Manataka American Indian Council


 

 

 

 

 

CHEROKEE CUSTOMS

Children, Clans, Cleanliness, Clothing, Colors, Cradles

 

 

 

 

CHILDREN
Children contributed to the work which had to be done by their families. They were an essential part of early Cherokee life, adored by everyone.
 

"In its early years the principal care of the child fell naturally upon its mother, who never struck it, particularly if it was a male, but scratched it with a pin, a needle, or gar teeth to deter it from wrong doing and also to harden it. If scratching was resorted to as a punishment, the skin was scratched dry, otherwise only after it had been soaked in water. The girls remained under the tutelage of their mother and her clan sisters, but the boys were taken in hand by the oldest uncle of the clan or clan group, who maintained a general oversight of the education of all the young men. He admonished them, lectured them at the time of the busk or other gatherings, and at times resorted to flagellation, in which Bossu says that a carrying-strap was used, but canes were also
employed. (Swanton, 137, 715)
 

Babies were bathed every day with warm water from a pottery or gourd basin, then anointed with oil from bear fat or the fat
passenger pigeon.
 

It seems that the oldest aunt on the mother's side instructed the girls. The older women in the clan were often consulted, and
their wisdom highly valued.
 

Boys often slept on panther skins to acquire that animal's strength and courage. Sleeping on doe skins made the girls more
graceful...Parents and and children slept on comfortable cane 'mattresses'.
 

Boys of about eight were expected with the clever use of the blowgun to bring in quail and rabbit to add to the family larder.
His life was competitive. There were contests of archery, running, wrestling, weight-lifting, chunky, and ball play, with his 'uncle'
insisting on both strength and courage.
 

Children's efforts to get around the morning bath 'going to the water' were punished by the uncle with scratching of arms, backs, or legs with a snake's tooth, or the teeth of a gar fish.
 

For other infractions, they were chastised with words. For instance, a boy who disgraced himself by cowardice would be praised
by his uncle for his exemplary courage. Adair wrote: "I have known them to strike their delinquents with those sweetened darts (words), so good naturedly and skillfully, that they would sooner die by torture, than renew their shame by repeating the actions".
 

Children grew up understanding about character by example and word. Childhood training was to help boys and girls to behave
themselves, to respect their elders and learn from them, to know clan and tribal histories, and especially to attend to spiritual
matters -- the most important agencies of all.  Young boys learned the art of applying red, white, and black body paint for ceremonial purposes. Girls learned the arts of decorating themselves and others with feathers, and sometimes pretty pebbles (probably crystals). (quote source unknown)


"From Haywood's account, it would appear that the father of a family could not punish his children since they were of a different
clan from his" (Gilbert, 324).

 

This is true. It was for the mother's eldest brother to be the first to correct or admonish a child; but
actually that responsibility was shared with each and every other older male or female of the clan. In other words, a clans business was everybody's business, but there was a pecking order to be observed, if at all possible. Things should be done in the right way.


"And tho' they never want Plenty of Milk, yet I never saw an Ind. Woman with very large Breasts; neither does the youngest Wife
ever fail of proving so good a Nurse, as to bring her Child up free from the Rickets and Disasters that proceed from the Teeth, with many other Distempers which attack our Infants in England... They let their Children suck till they are well grown, unless they prove big with Child sooner. They always nurse their own Children themselves, unless Sickness or Death prevents. I once saw a Nurse hired to give Suck to an Ind. Woman's Child, which you have in my Journal.... As soon as the Child is born, they wash it in cold Water at the next stream, and then bedawb it... After which, the Husband takes care to provide a Cradle, which is soon made, consisting of a Piece of flat Wood, which they hew with their Hatchets to the Likeness of a Board; it is about two Foot long, and a Foot broad; to this they brace and tie the Child down very close, having, near the middle, a Stick fastened about two Inches from the Board, which is for the Child's Breech to rest on, under which they put a Wad of Moss that receives the Child's Excrements, by which means they can shift the Moss, and keep all clean and sweet. ..These Cradles are apt to make the Body flat; yet they are the most portable things that can be invented; for there is a String which goes from one Corner of the Board to the other, whereby the Mother slings her Child on her Back; so the Infant's Back is towards hers, and its Face looks up towards the Sky. If it rains, she throws her leather or Woolen Match-Coat, over her Head, which covers the Child all over, and secures her and it from the Injuries of rainy Weather." (Lawson, 196,197)
 

A Cherokee's age was determined by how many "winters" he/she had survived.
 

