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Cherokee Medicine Man: The Life and Work of a Modern-Day Healer

Cherokee Medicine Man: The Life and Work of a Modern-Day Healer

by Robert J. Conley

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A modern medicine man portrayed through the words of the people he has helped

Robert J. Conley did not set out to chronicle the life of Cherokee medicine man John Little Bear. Instead, the medicine man came to him. Little Bear asked Conley to write down his story, to reveal to the world “what Indian medicine is really about.” For Little


A modern medicine man portrayed through the words of the people he has helped

Robert J. Conley did not set out to chronicle the life of Cherokee medicine man John Little Bear. Instead, the medicine man came to him. Little Bear asked Conley to write down his story, to reveal to the world “what Indian medicine is really about.” For Little Bear, as for the Cherokee ancestors who brought their traditions over the Trail of Tears to Indian Territory, the medicine is about helping people. Visitors from neighboring states and Mexico come to him, each one seeking help for a different kind of problem. Each seeker’s story is presented here exactly as it was told to Conley.

Little Bear has cured problems involving health, relationships, and money by uncovering the source of the problem rather than simply treating the symptoms. Whereas mainstream medicine and counseling have failed his patients, Little Bear’s healing practices have proven beneficial time and again.

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University of Oklahoma Press
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Cherokee Medicine Man

The Life and Work of a Modern-Day Healer

By Robert J. Conley


Copyright © 2005 Robert J. Conley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8370-1


A Brief History of the Cherokees and the Origins of Medicine

There are different stories and theories about where the Cherokees came from originally, but when they were first encountered by Europeans, they were living in approximately 250 autonomous towns scattered over parts of what are now the states of North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Alabama, and Georgia. They called themselves Ani-yunwiya (the Real People, Principal People, or Original People) or Ani-Kituwagi, the People of Keetoowah, or Keetoowah People. Keetoowah is said to be the Mother Town, or the original town, of the Cherokee people. All other Cherokee towns grew out of Keetoowah. They spoke an Iroquoian language, related to Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and others. These other Iroquoian people lived north, in what is now New York and around the Great Lakes. The Cherokees were surrounded with mostly Muskogean-speaking peoples. There were also a few Siouan-speaking tribes in the general area.

Cherokee families were matrilineal clans, meaning that descent was traced strictly through the female line. Children belonged to their mothers and to their mothers' clans. Women owned the homes and gardens, and when a man married, he went to live in his wife's house. Europeans had a hard time understanding the Cherokee families, early on making comments like, "The Cherokees have a petticoat government," and "Among the Cherokees, the woman rules the roost." One wit wrote, "A Cherokee woman will get a stick and beat her husband from his head to his heels, and when he can stand it no more, he'll turn over and let her beat the other side."

Cherokees lived in autonomous towns, having no central government. Each town had its own two chiefs, a war chief and a peace chief, and each chief had his council of advisers. It is not known precisely how the chiefs became chiefs. They did not have absolute or coercive power. They led by persuasion, and they could be removed from office. Perhaps they had a system similar to the Northern Iroquois, where the clan women selected the chiefs, and the clan women could recall them. That's speculation.

Cherokees believed in a world of three parts: the world we live on, which is an island floating on water; the world above, a great "Sky Vault" covering all and where all the original life-forms lived; and the world below, a chaotic world populated by all kinds of monsters who can often find their way to the world we live on through the waterways. The great task of the people was to maintain balance and harmony on this earth, caught between the two powerful and opposed otherworlds. This was done through ritual and ceremony, often appealing to the many spirits that surround us. Into this delicate and precarious world came the Europeans.

The first Europeans to venture into Cherokee lands were the Spaniards following Hernando de Soto on his brutal expedition of 1540. They seem not to have bothered the Cherokees much; however, they did enough damage elsewhere that the Cherokees were certainly aware of it. The Cherokees seem then to have been left alone for about a hundred years before the first Englishmen visited, seeking trade relations. From then on, Cherokee history is much involved with that of the British colonies in North America and later, of course, with the United States.

