A Primer on Cherokee Religion

The following account is my own opinion, pieced together from a myriad of sources, the first part from my Granny and Aunt Dode, as well as Tommy Bass, and the second from various white history texts.

Part I
Long ago, just before White men came to this land, we Real People were a religious people ruled by a class of priests.  Our priests knew the old religion, and the methods by which the Great Father was to be worshiped, that He might be pleased with us.  One day, while men were away hunting, the priests of one village, some say in Chota itself, the priests abducted a young wife and hid her away.  When her husband returned and found her gone he began to inquire, and learning what had happened, he sought her out.  When the priests would neither return her, nor show him a body, he incited all the people, all across the nation, to slaughter the priests.  One young novice survived this rebellion, and through his limited knowledge, our religion continued along, crippled.  But from then on, for lack of a better word, we had a democratised religion.  Some say this old way was the worship of many gods and demons, some say it was the true worship of the Great Father of All, what Whites call monotheism and that the worship of many gods and demons came after we killed our priests and forgot the old ways.

Then very shortly after, the first White men came to us, with shiny scales like Armadillo, but which shown like the surface of a lake when it is calm.  They were very few, but very cruel. They were the Spaniards.  They hid in a cave through winter which Whites call Welch’s Cave or Welsh Cave, and when winter passed, they left away very quickly south along the Great War Path.  And soon thereafter, a sickness came upon us and many died.  We were being punished for killing the Great father’s priests some say.  Others say other things.

Eventually things settled out, and though many had died, those who remained went on with life and soon we were many again.  And then another White man came.  but this White man was different.  He did not have scales like Armadillo, but wore very strange clothes, and when he came into our mountains he shed his strange clothes and dressed as we dress, and ate as we eat, and danced and sang as we do.  He learned our language, and when he could speak like a Real Person, he began to tell us of the old ways again, to remind us of our old religion.  He taught us that the Great Father was one, and that He made all things, and that He loved us even when we were wicked.  But He also taught us that God was really three, and that He became his own son, and that as His own son, He became one of us and walked the Earth and was pleased.  But because men are wicked sometimes, men killed God and that all men are guilty of this crime. And when He was dead, He revived and went away, and after a little while He came back, but as a Spirit and not a man.  And that He could be heard in the rustling of leaves when there was no wind.

And the Real People loved this white man very much and began to follow him.  Not all the Real People, for some were threatened by his talk.  In these days Aga’Nstata and Adg’kala were very young.  But one day, other white men, English men, found him when he had went down to the White men who lived down near the great sea, Spaniards, and took him from us and we never again saw him.  And eventually we Real people began to forget all that he had spoke and to fall into our old ways again.  And we did not hear his talk again for many generations, until the time when the Moravians came at the request of Rich Joe Vann and began to talk to us about Christianity.

Part II

That man who came to us was Christian Gottlieb Prieber, a German.  The Englishmen who seized him, and imprisoned and killed him, said he was a Jesuit aligned with the Spaniards.  Modern history says Englishmen called everyone they did not like a Jesuit and that this was a lie and that the truth is he was a scoundrel who planned to build a vast empire of Indians and enslave us all to his own wicked ends.

But I ask my catholic readers, doesn’t he sound like a Jesuit?  He came alone among us, he became like us, and when he could talk to us in our own idiom, he began to expound on the Trinity, and God’s love for all his children.  When the Moravians came, they recognised how readily we accepted their Gospel, because it coincided with our own understanding so well.  One said we were converted with no effort at all and that God surely had made our hearts ready before their arrival.

But the sad thing is that the Englishmen, who we accepted eventually as our brothers, and submitted to their Great Father across the Sea, never once told us of Christ nor made any effort to convert us.  And when a few of the Englishmen here became wicked and rebelled against the Great Father across the Sea, many of us eventually submitted to them, and became their friends too.  And they gave us spinning wheels and looms and steel ploughs and many other things, to the point that they called us civilised, but they did not tell us of Christ.  They thought it grand that many of us acted as they acted, and began to live as they lived.  But they never shared with us the Christ.