"Men assumed other kinds of responsibilities for clan children. Elder brothers trained and educated their sisters' sons. "You know such and such boys in the town that are my near relation," a priest explained patiently, "I am now learning them all sorts of doctoring for when I die they'll be in my place". Clan specialization and customs moved through time and across generations, tying Cherokees of the present to those of the past and future. "When they are old and perhaps dead" the priest continued" "their relations are in their place". Their 'place' might be in the priesthood or war council, the domains of medicine or prophecy or leadership, or the intricacies of dance or song or even weaving or potting. A 'certain family' wrote Longe' always hold the priesthood, and no one else could minister in that affair". Every clan possessed its own distinct body of magic, formulas, dances, and symbols." (Hill, 30)

 

"The birth of twins was regarded in a special light. They were thought to be especially likely to have unusual powers and were said often to become priests or witches. This was most likely to be true of the younger twin, they believed..
 

"From the moment of birth the two sexes were treated differently. Male infants were wrapped in cougar skins while females
were wrapped in deer or bison skins... An infant spent most of the first year of life bound to a cradle board. These cradle boards,
made of light rectangular frames of wood or basketry, made it easier for the mother to carry her infant, and it helped protect the infant from the weather and from injury. A wad of soft moss absorbed the infant's excrement.
 

"...the Indians were indulgent parents. A child was allowed to nurse as long as he pleased, or until his mother became pregnant
again. Although mothers were primarily responsible for their children during their first four or five years of life, they were
not supposed to punish them physically, particularly their sons.  Boys fell under the discipline of one of their mother's older
brothers. Ordinarily, the disciplinarian was the oldest, most influential male in the mother's lineage. Girls, on the other hand,
remained under the supervision of the women of their clan. If physical punishment had to be administered to a boy, it was usually
done by lightly scratching his dry skin with a sharp, pointed instrument. This was called "dry-scratching". Dry-scratching was
especially humiliating because it left scratches or light scars on the skin for several days or weeks so that all could see them and
tease the child about them. The scratching was punishment, but it was also thought to "lighten" or lessen the child's blood, and it
was believed that this made him healthier and less troublesome. ...The usual way of punishing less serious instances of
misbehavior was by ridicule, a device which can be an especially powerful sanction in a small community.
 

"Little girls learned how to play a woman's role by helping the older women with housework, tending the gardens, keeping the fire
going, making pottery and basketry, and so on. Little boys learned how to hunt by doing it. They spent most of their day roaming
through the woods and shooting at targets and small animals with their bows and arrows (or blowguns and darts)... later the boys
learned to play chunkey and the ball game. Perhaps the boys' favorite sport was running foot races. If a man was to be a good
warrior and a good hunter, he had to be able to run rapidly and for long distances." (Hudson, 323,324, from Swanton, ITLMV, 87,88) "Young boys from eight to twelve years old played the game (the ball game) among themselves, hoping for the day when they would be able to play in regular games. (Hudson, 411)
 

Timberlake says "that as soon as a woman discovered she was pregnant she informed her husband and the news was quickly
communicated to the whole settlement. She was subjected to many taboos, the most important of which was that she was taken to water to pray and bathe every new moon, for at least 3 months before the delivery. A priest and her husband, mother, or some other near relative accompanied her, and the priest dipped some water out and placed it upon the crown of her head, her breast, and sometimes her face, and prognosticated the future fate of the child by conjuring with certain white and red beads. Anciently, a separate house was built for the woman during that period. The placenta was buried on the far side of two ridges of mountains by the father or nearest relative. There is now no cradle, but when the child is 3 or 4 weeks old it is carried about astride of its mother's back. At the age of 4 or 5, boys come under the supervision of their fathers or mother's brother and learn to handle bows and arrows, while girls help their mothers and older sisters. They learn their own culture rapidly and play games in which the activities of their elders are imitated. A child may be raised to become a wizard and such a career is particularly marked for twins. Such a child is kept secluded during the first 24 days of its life... Meanwhile it is not allowed to taste its mother's milk but given instead the liquid portion of corn hominy. While such children are growing up they are often supposed to go away and talk with the "Little People", a race of dwarfs believed in by nearly all southern natives" (Timberlake, 90; Mooney, 116-130)
 