The English soon tired of having to deal with each Cherokee town separately, and they managed to convince the Cherokees to appoint a sort-of trade commissioner. The man's name was recorded as "Wrosetasetoe," a name that no Cherokee can translate. It was apparently a poor British attempt at spelling a Cherokee name. When Wrosetasetoe died, he was replaced by Ama-edohi, whom the English called "Moytoy." They also called him the "emperor" of the Cherokees. Surely the Cherokees thought of him as nothing more than a trade commissioner; however, the position would slowly evolve into that of an elected principal chief.

Somewhere along the way, due to the widespread use of the Mobilian jargon, a trade language used by almost everyone in the region, the Cherokees accepted the name "Chalakee" from the jargon and began using it themselves in the form of "Tsalagi." In English it became "Cherokee."

The Cherokee relationship with the British colonies was an unstable one. The Cherokees were often at war with one or more of the colonies, often allied with one or more of them. At the end of each war, the English would ask for a little Cherokee land with the treaty. Things were often complicated by intrigues between the English, Spanish, and French. But by the time of the American Revolution, one Cherokee had seen enough land loss. He decided to draw the line. His name was Tsiyu-gansini, Dragging Canoe. Because of trade and intermarriage with the traders, the Cherokee lifestyle had already altered dramatically. Old skills were abandoned and lost because of trade goods, and the European-style family was slowing taking hold in place of the old clan system.

Dragging Canoe meant to retain what he could of the old ways and to put a stop to the loss of Cherokee land. He found that his best ally in this effort was England. The king of England had passed a proclamation declaring that no one could buy or trade for Indian land but the king. He meant to contain his colonies along the East Coast. If he could be successful in that effort, the colonists would not be moving farther west onto Cherokee lands.

About the time Dragging Canoe came into prominence, the American Revolution broke out, and Dragging Canoe became a British ally in the war against the new Americans. Not all Cherokees agreed with him though, and so the Cherokees were split. When Dragging Canoe's towns were burned by the Americans, he moved to a new location on Chickamauga Creek, and he and his followers became known as Chickamaugas or Chickamauga Cherokees. They soon became a mixed group of full-blood Cherokees, mixed-blood Cherokees, white Loyalists or Tories, Creeks, and Shawnees. (The young Tecumseh was with them for a time.) At the end of the Revolution, the British ceased supplying them with arms, but Dragging Canoe continued the fight. When Dragging Canoe died in 1791, the Chickamauga movement slowly fell apart, and in 1792 the Cherokees' war with the Americans was over.

One group of Chickamaugas moved west that same year, settling for a time in Missouri, but following the great earthquake of 1811, they moved farther west and south to settle in what is now western Arkansas. They became known as the Western Cherokee Nation, and the U.S. government dealt with them as a separate nation from the Cherokee Nation. In Arkansas, they became embroiled in a long and bitter war with the Osages.

Back in the old Cherokee country, pressures for Cherokee removal had begun, and they intensified. As early as 1803, President Thomas Jefferson had signed a compact with the state of Georgia promising to remove all Indians from Georgia as soon as possible. Georgia was getting impatient. Other southern states joined in, and when Andrew Jackson was elected president, they gained a strong ally. Jackson managed to push through his Indian Removal Bill in 1830, and it became law by only one vote. The other southern Indian tribes began to move, but the Cherokee Nation, under the leadership of their popularly elected principal chief, John Ross, resisted, taking their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where they won.

But Cherokee jubilation over the victory did not last long, for they soon discovered that Jackson refused to acknowledge the Court's decision, saying, "Justice Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it." Disheartened, some Cherokees signed a treaty of total removal, called the Treaty of New Echota, on December 29, 1835. The treaty was fraudulent, having been signed by men who were not elected to any Cherokee Nation governmental positions, but nevertheless it was ratified by the U.S. Senate and enforced by the president. The majority of Cherokees still resisted for a time, but beginning in 1838, the U.S. Army began to forcibly remove them from their homes. They were placed in stockade prisons, where many sickened and died. When the roundup was nearly complete, the army began to move them west over what became known as the Trail of Tears.

