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Landscapes of Origin in the Americas Creation Narratives Linking Ancient Places and Present Communities
THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS Copyright © 2009 Jessica Joyce Christie
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Chapter One The Center of the World
The Principle People and the Great Smoky Mountains
Christopher Arris Oakley
According to Cherokee oral tradition, the world was once all water, and the animals lived in the sky above the great stone arch. But the animals felt overcrowded, so they sent the little water beetle down to the large sea below to explore. The beetle darted around on top of the water for a long time, but he tired and looked, in vain, for a place to rest. Eventually, he dove under the water and came back up to the surface with some soft mud, which grew until it formed a large island in the center of the sea. Someone, no one knows who, fastened the island to the stone sky vault with four chords. And thus, the Earth was born (Mooney 1995).
At first, the ground was very soft and wet. The animals, still overcrowded, were anxious to get down to the island, so they sent different birds to explore and test the ground. Finally, they sent the great buzzard, who flew all around the Earth, which was still muddy. As the buzzard tired, his wings began to strike the ground, making deep valleys on each downstroke and great mountains oneach upstroke. When the animals saw this, they called him back, fearing that he would do this to the entire Earth. Eventually, when the ground dried, all of the animals came down to live (Mooney 1995).
The Principle People (Ani- Yun Wiya), more commonly known as the Cherokees, lived in the mountains and valleys created by the wings of the great buzzard. The Cherokees built small towns along the waterways of the region, known today as the American Southeast, and created a distinctive society and culture. This chapter examines the relationship between the natural environment of the southern Appalachians and the evolution of the Cherokee worldview. This relationship can be analyzed by a careful examination of Cherokee oral traditions. As described in these traditions, the mountains and rivers of the region, combined with the indigenous flora and fauna, shaped Cherokee culture and life. Consequently, for the Principle People, the mountains of present- day eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina were more than simply a homeland; rather, the mountains were a special place, a sacred landscape that helped forge Cherokee society and identity.
The Origin of the Cherokees
During the ninth and tenth centuries, the Mississippian culture spread across the American Southeast, from the Mississippi River valley eastward across the Appalachian Mountains. Native Americans in the Mississippian era practiced maize agriculture, lived in large cities, some numbering in the tens of thousands, and built large, flat-topped earth ceremonial mounds, upon which priests held rituals and ceremonies. Powerful hereditary leaders ruled these chiefdoms, which sometimes formed alliances with others to form super or paramount chiefdoms. War was common during the Mississippian period, as chiefdoms and paramount chiefdoms competed for land and resources in the region (Hudson 1976; Hudson and Ethridge 2002; Satz 1979).
Despite its quick rise, the Mississippian culture collapsed in the 1500s. The cause remains somewhat of a mystery. The arrival of Europeans in the 1500s certainly was a factor. The introduction of new diseases, most notably smallpox, spread by De Soto's expedition in the 1540s, devastated Native Americans and perhaps reduced the region's indigenous population below the level that could support large chiefdoms. But some scholars have argued that the Mississippian culture was already declining by the late 1400s, well before De Soto and European contact, because of warfare, overpopulation, and internal political and social unrest (Finger 1984; Hudson and Ethridge 2002; Rodning 2002; Ward and Davis 1991). Further archaeological evidence may provide new insight into this question, but what is clear is that by the 1600s, the Mississippian period in the Southeast was over. The death of the chiefdoms in the region, however, gave birth to the Native American peoples, polities, and cultures that would become so well known to Europeans during the colonial era, such as the Catawbas, the Creeks, the Chickasaws, and the Cherokees. Or, as noted anthropologist Charles Hudson has argued, "all of the major Indian polities in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century eastern U.S. were formed out of the coalescences and amalgamations of the survivors of shattered prehistoric societies" (Hudson and Ethridge 2002:xxxvi).
Much like the collapse of the Mississippians, the exact origin of the Cherokees is disputed. Some scholars argue that the Cherokees were relative newcomers to the region, having migrated southward after losing a war with their linguistic kinsmen the northern Iroquois. According to this theory, shortly before European contact, the Cherokee invaders left their northern homelands and moved into the southern mountains, where they defeated and subjugated other indigenous peoples. But others argue, and archaeological evidence seems to support, that the ancestors of the Cherokees had occupied the southern Appalachian Mountains for more than 1,000 years prior to the arrival of Europeans, and that these ancestors, like other southern Indians, organized into Mississippian chiefdoms around 1000. It is also possible that both theories are partly correct, that a core group of Native Americans, Cherokee forefathers, lived in the mountains for centuries, but other Iroquoian-speakers moved in, settled, and assimilated during later periods of migration. Many Cherokees believe that their ancestors have been in the southern Appalachian Mountains from time immemorial (Hudson and Ethridge 2002; King 1979; Perdue 1998; Rodning 2002; Ross 1999).
