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The Cherokee Dragon

The Cherokee Dragon

4.0 1
by Robert J. Conley

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Few writers portray Native American life and history as richly, authentically, and insightfully as Robert J. Conley. Conley represents an important voice of the Cherokee past. The novels in his Real People series combine powerful characters, gripping plots, and vivid descriptions of tradition and mythology to preserve Cherokee culture and history.

In Cherokee


Few writers portray Native American life and history as richly, authentically, and insightfully as Robert J. Conley. Conley represents an important voice of the Cherokee past. The novels in his Real People series combine powerful characters, gripping plots, and vivid descriptions of tradition and mythology to preserve Cherokee culture and history.

In Cherokee Dragon, the tenth novel in the series, Robert Conley explores the life if Dragging Canoe, the last great war chief of the united Cherokee tribe. In the late eighteenth century, as the English settlers begin steadily encroaching upon the Cherokee lands, the Nation divided among several towns and many chiefs-unites in a series of battles. But the united front is not one that lasts: Dragging Canoe’s belief that they must fight the settlers to preserve their lands and their culture is far from universal.

Editorial Reviews

Booklist On The Peace Chief
Evocative...fascinating history and an involving tale.
Publishers Weekly on War Woman
A gripping, convincingly imagined historical...War Woman’s life is told with page-turning verve, as Conley uses his extensive historical knowledge of Cherokee life and culture to spin a lively, informed piece of speculative history.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Three-time Spur Award-winning Cherokee storyteller Conley (The Peace Chief) dramatizes the life and exploits of Tsiyu Gansini, the last of the great Cherokee war chiefs, in this stark historical novel. Conley spans more than 100 years in describing his protagonist's life and legacy, beginning with the birth of Gansini, better known as Dragging Canoe, in 1737 and ending when his people endured the infamous Trail of Tears in 1838, nearly five decades after his death. Surviving smallpox as an infant and named, at age 11, when he tries to drag a war canoe into the river to join his father's war party, Dragging Canoe grows to manhood amid the turmoil of the American Revolution as the English, French and American colonists take every opportunity to exploit the Cherokee by making and breaking duplicitous treaties. From his teen years on, Dragging Canoe spends his life fighting to stop the British and Americans from violently reneging on their solemn pledges not to steal his ancestors' lands. After the 1730 Articles of Agreement, the narrative chronicles treaty after treaty, infamy upon infamy and battle after battle, through the heartbreaking dissolution of the proud Cherokee nation. Central to the story is Dragging Canoe's disagreement with his famous cousin, Nancy Ward, whose life Conley chronicled in War Woman. In graphic and sinuous but sometimes meandering prose, this fictionalized biography rings of realism, admirably devoid of "eagle feather and war dance" cliches and indeed any romanticization--despite the author's clear sympathy with the Cherokee--of this brutal period of American history. (Mar.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|

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University of Oklahoma Press
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5.40(w) x 8.16(h) x 0.63(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

at Tanase in the Overhills of the Cherokee Nation
(in what is now Tennessee)

Ada-gal'kala sat in the townhouse at Tanase. He sat quietly and alone and smoked ancient tobacco from a short-stemmed clay pipe. Other men from time to time tried to engage him in casual conversation, but to no avail. His mind was elsewhere. He was generally recognized as the second man in the Cherokee Nation, and he longed to rise to the highest position. 'Ma'dohi had been named "Emperor of the Cherokees" by the English, and many of the other Cherokees had casually accepted that designation. They, of course, did not recognize "Moytoy," as the English stupidly called him, as "emperor" in the English sense of that word, did not even fully understand what the English meant by the word, but they did seem sometimes to act as if the man were the "Principal Chief" of all the chiefs of the whole nation. Even that was a new concept to the Cherokees, who had existed for as long as anyone could remember in autonomous towns, each with its own two chiefs—the war chief and the peace chief. Now, because of the English, they were beginning to act as if 'Ma'dohi really was the "Principal Chief" over all of the Cherokee Nation. Ada-gal'kala wanted that distinction for himself.

    And because of that strong desire, he thought about other things, things that would help him rise to the eminence he so desired. He thought about the British with their colonies so close to the Cherokees and their constant demand for more land, and hethought about their rivals the French. He considered ways of dealing with both nations of invaders that would work out to his own benefit. And then there were the Spaniards. They too might prove to be useful one day. He considered all these things.

    But his mind was also somewhat occupied with the more immediate reality that, at just that moment, his wife Ni-on-e was involved with her clanswomen, giving birth. He hoped that she would have a son. Given the new circumstances of the Cherokees, a son would be more useful to him than would a daughter, for if Ada-gal'kala should achieve his goal of becoming the next "emperor," then a son would be there in later years to succeed him in that exalted position, a position that, Ada-gal'kala was certain, would become more and more important as time passed.