There is a charming story recorded about the Spanish monk, San Miguel and his companions having spent the night under a tree near the settlement of the Timucua. "the following day, as soon as it was day many ... boys came to the sloop, and all, though they were very small, had bows and arrows proportioned to their size and stature, and all these began shooting into the top of the tree where we had slept, chattering merrily to one another, without our understanding them or understanding why they were shooting there, when we saw falling from the tree a little snake, its small head pierced by an arrow, and one of those boys came proudly and lifting on his arrow the pierced snake, showing it to us joyfully as the conqueror and more skilful than the rest" (Swanton, 373; Garcia, 193). We report it here, because the activities of boys in the Old South was much the same, and this could well have been Cherokee boys at their serious play.
 

"As a special privilege a boy was sometimes admitted to the asi (hothouse) on such occasions (when the elder myth-keepers and priests met together at night to recite the traditions and discuss their secret knowledge) to tend the fire, and thus had the
opportunity to listen to the stories and learn something of the secret rites....the fire intended to heat the room -- for nights are
cold in the Cherokee mountains -- was built upon the ground in the center of the small house, which was not high enough to permit a standing position, while the occupants sat in a circle around it. In front of the fire was placed a large flat rock, and near it a pile of pine knots or splints. When the fire had burned down to a bed of coals, the boy lighted one or two of the pine knots and laid them upon the rock, where they blazed with a bright light until nearly consumed, when others were laid upon them, and so on until daybreak" (Mooney, Myths, 230)
 

"For a girl child, even playing "house" with a friend was a learning experience. She learned mostly by helping the other females
in the house: her mother, her aunt's, her grandmothers. From the time she could walk she was learning by helping, or playing by
emulating the work she saw the others do.
 

There was always corn to shuck; corn to crush into powder; corn to leach with lye for hominy, corn to boil for mush. There were
animals and fish to cook in several ways. There were plants and herbs to learn about, both for cooking and for medicine. There was learning to work hides and leathers into clothing and moccasins, to learn how to prepare and preserve fruits and meats by drying, either over a fire or in the sun. One had to learn how to make thread and cords from plant fibers, or from animal sinews or hair. One had to learn how to make bread. Corn pone. Bean bread. Persimmon bread. Pumpkin bread. Peach Bread called "lobloly".
 

While learning all this, day by day, listening to the stories that the women told: stories of how Cherokees came into being; all
the myths and fables of the birds and animals, and even the insects; the medicinal lore, and how to take care of a baby, by taking care of the babies; how to keep a house clean, how to make the right fire for the right purpose; how to keep from offending the evil spirits always lurking about; what to expect from a clan member, either male or female, and what was expected of one, in return. As each day went on, it was a constant learning experience, passed down from one generation to another.


Then, when a little older, one had to learn to weave baskets and mats; to gather the right plants and tree-bark used to dye the cane; to find the right clay to make a pot; to work the clay to make a pot or vessel; to fire the pottery. One had to learn good grooming habits, to adorn the hair, to use the right paint, sparingly. One had to learn the dances, all the many, many dances, and the women's part in them. Life was an ever-changing experience of all the same things, over and over. And the best way to learn was to do.  For a boy child, every day was a learning experience. One of his first gifts would be a blowgun, about as long as he was tall, along with some little tufted darts. This would be from one of his uncles (his mother's brothers) or perhaps from his father, who, although not of his clan, still had his responsibilities. While learning to use the blowgun, and to become proficient at it, it would be necessary to learn how to make a new one, and certainly to make new darts for himself, as they seemed to disintegrate or disappear rather rapidly.


Then there was learning all about the birds and their habits; and the animals: their names, their habits, their characteristics.
And then to learn of their spiritual counterparts. And it was necessary to learn the games that could be played for hours on end
with the other boys. And to sit with the elders and learn the old stories that must be retold word for word, without deviation, lest
one get severely scratched and humiliated. One had to learn what was 'taboo', and what was allowable.
 

