“They (the Cherokee) said they would follow the advice of their great father General Washington, they would plant cotton and be prepared for spinning as soon as they could make it, and they hoped they might get some wheels and cards as soon as they should be ready for them…” – Benjamin Hawkins (1796)
The early years of the Cherokee Indians reflected a rich and unique style of dress and decoration rich with colors and paints for warriors, a single feather headdress into more modern full feathered head pieces. The Cherokee Indians rich and elaborate expressions for a varied people. The use of color was in unison with the four directions and the represented meanings. According to the Cherokee:
- East-Red represents victory and power
- West-Black represents death
- North-Blue represents sadness and defeat
- South-White represents peace and harmony
Elaborate dresses were enjoyed during celebrations, Pow-Wows, and ceremonies and costumes of an exaggerated style are still worn today. The Cherokee warriors were tattooed during deeply religious ceremonies and in connection to war. “Young men had to qualify for such decorations by killing enemies in war, warriors often used their own bodies as “Goal Board” to keep track of how many they had killed.” They used sharp fish or animal bones and pierced the skin rapidly then “rubbed coal or okra into the wounds”(Guzman, 2013). This resulted in very dark, dotted patterns and symbols on the skin.
The Cherokee noblemen (see right) who traveled to England in the 18th century were heavily tattooed on both their bodies and their heads. In order to blend in the English society, the noblemen adopted middle eastern turbans and British smoking jackets to hide their bodily symbols.
The Cherokee warriors wore Mohawk headdresses and often shaved their heads around a long single pony tail on the crown. They fashioned bones and jewelry breastplates, sashes and hide clothing and moccasins.
Traditional Cherokee Style included fringe, simple plumed head pieces and beaded designs.
Clothing for men and women were made of animal hides, primarily deerskin and woven mulberry bark. Men wore breeches, robes, beaded war bandoliers, beaded belts and shirts all fashioned out of soft hide and usually seen with accents of fringe.
The Cherokee women’s traditional dress were long deerskin wrap around straight skirts and fringed sleeved tops. They incorporated furs in the bitter winter months. Beading and decoration was common among the Cherokee as well as accessorizing with head pieces (usually a single feather in the back with a band around the head), beaded satchels , bone breastplates and jewelry.
Jewelry and Accessories
Jewelry was created using nuts, shells, beads and often forged from copper, silver and gold. The influx of European settlers brought an exotic array of materials the Cherokee also used, such as silk thread, brightly colored seed beads. Prior to the forced removal (Trail of Tears) there was a celebration of life in every element of dress and expression. The bold and intricate designs of jewelry halted when the Cherokee were uprooted and displaced. Modern day presents a vibrant historical preservation and rejuvenation of the jewelry craft based on traditional designs.
The Trail of Tears Style
During the forced relocation of the Cherokee Indians, clothing style changed drastically as did the lives of the people. The long harsh conditions brought a sobering and harsh reality to the Cherokee people that was conveyed through their attire. The Cherokee utilized calico cotton fabrics just as the settlers and created a much more practical form of dress along the long miles of displacement.
The standard dresses during and after the Trail of Tears were made entirely of torn rectangular pieces of fabric due to the lack of scissors or necessities needed to fashion intricate designs as the Cherokee had always known before.
The sleeves were 3/4 length or pinned neatly away to not interfere with chores and the button down front aided in nursing. Cherokee women emulated the pioneer women in their dress of calico skirts, blouses, and shawls.
Ribbon shirts (see left) were worn by both men and women. Using calico cotton fabric, the shirt was button down and adorned with satin ribbons which sometimes hung loose simulating fringe.
In modern times, the Cherokee have elaborate, detailed costumes that are not always historically accurate but impress the tourists that visit historic sites. Pow-wow celebrations often include elaborate versions of Native American clothing.
Cherokee Indian Pow Wow-North Carolina
Cherokee Powwow, North Carolina. (2014, July 4). Retrieved March 6, 2015, from https://youtu.be/O1gxWnWz2bs
Cherokee Nation Flags
The Cherokee Nation Flag displays the Cherokee Nation seal circled by 7 stars representing the seven clans. These stars also recall the seven holidays in the Cherokee Life Cycle and the seven sacred rites in the Cherokee’s native religion.The wreath and acorns surrounding the star in the center of the seal, represents the sacred fire of the Cherokee, maintained for hundreds of years by spiritual leaders. The seal reads: Seal of the Cherokee Nation CᎮrᎣkᎡᎡ ᎾᏘᎣn (meaning Cherokee Nation in the native syllabary). The black star in the right corner was added in 1989 and honors the Cherokee Indians that lost their lives marching the Trail of Tears.
The flag of the Eastern Band Cherokee [ ᏣᎳᎩᏱ ᏕᏣᏓᏂᎸᎩ ]. Approximately 1,000 Cherokee escaped the Trail of Tears by hiding in the dense mountains and were eventually granted land in western North Carolina and others obtained North Carolina citizenship preventing removal. They became federally recognized in 1868.
United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians are referred to as the “Old Settlers”, the Cherokee who migrated to present-day Arkansas and Oklahoma about 1817.
Cherokee Peace Flag
The Cherokee Peace Flag has a solid white background representing peace and happiness. Seven red stars (representing victory and success) are arranged in the shape of the constellation Yonegwa, the Big Dipper. Before the journey on the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee War Flag (see below) was buried with a war hatchet, a symbol of the The Cherokee carried the “peace flag” with them as they traveled on the Trail of Tears.
Cherokee War Flag
The numbers 4 and 7 are sacred numbers holding powerful symbolism and reflective of the Cherokee Indian beliefs. The number four, symbolizes the four cardinal directions: north, east, south, west. They are viewed as pathways and at the center is the sacred fire.