    All this, of course, was contrary to ancient Cherokee practices and beliefs, he knew, but he also knew that things were changing. Cherokee women were not quite so powerful as they had once been, and the practice of passing things down through the mothers was being constantly violated. The women complained about the loss of their old prerogatives, but it seemed that there was not much they could do about it. The outside influence of the British was just too strong. Some Cherokee women had actually married white men, usually marriages sanctioned by their fathers to solidify trade relationships with the colonies, and their children were carrying the surnames of their fathers, the traders. This was in direct conflict with the old practices dictated by the Cherokee matrilineal clan system, a system in which descent was traced strictly through female lines.

    Not only was the idea of central government developing and being accepted, not only were the towns slowly but surely giving up their autonomy, and the women watching their own authority gradually erode, but the influence of the English had brought other changes as well, changes to almost every aspect of Cherokee life. Hunters now hunted for hides for the trade business, and women spent much of their time in the preparation of the hides. Hunting had become a commercial pursuit, a small industry involving both men and women. Because of its intensity, game was getting scarce, and hunters had to move out farther and farther all the time in search of their prey. Many trade items had all but killed off traditional occupations. Steel pots were replacing traditional clay pottery. English weapons were replacing traditional weaponry. Many of the craftspeople were no longer engaged in their traditional crafts. And the people were allowing all of these things to happen. Perhaps it simply didn't mean much to them one way or the other. Perhaps the changes had all been so gradual that they didn't really seem to have any effect on their daily lives. Only the women complained, and only some of the women, some of the time. As for the "emperor," let the English call him what they will. Let 'Ma'dohi puff up his chest and strut around his town.

    Ada-gal'kala knew all this, and he also felt certain that he could take advantage of these changes for his own good. It would take patience and diplomacy, but he had those two qualities in abundance. He had watched the Englishmen closely for some years now, and he had learned their language. Along with six other young Cherokee men, he had actually traveled across the great water all the way to England seven years ago, in the year the white men called 1730, and he had met the great King George II, face-to-face. In those days Ada-gal'kala had been known as Uku-unega, the White Owl, and the English, in their famous inability or stubborn refusal to speak properly the words of the Cherokee language, had called him "Owen Nakan" and given him the title of "captain." He had been presented to the king as Captain Owen Nakan.

    And he and the others with him had signed a paper with the King's men while they were there. The English had called the paper the Articles of Agreement, and with the words on the paper, the Cherokees had promised to trade only with the English. They had also promised that should the English and the French get themselves into a war, the Cherokees would fight on the side of the English. Of course, they had known that they could speak only for themselves, not for all of the Cherokees. Just a year ago, when the French emissaries had come to the Cherokees seeking an alliance similar to the Articles, Ada-gal'kala had remembered his trip to England. He had remembered signing the Articles, and he would have nothing to do with the Frenchmen. He had urged other Cherokees to ignore them as well.

    And this in spite of the fact that two years back, when the funny little white man, Christian Priber, had come to live with them, Ada-gal'kala, along with others, had befriended him. Priber, who called himself the secretary to the "Emperor Moytoy," was helping Ada-gal'kala with his English and his French and was even teaching him to read and write some. The English were afraid of Priber and hated him. They called him a German and a Jesuit, but they believed him to be an agent of the French, and Priber had indeed introduced Ada-gal'kala and others to various Frenchmen from their fort, which they called Toulouse, in the heart of the country of the Ani-Gusa, the Muskogee People, the people the English were calling Creeks, the near neighbors and sometime enemies of the Cherokees. On reflection, Ada-gal'kala thought that perhaps Priber was working for the French, but what did he care? French, English, what did it matter? They were all foreigners and invaders, and as far as Ada-gal'kala was concerned, were to be called friends only when such a relationship would benefit the Cherokees—or when it would be to his own personal benefit.

    Ada-gal'kala called Priber friend and used Priber for his own benefit, but the great War Chief, Ogan'sdo', on the other hand, the old friend and sometime rival of Ada-gal'kala, had, it seemed, fallen completely under the spell of Priber. It didn't matter to Ogan'sdo' that Priber was proposing a new form of government for the Cherokees and that he was pressing for an alliance with the French. Ogan'sdo' could see nothing but good in the man. He seemed to stand in awe of the funny little man and his powers, which included putting words on paper to be read later. He had learned the Cherokee language, and he could write words in French or English or Cherokee. Any time that Ada-gal'kala went to visit Priber, Ogan'sdo' was jealous. Ada-gal'kala could tell.