Then there were the trees to learn about, and the fruits, and the berries, and in the spring helping to prepare the fields with
the men folk, and to plant the fields with the womenfolk, and to tend the fields with the elder folks. There were nuts to gather, and nuts to crack in the stone nutcrackers. There was corn to be brought from the corn cribs, and dried fruit to be brought down from the rafters where they had been dried, which might bring a smile of thanks, or a pat on the head, from grandma.


And in the teens, to learn to cook enough so that one could survive in the wilds, to work the animal hides and leather, and to
make ones own clothing and shoes; to learn the rituals of "going to the water" and how not to offend the ever-present ghost-spirits; to make a canoe and a make-shift raft so that one could cross a river; to become specialist in a trade, or in war, or in oratory. To learn how to build a house by helping to build one for a female cousin who was getting married. To learn the use of paints and of tattooing the body; to learn to hunt, being taught by elder hunters, to skin and clean the carcass. To cook the carcass over makeshift fires in the woods.
 

To learn how to fish, in several different ways, and to make the fishhooks and lines. To shoot the bow and arrows; to make the bows and arrows; to decorate the bows and arrows. One had to learn at least the rudiments of sign-language, and some words of the 'Mobilian trade language'. There was always something to do; something to learn; somebody new coming into the village with another story, or a new way to do things. And to learn how to play the ballgame. A young man must always become proficient at the ballgame, its meaning, its rituals. And to learn the dances . oh, the many, many dances ... pantomime dramas played out with regular rigidity. There was always something to learn. There was always something to do.   Oukah.


After the missionaries came things changed, at least for the few children who attended the missionary schools. In a letter written by Jeremiah Evarts in 1822: "Missionaries were especially shocked at the sexual behavior of Cherokee children. The intercourse between the young of both sexes was shamefully loose, when Brainerd opened in 1817. Boys or girls in their teens would strip and go in to bathe or play ball together naked. They would also use the most disgusting indecent language without the least sense of shame. But when better instructed, they became reserved and modest" (Missionaries, 139)

 

CRADLES

"...the husband takes care to provide a cradle, which is soon made, consisting of a piece of flat wood, which they hew with their hatchets to the thickness of a board; it is about two feet long, and a foot broad; to this they brace and tie the child down very close, having near the middle, a stick fastened about two inches from the board, which is for the child's breech to rest upon, under which they put a wad of moss that receives the child's excrements, by which means they can shift the moss and keep all clean and sweet...These cradles are apt to make the body flat; yet they are the most portable things that can be invented, for there is a string which goes from one corner of the board to the other, whereby the mother flings her child on her back; so the infant's back is towards hers, and its face looks up towards the sky. If it rains she throws her leather or woolen match coat over her head, which covers the child all over, and secures her and it from the injuries of rainy weather." (Lawson, 1860, 310; quoted in Swanton, 562)


CLANS
In 1820 the Cherokee national council abolished clans., as the nation was reorganized.
 

"The clan is believed to have been derived along with their songs, dances, and magical formulas from the great mythical giant
Old Stonecoat, who was slain long ago. The legend relates that this giant was burned at the stake and as his spirit ascended on high it sang forth the whole culture of the Cherokees. Included in the words uttered were the rules and regulations which govern the clan...." (source Unknown).
 

"Gregg mentions that the entire clan was responsible for the crime of one of its members and there were no exceptions. Satisfactory communication could almost always be obtained because the relatives themselves would bring the fugitive to justice in order to avoid the punishment falling on one of them. (Gregg in Thwaites, 1904-07, vol. 20, p. 311, quoted in Gilbert, 324).
 