Today, the National Anthem of the Cherokee People is “Amazing Grace”.  The religion of most Cherokee is Baptist.  Some have followed the Redbird and his ways he learned from the Nachee, but most are Baptist, as my whole family is.  I am the only Catholic Cherokee, to my knowledge, though I have been told that Catholicism is common among the Cherokee in Texas and Mexico.  I have never been among them and so I cannot say if this is so or not.

But this is the best reason I have not to trust Americans.  Though you worshipped Christ, and said He was all things to all men, you did not give Him to us.  You gave us technology instead.

This is damning, if you ask me.  And then, when you discovered gold beneath us, you rounded many of  us, many of us then Christians ourselves thanks to the Moravians, into several stockades built from chesnut logs, as many as 3,000 in a pit surrounded by chesnut walls no bigger than your local parish hall.  We could not leave and lived like this for many months, eating the scraps you threw to us, living in a pit in our own filth, in the first concentration camps before forcing us to endure many hardships to a land you call Oklahoma.  Hardships which killed 3 of every 4 who went.  And even as you forced us to this thing, it broke your hearts to see us suffer, but still you would not relent.  And so we call this forced march The Trail Where Y’all Cried.  For we did not cry.  We endured hardship as Real People should. Without complaint.  But it broke your hearts and yet you forced us onward, westward, to line your pockets.

When I was a boy, my Aunt Gussie’s farm still had an old barn made from those same chesnut logs that had been used to construct the Stockade at Barry Springs, where Sogwili finished simplifying our writing so that everyone could learn it. We tried once to make a cross from one of those logs, to put in the yard at Pleasant Valley Baptist Church on Good Fridays.  That chesnut was so hard that it broke 3 Stihl chainsaw blades just cutting it once and notching the two pieces.  Wore them down and then broke them.  But we Real People are not chainsaw blades.  Those stockades wore many of us down but it could not break us. Someday I might share with you how you lie about Sogwili, and how Granny Kimbrell hid on Dirtseller mountain and did not enter the stockade, but for now I have had enough heartbreak.

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21 comments
  1. Thanks, I found this very interesting. And as I read your story about the Hedgehog/Porcupine, I was thinking that if it has never been published before, it could make a wonderful book for children. I do watercolour and drawings (that’s where the exhibition I mentioned elsewhere comes in), but I have not done much on wildlife. However I could get photographs… Maybe I could try my hand at illustrating a story like this one. It has seemed from recent events that it is now time for me to give up translation and work on my first love – the visual arts – for the next few years. Then a crisis occurred about my phone, etc.. as if some force was trying to stop me.
    Thank you for relaying my prayer request to Mark.

    • If you are familiar with Uncle Remus, by Joel Chandler Harris, or the Disney classic “Song of the South”, his Br’er Rabbit tales are based on our animal legends. I am not sure they have ever been produced as children’s stories in any other format though. Let’s me and you pray on this and see what happens. And writing Mark was no problem at all.

      • I am not really familiar with those, since my childhood was spent in French, but I took a note and will check them out, either on Internet or in our local library.

      • They are entertaining, but lack the gravity of our legends. Please keep me up to date about your situation.

  2. I had heard some of the Bre’r Rabbit tales (we had them on a record when I was little, and it was a favorite for a long time), but I didn’t recall anything about the porcupine in them. They were always very lighthearted. Heartbreaking is the proper term for this, especially part two. I think very few people ever hear much about those times, except as a blurb in a history book. Thank you for taking the time to write it out and post it.

    • Hezekiah Garrett said:

      Harris’ stories were an adaptation of the Rabbit trickster stories. Except he always made Rabbit appear wise. When in truth it is wise to be wary of Rabbit. He is wily!

      • I live in Wyoming. In some of the native folktales here (which I *think* are Sioux, but I’m not really sure), coyote is the wily trickster. It’s one of those characters that shows up all over the world. A friend of mine who taught in Korea said there the trickster is a type of raccoon.

      • Hezekiah Garrett said:

        Nope, but good guess!