Twenty thousand Cherokees were moved in thirteen waves, the entire process taking several months to complete. It has been estimated that one-fourth of the Cherokee population of the time lies buried beside the trail in unmarked graves. It has also been said hat there was not a single Cherokee family that did not lose someone during the removal. A small group of Cherokees managed to remain behind in the mountains of North Carolina. They were eventually able to purchase land and stay, and their descendants are today the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

The rest, the majority, those who survived the trail, moved into what is now northeast Oklahoma. It was then the Cherokee Nation. The people of the Western Cherokee Nation were moved across the line from Arkansas to join them, and the Western Cherokee Nation ceased to exist. Embittered from their ordeal, some of the people who had suffered the Trail of Tears began to assassinate the people who had signed the Removal Treaty. There was retaliation, and a civil war nearly developed in the Cherokee Nation. After much violence, an uneasy peace was restored, and the Cherokee Nation entered into what has been called by some historians its Golden Age.

Cities were laid out. Schools and churches were built. A newspaper was published in English and Cherokee, making use of the symbols that Sequoyah had presented to the Cherokee people back in 1828. But the Golden Age lasted not quite twenty years.

When the Civil War broke out in the United States, the Cherokees were almost immediately embroiled in it. Stand Watie, whose brother had been killed for signing the Removal Treaty, raised a regiment of Cherokees for the Confederacy. And though Principal Chief John Ross wanted to keep the Cherokee Nation neutral, he was eventually forced to sign a treaty with the Confederate states. Many Cherokees did not want to fight for the South and joined the pro-union "Pin" Indians. The Civil War raged in the Cherokee Nation. John Ross later repudiated his Confederate treaty, and Stand Watie declared a Confederate Cherokee Nation, with himself not only as general of the army but also principal chief. He was the last Confederate general to surrender.

Cherokee involvement in the Civil War provided the U.S. government the excuse it needed to impose yet another treaty on the Cherokee Nation (and the other four of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes). The new treaty stripped the Cherokee Nation of many of the powers of government and organized the five tribes into Indian Territory, a first step toward statehood. The Cherokee Nation, almost destroyed during the Civil War and its government seriously fractured by the new treaty, began again to rebuild. And it made tremendous strides. Once again, it built schools, creating the first free, compulsory public school system in the country, perhaps in the world. (Education was the highest single line item on the Cherokee Nation's budget.) It built male and female seminaries, the first institutions of higher education west of the Mississippi River. A two-story, brick capitol was built in Tahlequah. The Cherokee Nation had a national prison, a national orphanage, an insane asylum, and a supreme court building. (The orphanage and the insane asylum were necessary because of the Civil War.) It had a "School for the Colored." A Cherokee installed the first telephone west of the Mississippi River, running the line from the Cherokee capitol in Tahlequah to the offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Muskogee. By 1907, the Cherokee Nation had produced more college graduates than the states of Arkansas and Texas combined.

But powerful forces were at work to abolish the Cherokee Nation and create the state of Oklahoma. One of their main arguments was that the Cherokee Nation could not maintain law and order within its own borders. The whole of Indian Territory was in fact a lawless land, harboring fugitives of every stripe, and it was that way precisely because the United States had forbidden the Cherokee Nation and the other four tribes to arrest or try anyone other than one of their own tribal citizens. The United States had created an impossible situation for the tribal governments to deal with.

Eventually, the forces for statehood prevailed. The lands of the Cherokee Nation were allotted to individuals, the surplus being made available to white settlers. The property of the Cherokee Nation was taken over by the new state or sold to individuals. The Cherokee Nation was all but destroyed, with the president of the United States appointing a Cherokee chief when he needed land transfer documents signed. The chiefs of this period became known as the "Chiefs for a Day."