"Washburn (1869, p 206) states specifically that it was the function of the older brother to inflict clan revenge. The older
brother together with the mother's brother exercised more authority over the family than did the father since the latter was of a
different clan and was afraid of hurting his children for reason of the likelihood of blood revenge on the part of their clan."
(Gilbert, 324-25)
 

"The Cherokee have seven clans, viz: Ani'-wa'ya (Wolf); Ani'-Kawi' (Deer); Ani'-Tsi-skwa (Bird); Ani'-Wa'di (Paint); Ani'-
Saha'ni; Ani'-Ga'tage'wi; Ani'-Gila'hi. The names of the last three cannot be translated with certainty. (James Mooney, 19th Annual Report, BAE, p. 212)
 

"There are, and have always been... seven clans among the Cherokee. Their names are: Aniwahiya (Wolf); Anikawi (Deer);
Anidjiskwa (Bird); Aniwodi (Red Paint); Anisahoni (Blue?); Anigotigewi (Wild Potatoes?); and Anigilohi (Twisters?) (Gilbert,
203)
 

The clans at Big Cove, Eastern Cherokees, visited by Wm. Gilbert in the early 1900's, are listed as: Deer, Wolf, Blue, Bird, Twister, Paint & Potato. (p. 243)
 

NOTE: "The wolf clan used to be called Anidzogohi when the bears were said to have belonged to this clan..." and:
about "twisters", "according to another version, the name is derived from ugilohi "long hair", referring to the love of adornment and display of their elaborate coiffures..." (Gilbert, 204). These two notes refer to a lately-contrived controversy ongoing about the bear clan and long hair clan, and both are ridiculous. .
 

"Every individual had closer relationships with four of the seven clans than with the other three, the four being: the mother's
clan, of which the person was also a member; the father's clan; the paternal grandfather's (father's father's) clan; and the maternal
grandfather's (mother's father's) clan. These last two were important because a person was expected to marry into one or the
other. In any single town, all of the seven clans were represented; this prevailed throughout the nation and linked all of the Cherokee by kinship bonds." (Lewis & Kneberg, 164)


"The Cherokee Nation" wrote Moravian missionaries, "is divided into tribes, but they are not called Tribes here, but Clans or
Families. Clans embraced the entire population, weaving patterns of relationships and responsibilities into the fabric of kinship. Every individual belonged to a family that extended beyond households, through settlements, and across the nation.... Clan identity came from the mother 'without any respect to the father'...
 

"...The Cherokee language actually identified clan position so precisely that anyone 'could tell you without hesitating what degree
of relationship exists between himself and any other individual of the same clan'. Specific terms distinguished mothers, their parents and siblings, older and younger brothers, and sisters and their children. A special term identified maternal uncles (ak-du-tsi).  Blood brothers were signified by the word (dani-taga) (standing so close as to form one). Each relationship prescribed certain kinds of behavior and varied responsibilities." (Hill, 27)
 

"Reciprocal hospitality was a paramount clan responsibility.  Cherokees have an 'advantage over us,' wrote Englishman William
Fyffe to his brother "in their mutual love not only in the same family but throughout the Nation'. Although clan affiliations did
not guarantee love, Fyffe was on the right track. Clan relations were extensive, expressive, and mutual. When Cherokees traveled to another settlement, 'they enquire for a house of their own tribe (clan)' wrote Adair, where 'they are kindly received, though they never saw the persons before'. Visitors to the homes of clan relatives 'eat, drink, and regale themselves with as much freedom as at their own tables'." (Hill, 28)
 

The clan was not an economic unit, it did not own property.  "The clan was the most important social entity to which a
person belonged. Membership in a clan was more important than membership in anything else. An alien had no rights, no legal
security, unless he was adopted into a clan. For example, if a war party happened to capture an enemy and the captive was not adopted by a clan, then any sort of torture could be inflicted upon him. But if he were adopted into one of this captor's clans, then no one could touch him for fear of suffering vengeance from the adopting clan. The rights of clansmanship were so fundamental they were seldom if ever challenged." (Reid, Law of Blood)


Once in a while a Cherokee (usually a male) would become so wrong-headed and incorrigible as to be labeled a "rogue". After many tries to make the person reform, if there was not a return to acceptable behavior, he (or she) could be put 'out' of the clan.
After that shame, which left them vulnerable to any insult or adverse behavior without recourse, because they would have no claim affiliation and thus no relatives, the 'rogue' usually left all villages and lived alone in the woods. Having been made a 'non-
person' was the ultimate fear of an adult Cherokee, and was the ultimate consequence, just short of being condemned to immediate death. "Shunning" was the ultimate living insult, and sometimes the shunned person would commit suicide rather than live with such shame.


