomp dance. He begins with small slivers of wood from the innermost part of an oak tree (often referred to as the "sponge") using flint and rock to trigger a spark. This fire is sacred to traditional Cherokees. It is customarily built at the bottom of a pit below ground level and is tended continuously so it will burn throughout the stomp dance.

As the sun rises, the men sit around the fire talking about political issues and the women prepare a meal for the day consisting of both traditional and modern food. Later in the afternoon, sermons are given in the Cherokee language. These sermons admonish everyone to have love for all mankind. After the sermon, stickball, an ancient Cherokee game resembling present-day La Crosse, is played.

The sermons continue as the sun begins to set. The ceremonial pipe is passed to each clan member who takes seven puffs from it before passing it on. The chief, medicine men and elders gather together for a meeting, eventually calling for the first dance of the night. This dance is by invitation only and features the tribal elders, medicine men and the heads of clans. A second call for the dance is made.

The dance participants include a leader, assistants and one or more "shell-shakers" wearing leg rattles traditionally made out of turtle shells filled with pebbles. Today some use cans filled with pebbles to provide rhythmic accompaniment while they dance around the fire. The ceremonial observance involves sacrifices made by the ceremonial leaders, prayers, taking medicine, going to water or river for ritual cleansing and smoking of the pipe.

Participants visit, feast and dance far into the night. The stomp dance is considered to be a holy event for worshiping Unetlanv (God, The Creator). There is to be no littering, no consumption of liquor and no rowdy behavior of any kind. The rules are written in the Cherokee language and posted on a board hung up for the public to see.

There are seven arbors encircling the sacred fire. Each arbor represents one of these seven clans: Wolf (a-ni-wa-ya); Wild Potato (a-ni-go-da-ge-wi) also known as the Bear Clan; Paint (a-ni-wo-di); Bird Clan (a-ni-tsi-s-qua); Long Hair (a-ni-gi-lo-hi) also known as Twister or Wind; and Blind Savannah also known as Blue (a-ni-sa-ho-ni).

There are nearly 300,000 Cherokee tribal citizens today. Although many choose to worship through other religious methods and denominations, including Indian Baptist and Methodist among others, many traditional Cherokee continue to worship at stomp dances and are members of one of the several stomp dance grounds located within the Cherokee Nation.

Note: The Keetoowah's bible is not written on paper. The words are woven into seven wampum belts which are shown only in rare occasions. The belts are very old, and are made of pearls and shell beads, woven with seaweed fibers from the Gulf of Mexico. The history behind the belt is said to be that many years ago the tribe was preparing to go on to war with another tribe. The medicine men foresaw which warriors would survive the war and cut the original wampum belt into seven pieces, giving one to each warrior. After the war the belts became scattered, some being hidden and others simply disappearing. Eventually they were all recovered with the last one being found by Redbird Smith more than 80 years ago.

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