        The Shoshone and Arapaho share the Wind River Rez. I think that’s the name, but I am runnig on memory.

        At one time you had also Ute, Arapahoe and Cheyenne, but their Rezs aren’t in Wy.

        Even Judaism has a trickster. His name is Satan. If you read Job, this is where Satan makes his appearance by that name, but in Genesis, he is a legless Serpent known by that author merely as the serpent.

      • I was reaching back to 4th grade, when a group came to our school, performed several native dances, acted out some of the Native folktales, and gave a very brief history of life in Wyoming before the pioneers. You are right, the Wind River Reservation, some very beautiful, broken country. I have not visited there, but a friend of mine teaches music there.

  3. I have a question. For relaxation I enjoy reading murder mysteries, and there is one particular author, I think his name is Tony Hillerman (but I am not sure, I don’t have one of his books at hand right now) who sets his stories in the Navaho areas, and I even think, if my memory is correct, that he has been named a “Friend of the Navaho”. He uses a lot of the Navaho culture as a background to his stories, which I found very interesting. Do you know of him?

    • He was my dad’s favorite mystery author. I have read his first 4 or 5 novels and enjoyed them greatly. I only stopped because until you reminded me, I had forgotten him. I will have to see how much new material he has produced.

      If you would like another recommendation, I wish you would read Robert J Conley. With your people’s acceptance and openness to we First Nations, I would imagine he wouldn’t be terribly hard to find in your library system.

  4. Thank you for the compliment to my people. I seem to see a lot of criticism of Canada on some blogs, someone even called my country “barbarian” – I even think it was in one of Mark’s comboxes. And I think Hillerman has written more than a dozen books so far. Unfortunately I did not get to buy all of them by now, but I intend to, because they have a lot more to offer than a good story and deserve to be kept for their cultural content.

    • I don’t have the highest opinion of the Canadian government, I won’t lie, but for very different reasons than conservative Americans. Y’all stayed loyal to our Great Father, the English King, for a lot longer than most folks have around the world, but it saddens me to see the turn you have taken in recent history. Though I may just be jealous because 4 or 5 Indian families living in the US can’t be a member of the commonwealth that has formed as history leaves us behind. But we fought, suffered and died for him, and ourselves it is true, into the 19th century. But with Muskogee chieftain Menawa’s defeat at the Horseshoe Bend on Tallapoosa, the last Chickamaugan ties to the English were broken.

    • S. Murphy said:

      Tony Hillerman died a year or two ago, alas; but he did write at least a dozen of his Joe Leaphorn / Jim Chee mysteries. He was Catholic, too, apparently.

      • Now that you mention it, I remember hearing on NPR that he had passed. I know because it made me cry to think of my Daddy’s passing as well. Joe Leaphorn was an excellent character.

  5. Ted Seeber said:

    Is Sogwili the same man natives in Jefferson State call Sequoia? I ask because of the similarity in the legend- the man who brought writing to the Cherokee and was revered by the Modoc.

    • Hezekiah Garrett said:

      Sequoyah is how history will remember him, but all of the history about him is mostly lies, so I use his proper name, Sogwili, which means ‘a real pig’ or ‘a pig’s pig’.

      He was adopted by our people when tiny. He was the last member of our society of scribes, and was asked by our leaders to make the writing system we had always had somewhat simpler so that we all might be literate and communicate directly over the vast distances seperating us, Appalachia,Arkansas and Mexico.

      This gets into what should be preferenced, oral history or written; the testimony of witnesses or the declarations of scholars.

      • Hezekiah Garrett said:

        The reason his life is distorted is that he was a dedicated Chickamauga his whole life, and that was not convenient for an American myth that needed Cherokee to be docile, peaceful and almost white. When in truth, he was one of us who were hostile and fierce, fighting against Americans into the 1790s.

  6. Cyborg said:

    white person not real person. sound like heap big racism to me

    • Cyborgs are barely people. That said, if you will demonstrate a rudimemtary grasp of standard English in your reply, I promise I will find time to explain your error to you.

      Have a blessed day!

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