"When a man is traveling in a distant village and needs shelter for the night he seeks one of his 'brothers' of his own clan. The
ascertaining of mutual clan affiliations is the ordinary form of greeting between two persons when meeting for the first time. Thee
are several ways of ascertaining a given man's clan without asking him. He may be found always associating with his own clansmen, and the affiliation may be known. Then again it is only necessary to observe his behavior toward these persons whose clan affiliations are already known to determine his clan. Hence, in general, it is quite easy after some slight acquaintance within a given village to know how to behave toward a number of persons who stand in given relationships to ego." (Bull. 133).
 

"Annual clan councils occurred at the time of the annual new corn ceremonies. At this meeting, which one was required to attend,
the most distinguished member would review the history of the clan for the past year and then would give the names of the members who deserved to be commended for some deed bringing honor to the clan.  And, those who had dishonored the clan, were mentioned by name, also...resulting in suspense and tension.... thus, the clan expectations and practices were powerful agencies in socializing the maturing young..."

 

CLEANLINESS
"Lawson, who knew the Ind. before he was completely impoverished and corrupted by the white man, refuted the all too
prevalent idea that the Ind. lived in filth and squalor. Admitting that they were often troubled with fleas, especially near the places
where they dressed their deerskins, he remarks, "I have never felt any ill, unsavory Smell in their Cabins, whereas, should we live in our houses as they do, we would be poisoned with our own Nastiness; which confirms these Indians to be, as they really are, some of the sweetest People in the world". (Lawson, 178,179)
 

"From Lawson to Catlin, all the firsthand observers of the 18th and early 19th centuries make reference to the sweat-lodge, quite
similar in effect to the Turkish bath. Naturally, their cabins were close and dark and screens were unknown. But there is evidence that the native in his personal sanitation compared favorably to his contemporary white brother, who, until about 1830, regarded the bathtub as the plaything of Beelzebub. With the Cherokee, cleanliness was not next to godliness, it was godliness." (Milling, 33,34)

 

"The(y) also pulverize the Roots of a kind of Anchuse or yellow Alkanet, which they call Puccoon, and of a sort of wild Angelica, and mixing together with Bears Oil, make a yellow Ointment, with which, after they have bathed, they anoint themselves Capapee (Note: head to toe); this supplies the Skin, renders them nimble and active, and withal so closes up the Pores, that they lose but few of their Sprits by Perspiration....


"They have also a further advantage of this Ointment, for it keeps all Lice, Fleas, and other troublesome vermin from coming near them..." (Beverley, Bk 3, 52)

 

CLOTHING
Clothing was manufactured by the women and consisted of skin loincloth, buckskin shirt, buffalo robes, textile robes with feather decorations, moccasins, and boots.

 

"Garments made of feathers were both beautiful and practical -- practical because they were warm without being heavy and bulky like those made from skins. The feathers came from the breasts of wild turkeys and were about two or three inches long. They were sewed between narrow strips of bark, and the strips were then sewed together so that the feathers overlapped as on the body of the turkey. Skirts for women and mantles for both sexes were made in this manner. Feathers from brilliantly colored birds were worked into these garments as trimmings. Feathers of other kinds, particularly those from eagles and white cranes, were used in headdresses.


"The patterns of clothing were simple, the women wearing short skirts and shoulder mantles, and the men, breech clouts and sleeveless shirts. Both sexes wore moccasins that were made like short boots and reached halfway up the leg. While they were on hunting trips in the forest and in cold weather, men wore leather leggings like loose trouser legs." (Lewis & Kneberg, 162,63)


"They have now learned to sew, (1761), and the men as well as women, excepting shirts, make all their own cloths; the women, likewise make very pretty belts, and collars of beads and wampum, also belts and garters of worsted." (Timberlake, 86)

 

"Their Feather Match-Coats are very pretty, especially some of them, which are made extraordinary charming, containing several pretty Figures wrought in Feathers, making them seem like a fine Flower Silk-Shag; and when new and fresh, they become a Bed very well, instead of a Quilt. Some of another sort are made of Hare, Raccoon, Beaver, or Squirrel-Skins, which are very warm. Others again are made of the green Part of the Skin of a Mallard's Head, which they sew perfectly well together, their Thread being either the Sinews of a Deer divided very small, or Silk-Grass. When these are finished, they look very finely, though they must needs be very troublesome to make." (Lawson, 200)