Unlike other southern Native American peoples, the Cherokees thrived after the Mississippian period ended. After the chiefdoms collapsed, people left the cities and built small settlements along the rivers of the southern Appalachians, where they established new towns, independent polities, and a distinctive culture. The mountains, which offered seclusion and protection from disease and foreign invaders, may have been a popular choice for new settlements during the stressful post-contact era. In fact, according to Hudson, "the Cherokees are seemingly exceptional in the Southeast for being more formidable in the eighteenth century than they were in the sixteenth century" (Hudson and Ethridge 2002:xxxiv). Moreover, the mountains provided further protection during the turbulent 1700s, a century when European colonization devastated many Native American peoples in the Southeast. Consequently, the collapse of the Mississippian chiefdoms combined with the geography of the southern Appalachians created in the 1600s the Cherokee "tribe" that would thrive during the colonial era. And the mountains of the Southeast, the center of the Cherokee world, became the heart of that Cherokee culture (Perdue 1998; Rodning 2002).
In the late 1600s and early 1700s, the Cherokees, who numbered approximately 25,000, claimed 40,000 square miles of land in the Southeast. This territory included parts of the present-day American states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, West Virginia, and Virginia. Other Native American peoples, enemies of the Cherokees, often contested the borderlands. The Creeks and Chickasaws lived to the southwest, while the Tuscaroras and Catawbas lived to the east and southeast. Despite the claim to much of the region, the true center of Cherokee society, the culture hearth of the Principle People, and the place where the Cherokees primarily lived, was the Great Smoky Mountains, the part of the southern Appalachians that is located today in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. It is this sacred homeland that witnessed the growth and maturation of the Cherokee people and their culture (Altman 2006; Finger 1984).
The Great Smoky Mountains contain high peaks, deep and narrow valleys, and numerous gaps, ridges, knobs, and knolls. The average elevation is about 5,500 feet (Camp 1963; Ross 1999). The rainfall and temperature vary depending on elevation, but in general the region averages approximately 60 inches of rain and 10 inches of snow per year. The growing season typically lasts 165 to 175 days per year, though that decreases significantly in the higher elevations. Temperatures average around 60 degrees Fahrenheit in July and 40 degrees in January, though again it varies based on altitude (Sharpe 1958, 1965). Several important rivers, such as the French Broad, Tennessee, and Little Tennessee, run through the plateaus and valleys in the area. The expansive forests of the region provided a wide variety of resources that were very important to the Cherokees, especially the hardwood trees, such as maple, birch, ash, and oak. At higher elevations, spruce and fir dominated, along with longleaf pines and other deciduous trees. Although limited by the mountains, good agricultural land was available in the river valleys, where fertile alluvial soil allowed for the cultivation of maize, beans, and squash (Ross 1999). Wild game, especially deer and bear, provided the Cherokees with meat, clothing, and tools. The numerous rivers and streams of the mountain valleys also offered food, and the Cherokees became excellent fishermen, employing several different types of traps, nets, and poisons (Altman 2006; Rozema 1995). Life was not always easy for the Cherokees, but the Smoky Mountains provided them with the necessary resources. According to author Roy Dickens, the Cherokee culture "was the end product of a long, continuous, and multilinear development in the South Appalachian region" (Dickens 1979:28).
The peaks and valleys of the Great Smoky Mountains divided the heart of Cherokee country into numerous small settlements. Unlike the chiefdoms of the Mississippian era, and perhaps even as a reaction to them, the small Cherokee towns of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were politically autonomous. There was no Cherokee nation, at least politically, until the 1800s. Because of the scattered nature of the settlements, scholars have often divided Cherokee towns into three general areas: Lower Towns, Middle Towns, and Overhill Towns. The Lower Towns were located along the Keowee, Tugaloo, and Savannah rivers. The Middle Towns were situated along the headwaters and tributaries of the Little Tennessee River, and the Overhill Towns were along the upper Tennessee River and the lower Little Tennessee River, near the border separating present-day Tennessee and North Carolina (Finger 1984; Ward and Davis 1991).