During this time, under a federal law enacted during the 1930s, a group of full-blood Cherokees formed the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma. They applied for and received a federal charter and incorporation and received, under the law, "all the rights and privileges of any federally recognized Indian tribe." Then in 1983, ignoring the existence of the Keetoowah Band, President Ronald Reagan returned elections to the Cherokee Nation. To this day, there are two federally recognized Cherokee tribes, both headquartered in Tahlequah. (The Eastern Band in North Carolina is a third.) Both the Cherokee Nation and the Keetoowah Band are growing, operating federal programs and tribal enterprises, and there is an often not too subtle "cold war" taking place between the two.

Cherokees today come in all kinds of manifestations. The tribal population of the Cherokee Nation is in excess of 200,000, but of that number, perhaps 8,000 are full-blood or nearly so. The Cherokee Nation will accept for membership anyone who is a direct descendant of anyone listed on the Dawes Commission roll, which was drawn up in preparation for Oklahoma statehood. Many of its members have infinitesimal amounts of Cherokee blood. The Keetoowah Band, on the other hand, enrolls only people who have one-quarter or more Cherokee blood. There are about 8,000 members of the Keetoowah Band.

Amazingly, throughout all of the Cherokee Nation's turbulent history, there have remained people who cling to ancient traditions, and one of those traditions is the medicine. The subject of this book, John Little Bear, is a traditional practitioner of that medicine. Before getting to his story, it might be well to consider the history of that medicine, for it has a story and a life of its own.

The following story from the Cherokee oral tradition was collected by ethnologist James Mooney on the reservation of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina and published in Myths of the Cherokee in the 19th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1897–98. The stories from Mooney reprinted here appear just as Mooney presented them, together with his often peculiar punctuation and occasionally peculiar spelling. The only change is that I have not used the diacritical marks that he used over Cherokee vowels in his spelling of Cherokee words.


In the old days the beasts, birds, fishes, insects and plants could all talk, and they and the people lived together in peace and friendship. But as time went on the people increased so rapidly that their settlements spread over the whole earth, and the poor animals found themselves beginning to be cramped for room. This was bad enough, but to make it worse Man invented bows, knives, blowguns, spears, and hooks, and began to slaughter the larger animals, birds, and fishes for their flesh or their skins, while the smaller creatures, such as the frogs and worms, were crushed and trodden upon without thought, out of pure carelessness or contempt. So the animals resolved to consult upon measures for their common safety.

The Bears were the first to meet in council in their townhouse under Kuwahi mountain, the "Mulberry Place," and the old White Bear chief presided. After each in turn had complained of the way in which Man killed their friends, ate their flesh, and used their skins for his own purposes, it was decided to begin war at once against him. Some one asked what weapons Man used to destroy them. "Bows and arrows, of course," cried all the Bears in chorus. "And what are they made of?" was the next question. "The bow of wood, and the string of our entrails," replied one of the Bears. It was then proposed that they make a bow and some arrows and see if they could not use the same weapons against Man himself. So one Bear got a nice piece of locust wood and another sacrificed himself for the good of the rest in order to furnish a piece of his entrails for the string. But when everything was ready and the first Bear stepped up to make the trial, it was found that in letting the arrow fly after drawing back the bow, his long claws caught the string and spoiled the shot. This was annoying, but someone suggested that they might trim his claws, which was accordingly done, and on a second trial it was found that the arrow went straight to the mark. But here the chief, the old White Bear, objected, saying it was necessary that they should have long claws in order to be able to climb trees. "One of us has already died to furnish the bow string, and if we now cut off our claws we must all starve together. It is better to trust to the teeth and claws that nature gave us, for it is plain that man's weapons were not intended for us."


Excerpted from Cherokee Medicine Man by Robert J. Conley. Copyright © 2005 Robert J. Conley. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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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