 

Woodard reports that a Cherokee ruler such as the Oukah wore a gold-dyed buckskin shirt and leggings with matching feather headdress when he performed his "Oukah dance" every seventh year. She also says that a prominent Cherokee woman would wear a knee-length skirt woven from feathers and edged at the bottom with down plucked from the breast of a white swan, on ceremonial occasions.


"Most of the garments ... were made of the skins of animals, though some were woven from threads of vegetable and animal origin, some were of feathers... Deer hide was a major basis for clothing of all kinds and deer sinew was utilized as thread throughout the entire Southeast.... Bison robes are noted particularly among the Caddo, the Cherokee, and the Natchez..". (Swanton, #137, 439)

 

In 1797, Louis Philippe wrote of his visit to the Cherokees: "Cherokee clothing is made with European cloth and goods. The rich among them wear ample dressing gowns in bright prints or similar cloth. Some wear hats, but the majority keep the native haircut.... Their clothing is so varied that an exact description is impossible (Note: it had changed considerably in the previous 50 years); Most wear a woolen blanket over the left shoulder and beneath the right, so as to leave the right arm entirely free. They all wear a shirt or tunic which is, I am told, washed fairly often.  They bathe fairly often. Trousers, breeches, or underpants are unknown to them. They have only the little square of cloth, and the shirt or tunic is belted in and hides it altogether".


"Some are turned out with notable elegance, and I saw one among many.... whose outfit consisted of silk fichus and a light green cape or length of cloth, which hung with classic elegance and charm." (LouisPhilippe, 95)

 

Note: This was after most Cherokees had changed to the white man's convenience.


MEN'S WEAR
The ancient Cherokee dress for men is what is known now in theatrical circles as the "Davy Crockett" costume. From the coonskin cap, through the deerskin shirt and leggins, to the moccasins, it is the dress he borrowed from his neighboring Cherokees. For the Cherokees, their winter coonskin cap (with or without the tail hanging down the back) was their usual winter headwear (in the warmer weather they wore nothing on their heads).  When they acquired cloth from the traders, however, the coonskin cap quickly gave way to a "turban", a colorful strip of cloth wound around their head.

 

"The breechclout was the one article of dress worn constantly by all males other than infants and young children. It was the first to be put on and the last to be laid aside... Adair (1775, p. 8) gives the dimensions as ... about 5 1/2 feet long by 1 foot wide. One of the best descriptions of men's wear was Speck's description of Yuchi costume (which you will see, can be applied  to the Cherokee): It is of slightly later time, after the white man came, and in the elder days the shirt would be of the finest deerskin: "A bright colored calico shirt was worn by the men next to the skin. Over this was a sleeved jacket reaching on young men, a little below the waist, on older men... below the knees. The shirt hung free before and behind, but was bound around the waist by a belt or woolen sash. The older men who wore the long coat-like garment had another sash with tassels dangling at the sides outside of this. These two garments, it should be remembered, were nearly always of calico or cotton goods, while it sometimes happened that the long coat was of deerskin. Loin coverings were of two kinds; either a simple apron was suspended from a girdle next the skin before and behind, or a long narrow strip of stroud passed between the legs and was tucked underneath the girdle in front and in back, where the ends were allowed to fall as flaps. Leggings of stroud or deerskin reaching from ankle to hip were supported by thongs in the belt and bound to the leg by tasseled and beaded garter bands below the knee. Deerskin moccasins covered the feet. Turbans of cloth, often held in place by a metal headband in which feathers were set for ornaments, covered the head. The man's outfit was then complete when he had donned his bead-decorated side pouch, in which he kept pipe, tobacco and other personal necessities, with its broad highly embroidered bandolier. The other ornaments were metal breast pendants, earrings, finger rings, bracelets and armlets, beadwork neckbands and beadwork strips which were fastened in the hair..." (quoted in Swanton, #137, 465).