    And Ada-gal'kala had learned a great deal from Priber, too, to add to the knowledge he had gained on his trip to England. He had become quite knowledgeable about both the French and the English, and so he was certain that there was no man other than himself in the entire Cherokee Nation better equipped to deal with the white invaders or to lead the new government, whatever form it might take. He was in a very good position, indeed, one from which he and his family should profit well.

    He well knew that there were those Cherokees around who were suspicious of his motives, but he had no fear of them, for they also knew that they needed him to talk to the English for them. They were incapable of doing it for themselves. Those jealous and suspicious ones said of his name, which translated into English as "the Leaning Wood," that it meant there was no telling which way he would lean on any given issue, that he might lean one way one day and the other way the next. The English took his name very differently. They called him "the Little Carpenter" because they said that he was so skilled in crafting a bargain. He liked that interpretation.

In the osi, the small, dome-shaped winter house that stood beside the larger gahl'jodi, or main dwelling, owned by Ni-on-e, the wife of Ada-gal'kala was on her hands and knees, her legs spread wide. Four old women of her clan were in there with her. Outside, an old man stood and chanted toward the east.

    "Hey, you little man," he said, "come down out of there in a hurry. Right now. An ugly old woman is coming to get you. Come out and get your bow and your arrows. Now. Yu."

    He walked a quarter of the way around the osi, stopped, facing the north, and repeated the charm. He walked another quarter and spoke to the west. Then he moved to the south and recited the formula once more. He moved back to the place from which he had begun and prepared himself to circle the osi once more, this time preparing to call out to a little girl, but before he could begin, an old woman poked her head out of the osi.

    "It's done," she said. "It's a ballsticks."

    The old man turned and walked toward the townhouse. The old woman disappeared back into the osi. Inside, she was one of the four old women in attendance. Another one, just behind Ni-on-e, was holding the howling infant boy in a white cloth, while yet a third was busy tying and cutting the cord. That task accomplished, she busied herself cleaning the mother, who had already been helped into a position half sitting, half lying down on her back by one of the others. The woman with the baby bathed it and wrapped it in a fresh cloth, then sat down against the wall to hold it.

    Ni-on-e smiled and looked at her son while the old woman bathed her. "Has someone gone to tell my husband?" she asked.

    "The old man outside has gone," said one of the old women.

    Ni-on-e leaned back to relax. She was relieved to have it over with and to see that she had given birth to a healthy boy. She had felt confident, for she had done everything that she was supposed to do to ensure success. Upon her first realization that she was with child, she had told her husband and her friends about it. Thereafter she had been taken to the water with every new moon to bathe and to pray.

    The first time, she had gone with Ada-gal'kala, her mother, her mother's sister, and an old conjurer. Ada-gal'kala had given the conjurer two beads, a red one and a black one, and a length of white thread. He had laid these out on a piece of white calico the length of his arm. Then with everyone standing on the riverbank, facing the water, the old conjurer, with the red bead held between the thumb and index finger of his right hand, the black bead held similarly in his left, had recited his formula:

    "Ha," he said. "Now the white thread has come down. The soul of the small human being has been examined there where it is growing. Soon he will come and be born to her. He has been examined.

    "Now from up above, you have caused the white threads to come down. His soul has been examined. Now it has come to rest on the white thread. His soul has been lifted up as far as the upper world.

    "In the Seventh world above, the white seats have been let down and the white cloth has come to rest on them, and his soul has come to rest on the white thread. At the Seventh world, his soul will appear in all its splendor."

    While he spoke, the beads had begun to quiver and then to move, seemingly of their own volition, first the black, and then the red. By the time he had finished, the red bead had become very active, dancing along the entire length of his right index finger. That had been the first sign of success. That had been Ni-on-e's first reassurance that all would be well.

    The old conjurer had then strung the two beads on the white thread and dropped them back onto the white cloth. Then he had taken Ni-on-e and the others all into the water. When they came out again, Ada-gal'kala had folded the white cloth, enclosing the thread and the beads, picked up the bundle, and given it to the conjurer. The conjurer had taken it away with him. They had followed this same ritual at each new moon, Ada-gal'kala supplying new beads, thread, and cloth for each, and each time the red bead had danced between the thumb and index finger of the old man. Each time the ritual had predicted a successful birth.

    And there had been more. Throughout the time of her pregnancy, Ni-on-e had from time to time drunk teas made of dawuhjila to make it easy for the child to come out, of waleu uh natsi luhgisdi to frighten the child and make it come out, of the roots of ganuhgwa dliski and of the cones of notsi, both evergreens, to impart their qualities of long life and lasting good health.

