The Traditional Belief System

In the search for order and then to sustain that order, the Cherokee of old devised a belief system that, while appearing at first to be complex, is actually quite simple. Many of the elements of the original system remain in place with traditional Cherokee today. Although some of these elements have evolved or otherwise been modified, this belief system is an integral part of day-to-day life for many.

Certain numbers play an important role in the ceremonies of the Cherokee. The numbers four and seven repeatedly occur in myths, stories and ceremonies. The number four represents all the familiar forces, also represented in the four cardinal directions. These directions are east, west, north and south. Certain colors are also associated with these directions. The number seven represents the seven clans of the Cherokee, and are also associated with directions. In addition to the four cardinal directions, three others exist. Up (the Upper World), down (the Lower World) and center (where we live and where you always are).

The number seven also represents the height of purity and sacredness, a difficult level to attain. In olden times it was believed that only the owl and cougar had attained this level and thus have always had a special meaning to the Cherokee. The pine, cedar, spruce, holly and laurel also attained this level and play a very important role in Cherokee ceremonies. Cedar is the most sacred of all, and the distinguishing colors of red and white set it off from all others. The wood from the tree is considered very sacred, and in ancient days it was used to carry the honored dead.

Because of these early beliefs, the traditional Cherokee have a special regard for the owl and cougar. They are honored in some versions of the Creation story because they were the only two animals who were able to stay awake for the seven nights of Creation, the others having fallen asleep. Today, because of this, they are nocturnal in their habits and both have exceptional night vision.

The owl is seemingly different from other birds, resembling an old man as he walks. Sometimes the owl can be mistaken for a cat because of his feather tufts and the silhouette of his head. This resemblance honors his nocturnal brother, the cougar. The owl's eyes are quite large and are set directly in front like humans, and he can close one eye independently of the other. The cougar's screams resemble those of a woman; further, he is an animal posessing secretive and unpredictable habits.

Cedar, pine, spruce, laurel and holly trees carry leaves all year long. These plants, too, stayed awake seven nights during the Creation. Because of this they were given special power and they are among the most important plants in Cherokee medicine and ceremonies.

Traditionally the Cherokee are deeply concerned with keeping things separated and in the proper classification or category. For example, when sacred items are not in use they are wrapped in deerskin or white cloth, and kept in a special box or other place.

The circle is another symbol familiar to traditional Cherokee. The Stomp Dance and other ceremonies involve movements in a circular pattern. In ancient times, the fire in the council house was built by arranging the wood in a continuous "X" so that the fire would burn in a circular path.

The river, or "Long Man," was always believed to be sacred, and the practice of going to water for purification and other ceremonies was at one time very common. Today the river or any other body of moving water, such as a creek, is considered a sacred site and going to water is still a respected practice by some Cherokees.

The everyday cultural world of the Cherokee includes spiritual beings. Even though the beings are different from people and animals, they are not considered "supernatural", but are very much a part of the natural, real world. Most Cherokee at some point in their lives will relate having had an experience with these spiritual beings.

A group of spiritual beings still spoken of by many Cherokee is the Little People. They cannot be seen by man unless they wish it. When they allow themselves to be seen, they appear very much like any other Cherokee, except they are very small, and have long hair, sometimes reaching all the way to the ground.

The Little People live in various places; rocky shelters, caves in the mountains or laurel thickets. They like drumming and dancing and they often help children who appear to be lost. Not just those geographically lost, but children who appear saddened and confused. They are also known to be quite mischievous at times. The Little People should be dealt with carefully, and it is necessary to observe some traditional rules regarding them.

They don't like being disturbed and may cause a person who continually bothers them to become "puzzled" throughout life. Because of this, traditional Cherokees will not investigate or look when they believe they hear Little People. If one of the Little People is accidentally seen, or if he or she chooses to show himself, it is not to be discussed or told of for at least seven years. It is common practice to not speak about the Little People after nightfall.

Traditional Cherokees also believe that after a person dies, his soul often continues to live on as a ghost. Ghosts are believed to have the ability to materialize where some, but not all people, can see them.

Very basic to the Cherokee belief system is the premise that good is rewarded and evil is punished. Even though the Cherokee have a strict belief in this type of justice, there are times when things happen that the system just does not explain. It is often believed that these events are caused by someone using medicine for evil purposes.

Witchcraft among the Cherokee does not resemble that of non-Indian cultures. To understand and respect the beliefs of traditional Cherokee about using medicine, conjuring, and witchcraft you must first consider early Indian societies and consider how this has remained an integral part of Cherokee culture even up to the present day. There are ordinary witches and then there are killer witches. Ordinary witches are actually considered the more dangerous since a person can never be sure he is dealing with one and they are more difficult to counteract. They may even deceive a medicine person and cause them to prescribe the wrong cure if not they aren't careful. One killer witch still spoken of often by traditionalists today is the Raven Mocker.

Today, although many Cherokee still consult with medicine people regarding problems, both mental and physical, some will not see a medicine man for any reason and refuse to acknowledge their powers. Some believe in using both Cherokee medicine and licensed medical doctors and the health care systems.

The knowledge held by the medicine men or women is very broad. They work and study for years committing to memory the syllabary manuscripts passed on by the ones who taught them. Many formulas have been documented in Cherokee syllabary writing in books ranging from small notebooks to full-blown ledgers. If the words are not spoken or sung in the Cherokee language, they have no affect. Until the words have been memorized the medicine person may refer to his book. This does not compromise his abilities, after all; modern medical practitioners often refer back to their medical texts and other reference books as well. The writings in these traditional books are strictly guarded and anyone who is not "in training" is forbidden to study or even read the books.

The spoken words are usually accompanied by some physical procedure, such as the use of a specially prepared tobacco, or drink. Medicine people themselves must be, and remain in perfect health for their powers to be at peak.

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