Seven also symbolizes directions, only incorporating the Cherokee belief system. They believe in seven directions: north, south, east, west, above, below, and “here in the center” (Lewis & Kneberg, p. 175).
There are seven clans, seven ancient religious ceremonies celebrated six times a year except every seventh year there are seven ceremonies:
The New Moon of Spring Ceremony is usually celebrated on the first new moon in March, and begins the Cherokee calendar of holidays. It lasted seven days and included dancing and re-lighting of the sacred fire by the fire maker. The ceremony included sacrificing a deer tongue in the fire.. All the home fires were extinguished and rekindled from the sacred fire’s coals.
August the Green Corn Ceremony was celebrated. Cherokee Indians were informed when the ceremony was and they would gathered seven ears of corn, each from a field of a different clan. After the messengers returned, the chief and his seven councilors fasted for six days. The ceremony began on the seventh. Re-lighting of the sacred fire by the fire maker and sacrificing a deer tongue in the fire was tradition in this ceremony as well.
The Ripe Corn Ceremony was held in late September honored the mature corn. The celebration lasted four days and was also marked by feasting.
In October the third ceremony in the cycle was the Great New Moon Ceremony. Cherokee stories say the world was created in the fall, that it represented the new year celebration. Ceremonies included dancing, purification by immersing seven times in water, called “going to water” (Mooney, p. 230). The purification ceremony included predictions of health for the coming year by the “priest” using the sacred crystal.
Ten days after the New Moon Ceremony “Atohuna” or the “Friends Made Ceremony”. The New Moon Ceremony was said to have been the “most profoundly religious” (p. 183) of all the ceremonies. This ceremony also celebrates the re-lighting of the sacred fire.
The sixth ceremony in the cycle was the Bounding Bush Ceremony, a non-religious gathering that was celebrated by feasting and dancing for three consecutive days. The dance was a unique circular movement around a man in the middle with a meager box and as the dancers pass him,each dropped a piece of tobacco in the box. On the fourth night there was a feast before the dancing. Dancing resumed at midnight. This time people dropped pine needles into the box. At the end of the dance, near daylight, the dancers formed a circle around the sacred fire: “One by one, they advanced three times toward the fire, the third time tossing both tobacco and pine needles into the flames.” (Lewis & Kneberg, p. 185).
Every seventh year the Uku Dance replaced the Great New Moon Ceremony. In this dance the Chief, or Uku, led the nation in a ceremony of thanks giving and rejoicing. Before the Chief’s dance he is ushered in on a white chair
Each of the seven clans also has a sacred wood. They are:
- Birch = AniGatogewi, the Wild Potato Clan.
- Beech = AniGilohi, the Long Hair Clan.
- Oak = Ani Kawi, the Deer Clan.
- Maple = Ah-ni-tsi-sk-wa, the Bird Clan.
- Ash = Ah-ni-sa-ho-ni, the Blue Clan.
- Locust = Ah-ni-wo-di, the Paint Clan.
- Hickory = Ani’-Wah’ Ya, the Wolf Clan.
Wood from the cedar tree is considered very sacred, and in ancient days it was used to carry the honored dead.The cougar and the owl hold special significance to the Cherokee people. It is said they were the only animals who stayed awake past the seven days of creation and were blessed with nocturnal abilities.
The design on a turtle shell symbolizes the 13 phases of the moon in Cherokee calendar year. They often created ceremonial rattles with at stick and a turtle shell that they played during their gatherings.
Cherokee Myths and Origins
” Above the sky arch was the Upper World. This was where the guiding and protective spirits of humans and animals lived. These spirits could move from the Upper World to the Middle World and back to help the humans keep balance and harmony on the Earth.
Below the Earth was the Under World of bad spirits. Bad spirits brought disorder and disaster. They could rise to the Middle World through deep springs, lakes, and caves. When these spirits caused trouble, Cherokees called on the spirits from the Upper World to help restore balance and harmony to the Middle World “(Raley, 1998)
The Milky Way Cherokee Myth
A corn mill, where cornmeal was made, the southern people came to fill the corn mill and they noticed some of the cornmeal was gone. After inspecting the area, they find a dog’s footprints.
The next night, the dog came from the north and began to eat the meal out of the bowl they sprang out and whipped him. He ran off howling to his home with the pieces of cornmeal dropping from his mouth as he scurried off, leaving a white trail behind him and where we can see the Milky Way, which the Cherokee refer to as Gi`lï’-utsûñ’stänûñ’yï, [wᎮrᎡ tᎮ Ꮩg rᎠn] meaning: “Where the dog ran.”
Cherokee Legend of Two Wolves.
“Like many American Indian lessons this one uses the animal symbology to help us understand the truth about human nature.”
Cherokee Creation Story
Southeast then Oklahoma
“Long ago, before there were any people, the earth was a great island floating in a sea of water, suspended by four cords handing down from the sky vault, which was made of solid rock. It was dark and the animals could not see, so they got the sun and set it in a track to go across the island every day from east to west, just over head.
The Creator told the animals and plants to stay awake for seven nights. But only a few of the animals were able to, including owls and panthers, and they were rewarded with the power to go about in the dark. Among the plants, only the cedars, pines, spruces, and laurels stayed awake, so they were allowed to remain green year-round and to provide the best medicines. The Creator chided the other trees: ‘Because you have not endured to the end, you shall lose your hair every winter’
People appeared last, after the animals, the sun, and the plants, but they multiplied so quickly that they threatened to overrun the world. So it was decided that each woman would have only one child a year, and it has been that way ever since ( “Cherokee Creation Story Southeast then Oklahoma”, 2012).”
Courtesy of: Raley, K. (1998, April 1). Maintaining balance: The religious world of the Cherokees. Tar Heel Junior Historian, 2-2.