    She had been careful about the food she ate. She had eaten no saloli, for if she had, the child might want to go up instead of down, and it might lie in her womb bunched up like a squirrel. She did not eat duhdisdi, lest her child die. She had eaten no kuhli, for if she had, the child would likely develop the infant's disease they called wanigisti, or "something is eating them." Atj'a would have given her infant black spots on his face, so she had left that alone. The meat of tsisdu would have given it large eyes which would stay open when it slept. Tsisduh because it runs backward would have caused the child to back up in the womb instead of coming out when it should. She had left all of these foods alone during the entire term of her pregnancy.

    Nor had she eaten the flesh of any animal killed by gunshot or bowshot but only those caught in snares or clubbed. She had been very careful about all these things and about other kinds of things as well. She had allowed no woman in her bleeding time of month to come into her home and visit her. She had not lingered in or near any doorways. Every morning she had gone to the creek to bathe her hands, face, and feet in the clear, fresh running water. She had not combed her hair backward, nor worn a scarf around her neck or a belt around her waist. She had taken care not to look upon a corpse and not to attend any dances where masks were worn.

    Ada-gal'kala too had been forced to observe certain restrictions. He had not attended any funerals. Like his wife, he had not worn any scarves around his neck or belts around his waist. He had gone in and out of doors quickly. When Ni-on-e had needed to go outside during the night, he had gone with her, and he had gone with her to the stream every morning.

Ni-on-e looked with pleasure on her healthy son, who was still yowling in the arms of the old woman, and she thought about all the precautions she and her husband had taken for those long months, and she thought that it had all been well worth while. She would have done more, much more, for such a healthy son.

Back at the townhouse, the old conjurer walked in and found Ada-gal'kala still waiting there patiently. "It's over," he said. "Your wife has given out with a baby boy. Go now and do what you must do." Ada-gal'kala thanked the old man, left the townhouse, and walked in a fast pace to the osi beside the house of his wife. He stood outside and called out, "I'm here." One of the four old women came out and handed him a small bundle in a white cloth. He knew that the bundle contained the placenta from the recent birth. He thanked her, took it, and turned to walk away. He walked out of Tanase, looking back over his shoulder frequently to make sure that he was not being watched or followed. Safely out of town, he walked over two hills.

    He stood for a moment looking around again to make sure that he was alone and unwatched. Then he knelt and scooped out a hole in the ground. He placed the small bundle down in the hole and covered it. "I'll have another one two years from now," he said in a whisper. Then he went back to town by a different route.

Back at the osi one of the old women gave the new little human being a name, but it was mostly called usdi by everyone around. When it grew larger, it would be called 'chooch'. Some day, when he had grown even more and when he had developed his own distinctive personality or done something of note, he would be given yet another name, one which he would carry with him for the rest of his life.

Chapter Two


The usdi was but one year old when his father's sister, Tame Doe, gave birth to a little girl. They called the new girl child Nanyehi. Tame Doe and her husband had observed all the same precautions as had Ni-on-e and Ada-gal'kala, and their new little girl was healthy and strong. That same year a terrible disease struck the Cherokee settlements. The conjurers and doctors had never seen this disease before. It was something new and frightening, something that they had no experience of and therefore no cure for. The people stricken by this dread disease became feverish and frequently vomited. Horrible pustular eruptions developed on their faces and bodies. Not knowing what else to do, the doctors prescribed plunges in the cold streams for their patients. When that failed, they put them in the small osis and gave them sweat baths. The treatments did no good, and the awful pestilence spread rapidly from town to town, and many people suffered, and many died.

    At last James Adair and other white men living among them, mostly traders, identified the scourge as smallpox, a disease brought into Charlestown with the black slaves and then spread in the Cherokee country by infected trade goods. Even so, the doctors proclaimed that the horror had Been sent among them because of the misbehavior of many of the young people who had become sexually promiscuous. Since their promiscuous activities had been engaged in mostly at night, the doctors had made them lie on the ground at night and had poured cold water on them. This too had failed.

    Some patients were then given sweat baths and taken immediately to the nearest river or stream and plunged into the cold water where they died at once. The people began to lose faith in their doctors and conjurers, and the doctors and conjurers, completely at a loss and no longer held in esteem by the people, decided that they must have been stripped of their powers. They smashed the pots that held their herbs and the pots in which they boiled their medicines. They broke or burned their wands and hoops and feathers, all their professional paraphernalia, and many of them cut their own throats in shame and despair.