 

Catesby says briefly: "Their ordinary Winter dress is a loose open waistcoat without sleeves, which is usually made of a Deer skin, wearing the hairy side inwards or outwards in proportion to the cold or warmth of the season; in the coldest weather they cloth themselves with the skins of Bears, Beavers, Raccoons, etc. besides warm and very pretty garments made of feathers. (Catesby, 1731-43; vol. 2. viii)


Leggins: 'In lieu of the drawers and trousers of European peoples, most of them wore at times garments sometimes called leggings or boots by the English... They were made in two pieces, one wrapped around each leg and brought up high enough to as to fastened to the belt by means of leather cords, while at the lower ends they were inserted under the upper edges of the moccasins. Like the latter, they were used less about home than during excursions to some distance and they were mainly intended to protect the wearer from bushes and underbrush of various kinds." (Swanton, #137, 462)

 

"They wear leather buskins on their legs, which they tie below the knee" (Catesby, vol. 2 viii)

 

"The men wear, for ornament, and the conveniences of hunting, thin deerskin boots, well smoked, that reach so high up their thighs, as with their jackets to secure them from the brambles and braky thickets. They sew them about five inches from the edges, which are formed into tassels, to which they fasten fawns trotters, and small pieces of tinkling metal, or wild turkey-cock-spurs."  (Adair, 7) 

 

Note: These leg coverings were borrowed later by the white western "cowboys", who wore them over their usual trousers, and called them "chaps" (pronounced shaps).

 

Shoes: "They wear shoes of buck's and sometimes bear's skin, which they tan in an hour or two, with the bark of trees boiled, wherein they put the leather whilst hot, and let it remain a little while, whereby it becomes so qualified as to endure water and dirt, without growing hard. These have no heels, and are made as fit for the feet as a glove is for the hand, and are very easy to travel in when one is a little used to them." (Lawson, 311) "Their shoes, when they wear any, are made of an entire piece of Buck-Skin; except when they sew a piece to the bottom, to thicken the sole. They are fastened on with running Strings, the Skin being drawn together like a Purse on the top of the Foot, and tied round the Ankle. The Ind. name of this kind of Shoe is Moccasin" (Beverley, bk 3, 5)
 

WOMEN'S CLOTHING
"The women wore a short skirt extended from the waist almost to the knees." (Swanton, #137, 469)

 

"the women wearing "a deer skinne verye excellelye dressed, hanging down from their navel unto the mid thighs, which also covereth their hynder parts". (Hariot, 66) "The women's dress consists only in a broad softened skin, or several small skins sewed together, which they wrap & tye round their waist, reaching a little below their knees" (Adair, 6,7)

 

"In cold weather, the Chickasaw women wrap themselves in the softened skins of buffalo calves, with the wintry shagged wool inward" (Adair, 8) We feel sure the Cherokee women were intelligent enough to do the same.
 

The upper body was covered at most times by a skin cape into which two holes were cut for the arms to come through. Lately Cherokees have been told some tales which we have believed to be false, as we can find no verification for them. It seems that a few decades ago the phony powwow circuits needed something "authentic" to sell to the gullible tourists, so they thought up something for the women called a "tear dress", along with the story that after the trail of tears some Cherokee women did not have scissors, so they had to tear material into strips in order to sew them together and make a dress. About the same time they put Cherokee men into "ribbon" shirts. Both are about as authentic as these "dream catchers" thought up about the same time for the tourist trade.

 

COLOR
The chief color symbolism is as follows: East: red --success, triumph; North: blue -- defeat, trouble; West: black -- death; South: white -- peace, happiness. Early Cherokees used mostly red and white, and sometimes blue, on civil occasions, and black was the color of war and death.  Vermillion paint was a very popular item of trade in the very early days. The King's (Oukah's) red was towards the purple hue. "White was emblematic of peace and happiness, red of power and success, blue of trouble and defeat, black of death." (Mooney, River,13)

 

"The South wind was white and brought peace; the North wind was blue and meant defeat; the West wind was black and brought death. The wind from the East was red. It brought power, and war".
(Wilma Dykerman, The French Broad, 41)

 

Submitted by Carol Elisi Spirit Dove Henderson

 

 

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