After the collapse of the chiefdoms, the Cherokees created in the mountains a new society, one that was influenced by both the late Mississippian culture and their physical surroundings. Therefore, a shared environment and culture, not a central political system, united the Cherokees. As with the Mississippian culture, maize agriculture was a staple of Cherokee society. But new practices distinguished the Cherokees from the Mississippians, thus defining Cherokee identity. First, as noted above, Cherokee towns, which numbered between 50 and 80 in the 1600s, were politically autonomous. Most towns consisted of a collection of households, sometimes very close together, sometimes spread out along a waterway in the mountain valleys where the soil was best for growing corn. The mountains separated the towns and settlements, making political unification, which was the norm during the Mississippian period, more difficult. At the center of the town was a large council house, where Cherokees would gather to discuss important issues. Each town handled its own affairs, and the residents tried to reach a decision through consensus. There was no Cherokee central authority, either at the village or tribal level. Moreover, Cherokee society was much more egalitarian, both socially and politically, than the Mississippi chiefdoms. Among the Cherokees, the acquisition of personal wealth was frowned upon, which contrasted sharply with the economic stratification of the Mississippian chiefdoms (Hudson 1976; Perdue 1989; Rodning 2002; Satz 1979).
Second, the Cherokees spoke an Iroquoian language, which though not unique in the region, was unusual, and helped unite the towns. The Cherokee language was related to the languages spoken by the Iroquoian nations of the American Northeast (Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, Mohawk, and Seneca). Fewer Native American peoples in the South spoke an Iroquoian language, though the Tuscaroras, enemies of the Cherokees, were a notable exception. Although united by a common general language, there were several dialects. Cherokees living in each of the above three general areas of settlement-the Lower Towns, Middle Towns, and Overhill Towns-spoke a different dialect of their Iroquoian language, and some scholars have suggested that there were other dialects as well (Altman 2006; Perdue 1985).
Third, Cherokee society consisted of matrilineal clans, which were family groups supposedly all descended from the same individual or entity. There were seven known Cherokee clans (Wolf, Deer, Bird, Paint, Wild Potato, Blue, and Twister) and membership was passed down through the mother. Moreover, a child was raised in the household of his or her mother, surrounded by her clan. Among the Cherokees, clan membership defined one's role and place in society, including obligations and responsibilities. Furthermore, women controlled Cherokee households and the surrounding fields (Finger 1984; Perdue 1989; Rozema 1995). According to historian Theda Perdue, "matrilineality placed women in a unique position: they alone could convey the kinship ties essential to a Cherokee's existence" (Perdue 1998:46).
And finally, balance and harmony were important fundamental concepts in Cherokee society. Ideally, when the world was in a state of balance, everything was in harmony. The concept of balance naturally included the Cherokees' interaction with their environment, but extended to internal affairs as well. For example, men and women, who had separate but complementary roles, balanced each other. The women took care of the household and tended the fields, though the men helped clear them. Corn, beans, and squash provided the majority of the calories in the Cherokee diet, which meant that control of agricultural production and consumption was economically very important. Moreover, most of the important rituals and ceremonies in Cherokee society revolved around the agricultural cycles. The Green Corn Ceremony, a time of renewal and forgiveness held in the summer after the first harvest of corn, was the most important Cherokee ceremony. During the days leading up to Green Corn, Cherokees would extinguish village fires and discard old clothes and tools. All disputes and crimes, except murder, were settled or forgiven. After a period of fasting, a great feast was held, followed by dancing and the igniting of new fires from the ceremonial flame (Hudson 1976; Perdue 1998).
To supplement the Cherokee diet, the men hunted and fished in the forests and waters of the mountains. Cherokee men also handled most political and military affairs, though women did have some input into both. In many ways, Cherokee men and women lived in separate worlds, and each sex was somewhat ignorant of the other's world. But, unlike in some other societies, the men's world was not considered superior, and women's work was not considered inferior. Rather, they worked together to promote balance and harmony in Cherokee society. According to Perdue, "men and women had separate and distinct responsibilities. But the Cherokees viewed the tasks both women and men performed and the contributions they made as essential to their society and, like the sun and moon, to the integrity of the universe" (Perdue 1998:40).
Excerpted from Landscapes of Origin in the Americas Copyright © 2009 by Jessica Joyce Christie. Excerpted by permission.
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