    Many of the people, now horribly scarred by the terrible disease, looking into mirrors at their disfigured faces, threw themselves off mountainsides, or shot or stabbed themselves. Some even flung themselves into flames, screaming and filling the air with the pungent odor of burning flesh.

    Ada-gal'kala hurried up to Ni-on-e's house. He did not bother going inside or even poking his head in the door. He stood outside and called his wife by name. She answered him, but her voice was weak. "Bring the usdi," he said, "and come with me." She stepped out the door with her child in her arms.

    "He's not well," she said, and her face was drawn with worry and pain.

    "Come on," said Ada-gal'kala. He took her by the arm and started to walk, but she held back.

    "Where?" she asked. "Where are we going?"

    "We're going away from here," he said. "Somewhere away from this white man's disease."

    "Let me pack some things," she said.

    "No," said Ada-gal'kala. "The smallpox is on everything here. Leave it all. Come on now. Maybe we can save our lives. If we stay here, we'll all die."

    Still she hesitated. "Look around us," Ada-gal'kala said. "They're sick and dying everywhere. This place is not safe."

    And so, with no food, with no extra clothing or blankets, they walked out of town. They walked for several days, Ada-gal'kala hunting along the way for their food, he and his wife both looking for edible plants and gathering them. At last, he decided that they had gotten far enough away from the pestilence, and he had gathered a few skins from the game he had killed. He selected a place high in the mountains, a place flat enough for comfort and near some fresh, cold running water, and he and Ni-on-e built themselves a rude house. They built a small fire and burned their blankets and clothes. Ni-on-e started all over with the skins that her husband had provided, and he hunted more and brought home more game for fresh meat and for skins.

The horror lasted for a year, and by the time it came to an end, the population of the Cherokee people had been cut in half. They said that they'd had six thousand fighting men before, and when the smallpox had run its course, 2,590 were left alive.

    Ada-gal'kala survived it, as did his wife and son. His sister and her daughter also survived. Back home at last, they found that things had changed tremendously. Many of their friends and relatives were gone. Houses had been burned. The two usdis too saw the terrible effects around them, heard the weeping and wailing, witnessed death by disease and by suicide. They were possibly young enough to forget, had they been allowed to, but they would hear the awful tales throughout the years as they were growing up, and so they would never actually forget. And the boy, now called Chooch, had other, more painful and more constant reminders, for the disease had stricken him, and though he had survived it, it had left him marked for life.

    Ada-gal'kala's old rival Agan'stat' also had suffered the smallpox and somehow survived. He too was left with a scarred and pitted face, a horrible reminder of his pain and anguish, and it turned him all the more against the English, for it had been their trade goods, had it not, that had brought the pestilence among them? He even believed, and voiced his beliefs out loud, that the English had done it on purpose in a devious and sinister attempt to wipe out all the Cherokees.


With the great horror at last behind them, the Cherokees got back into their normal routines as much as possible. Little 'Chooch', with his now pockmarked face, was given distayuh tea to make him strong, and the root of ani-waniski to chew, rub on his lips, and swallow to make him eloquent in speech. He was scratched with the kanuga on his back from his shoulders to his heels to make him fleet of foot, and as soon as he was old enough to walk around on his own, he was given his freedom. He could go anywhere and try to do anything that came into his mind. He learned the dances by watching the men and women dance. He watched men make bows and arrows, and soon he was making his own little versions and shooting his little arrows at anything that moved. He watched the men playing the gatayusti game and the big teams contesting against one another in anetsodi, the ball play, the little brother of war. He learned these things by watching and by trying them for himself, and he was good at everything he tried. One day he told his mother, "When I grow up, I'll be a great man."


Excerpted from CHEROKEE DRAGON by Robert J. Conley. Copyright © 2000 by Robert J. Conley. Excerpted by permission.

What People are Saying About This

Max Evans
Max Evans, author of The Rounders, on War Woman

An unforgettable adventure of love, death, and nature that entices you with each page.

Jory Sherman
Jory Sherman, author of The South Platte, on Nickajack

The Cherokee Nation was never more vividly brought to life than in this outstanding novel.

Joseph C. Porter
Joseph C. Porter, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Robert J. Conley is in the ranks of N. Scott Momaday, Louise Erdrich, James Welch, and W. P. Kinsella as an interpreter of many facets of the Native American experience.

Meet the Author

Robert J. Conley (1940-2014) was the author of the Real People series, The Witch of Goingsnake and Other Stories, and Mountain Windsong. A three-time winner of the Spur Award and Oklahoma Writer of the Year in 1999, Conley was inducted into the Oklahoma Professional Writers Hall of Fame in 1996. He was named Writer of the Year by the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers & Storytellers in 2000 for Cherokee Dragon.

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