Manataka American Indian Council
North America’s Native peoples are descendants from many ancient nations, each with its own language, social structure, and religion. Therefore, traditional Native American spirituality always has taken many forms. Here our focus will be on Keetoowah Spirituality— the spirituality of the Cherokee Nation.
The Cherokee Nation was the largest of several native peoples Europeans encountered when they arrived in the North American Southeast. In 1650, the Cherokee population was approximately 30,000.
Cherokee villages were grouped near rivers. The major settlement was called Kituhwa (which was also the name of its principal town) and was located on the headwaters of the Tennessee, Tuckaseegee, and Tuckaleechee Rivers. Cherokee who continue to follow the ancient traditional faith of their ancestors call themselves Keetoowah People.
In the early 1800s, persecution [by white Chrisitians] of Native Americans intensified. Those who adhered to the traditional faith had no choice but to take their religion into hiding. Cherokee who did this became known as "Nighthawk Keetoowahs," practicing their sacred ceremonies in the back country, out of the sight of the [white Christian] law .
Until the 1930s, all Native Americans were considered minors under American law, and were represented by government-appointed guardians. In the mid-1930s, the law was changed, granting Native Americans status appropriate to their age. However, it was not until the passage of the Freedom of Religion Act of 1978 that Native Americans had complete freedom to teach the ancient beliefs and practices to their children in public if they wished.
The Keetoowah People believe that all life must be respected, and that its Creator deserves our love. Humanity should walk in balance with all creation. Keetoowahs believe that the earth is our Grandmother and teacher; her ways and truths are to be studied. They believe in honoring their elders. They teach that at the end of our life walk, we should leave no tracks other than our families and our students.
The ancient Keetoowah understanding of creation speaks of eternal heavenly beings (called U-ha-lo-te-ga, A-tu-nu-tsu-to-li-tsiti, or U-sgo-hu-la) who were responsible for establishing the universe: they created all that is, are present everywhere, and govern all of creation from their seats in the seven tiered heaven. Heaven’s first tier is at the tree-tops, the second is in the clouds, and the seventh is the abode of the Supreme Being. Keetoowah cosmology also indicates that the completion and government of the earth was delegated to the Sun and the Moon, who (in turn) appointed Fire to care for humanity. Smoke was believed to be Fire’s messenger, capable of transporting human petitions to the divine. Therefore, sun, moon, smoke, and fire have their places in ancient Keetoowah worship.
Because Keetoowah spirituality believes everything to be a dimension of the sacred, Fire and Water are great gods of the hunt. Corn (i.e., maize— selu in the Keetoowah language) is arguably the most important subject for Keetoowah religious rites, in which it is personified as a goddess. The eagle is sacred, and is to be killed only by someone trained to say the proper prayers. Quartz crystals are believed to be extremely potent and, therefore, only to be handled by those with proper training.
Keetoowah lore teaches of categories of spirits: Na-ne-hi inhabit water, the ground, and rocks or mountains; U-ka-se behave frighteningly at night; U-nu-tsi-lu-ne-hi are spirits of the dead which hover where the deceased persons lived. Traditional Keetoowah spirituality believes in a two tiered afterlife: the good go to a place of light and pleasantness; the bad go to a place of torture. However, it is believed that one’s spirit lingers around the place of death for a period of time equivalent to the time the person had spent there. The spirit then wanders to the person’s previous place of residence, staying there an equivalent period, and so on until its wandering equals the duration of the person’s earthly life. Only then does the spirit depart the earthly realm and proceed to its ultimate destination.
The ancient Keetoowah performed sacred rites and recited sacred formulas for all important aspects of daily life as well as major life cycle events. Deerskin, eagle and crane feathers, otter skins, quartz crystals, feathered wands, tobacco, drums, gourds, and beads all were important ritual items in Keetoowah worship. Traditional Cherokee prayers address personifications of the four directions.
Ancient dances had religious purposes; they were performed in conjunction with prayers, sacrifices, and thanksgivings. Traditional dancing is always circular, the left hand of the dancer positioned toward the center. The Eagle Dance used a sourwood wand with twelve or thirteen eagle feathers. The Green Corn Dance in honor of Selu, the corn goddess lasted for four days and nights; men danced in the daytime, women at night.
(Renewal), Atahuna (Reconciliation and Forgiveness), Busk (Purification), and Uku (Priest’s festival). Festivals are an opportunity to rehearse the history of the community and its ancestors for the education of its younger members. They usually last for several days. For these occasions, traditional foods are prepared in traditional ways. The community gathers to pray, dance, and feast together as one big family.
Traditional preparation for hunting included taking medicines of purification, fasting, sweating, bathing, night-long dances, and reciting sacred hunting formulas. There were also religious obligations during the hunt.
For Keetoowahs, the practice of meditation is the highest act of living. Each step is considered a prayer to life by all of the Creator’s children, who are taught to walk lightly upon Grandmother Earth and to respect others.
Keetoowah worship includes all acts of learning traditional ways — everything involved in achieving the correct position in relation to one’s own path, family, community, nation, and Creation as a whole. Diet is an individual choice, but all food is respected because it contains life and consciousness. Keetoowah People continue to make their traditional clothing by hand, in a spiritual manner. The dress code for Keetoowah ceremonies includes moccasins for all, and shawls for women. Many wear their hair uncut and in braids.
Among the Keetoowah, summer ceremonies are held outside in summer at a Stomp Grounds — a Sacred Circle established in a forest. In winter, all activities are moved indoors. A wealthy Keetoowah community may maintain a Council House. Others may simply meet in someone’s home.
The divisions of the ancient Keetoowah calendar were tied to the planting and harvesting of corn, and celebrations usually are linked to agricultural events or acknowledgment of the Creator’s role as we progress through our lives. Traditionally, the Keetoowah observe seven major festivals: Spring New Year, Selutsunigististi (Green Corn Festival), Ripe Corn Festival (Thanksgiving), Winter, New Year.
In traditional Keetoowah tribal organization, the Ugutuyi (highest) had supreme authority in both civil and religious matters; next in authority were his Right Hand Man and the Chief Speaker. These three were advised by a council of clan chiefs and beloved elders. (Military matters were administered by a different body to maintain the religious purity of these officials.) Boys who were designated to become priests received a special upbringing and consecration. A High Chief’s widow served in place of her husband until a successor was named, and retained considerable power and honor within the clan; she had a major role in many solemn religious rites.
Today, the spiritual leader of the Keetoowah community is the Medicine Priest. He acts as ceremonial leader, historian, herbalist, and counselor. Priests are taught by their families and are apprenticed to a teacher. Priests, especially if they are Elders, often live on the gifts of the community; others support themselves through outside, secular employment. The Priest serves at the will of the community and its council. All support for community activities and needs comes from gifts. The person who contributes the most— physically, materially, and spiritually—is considered the most spiritually powerful.
Burger, Julian. The Gaia Atlas of First Peoples: A Future for the Indigenous World. NY: Doubleday, 1989.
Bowden, Larry, Ph.D. Cherokee Heritage. Lynchburg, VA: Religion Dept, Randolph Macon Women’s College.
Carmody, Denise/ John Carmody. Native Amer. Religions: An Introduction. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1993.
Neusner, Jacob. World Religions in America: An Introduction. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.
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