Cherokee spiritual beliefs are held in common among the Cherokee people - Native American peoples who are indigenous to the Southeastern Woodlands, and today live primarily in communities in North Carolina (the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians), and Oklahoma (the Cherokee Nation and United Keetowah Band of Cherokee Indians). Some of the beliefs, and the stories and songs in which they have been preserved, exist in slightly different forms in the different communities in which they have been preserved. But for the most part, they still form a unified system of theology.
The Cherokee creation stories describe the Earth as a great floating island surrounded by seawater. It hangs from the sky by cords attached at the four cardinal points. The story tells that the first earth came to be when Dâyuni'sï , the little Water beetle came from Gälûñ'lätï, the sky realm, the Water Beetle was not affected by the natural laws of cause and effect, existing outside of the causality and went to see what was below the water. He scurried over the surface of the water, but found no solid place to rest. He dived to the bottom of the water and brought up some soft mud. This mud expanded in every direction and became the earth, according to the account recorded in 1900 by the Bureau of American Ethnology.
The other animals in Gälûñ'lätï were eager to come down to the new earth, and first birds were sent to see if the mud was dry. Buzzard was sent ahead to make preparations for the others, but the earth was still soft. When he grew tired, his wings dipped very low and brushed the soft mud, gouging mountains and valleys in the smooth surface, and the animals were forced to wait again. When it was finally dry they all came down. It was dark, so they took the sun and set it in a track to run east to west, at first setting it too low and the red crawfish was scorched. They elevated the sun several times in order to reduce its heat.
The story also tells how plants and animals acquired certain characteristics, and is related to one of their medicine rituals. They all were told to stay awake for seven nights, but only a few animals, such as owl and panther, succeeded and they were given the power to see and prey upon the others at night. Only a few trees succeeded as well, namely cedar, pine, spruce and laurel, so the rest were forced to shed their leaves in the winter.
The first people were a brother and sister. Once, the brother hit his sister with a fish and told her to multiply. Following this, she gave birth to a child every seven days and soon there were too many people, so women were forced to have just one child every year.
The Story of Corn and Medicine
The Story of Corn and Medicine begins with the creation of the earth and animals. Earth was created out of mud that grew into a volcano. Animals began exploring the earth, and it was the Buzzard that created valleys and mountains in the Cherokee land by the flapping of his wings. After some time, the earth became habitable for the animals, once the mud of the earth had dried and the sun had been raised up for light.
According to the Cherokee medicine ceremony, the animals and plants had to stay awake for seven nights. The reasons weren't well known. Only the owl, panther, and unnamed others were able to fulfill the requirements of the ceremony, so these animals were given the gift of night vision, which allowed them to hunt easily at night. Similarly, the only trees able to remain awake for the seven days were the cedar, pine, spruce, holly, laurel, and oak. These trees were given the gift of staying green year-round.
The first woman argued with the first man and left their home. The first man, helped by the sun, tried tempting her to return with blueberries and blackberries but was not successful. He finally persuaded her to return with strawberries.
Humans began to hunt animals and quickly grew in numbers. The population grew so rapidly that a rule was established that women can only have one child per year. Two early humans were Kanáti and Selu. Their names meant "The Lucky Hunter" and "Corn," respectively. Kanáti would hunt and bring an animal home for Selu to prepare. Kanáti and Selu had a child, and their child befriended another boy who had been created out of the blood of the slaughtered animals. The family treated this boy like one of their own, except they called him "The Wild Boy". Kanáti consistently brought animals home when he went hunting, and one day, the boys decided to secretly follow him. They discovered that Kanáti would move a rock concealing a cave, and an animal would come out of the cave only to be killed by Kanáti. The boys secretly returned to the rock by themselves and opened the entrance to the cave. However, the boys didn't realize that when the cave was opened many different animals escaped. Kanáti saw the animals and realized what must have happened. He journeyed to the cave and sent the boys home so he could try to catch some of the escaped animals for eating. This explains why people must hunt for food now.
The boys returned to Selu, who went to get food from the storehouse. She instructed the boys to wait behind while she was gone, but they disobeyed and followed her. They discovered Selu's secret, which was that she would rub her stomach to fill baskets with corn, and she would rub her sides to fill baskets with beans. Selu knew her secret was out and made the boys one last meal. She and Kanáti then explained to the boys that the two of them would die because their secrets had been discovered. Along with Kanáti and Selu dying, the easy life the boys had become accustomed to would also die. However, if the boys dragged Selu's body seven times in a circle, and then seven times over the soil in the circle, a crop of corn would appear in the morning if the boys stayed up all night to watch. The boys did not fulfill the instructions completely, which is why corn can only grow in certain places around the earth. Today, corn is still grown, but it does not come overnight.
During the early times, the plants, animals, and people all lived together as friends, but the dramatic population growth of humans crowded the earth, leaving the animals with no room to roam. Humans also would kill the animals for meat or trample them for being in the way. As a punishment for these horrendous acts, the animals created diseases to infect the humans with.
Like other creatures, the plants decided to meet, and they came to the conclusion that the animals' actions had to be too harsh and that they would provide a cure for every disease. This explains why all kinds of plant life help to cure many varieties of diseases. Medicine was created in order to counteract the animals' punishments.
The Thunder Beings
The Cherokee believe that there is the Great Thunder and his sons, the two Thunder Boys, who live in the land of the west above the sky vault. They dress in lightning and rainbows. The priests pray to the thunder and he visits the people to bring rain and blessings from the South. It was believed that the thunder beings who lived close to the Earth's surface in the cliffs, mountains, and waterfalls could harm the people at times, which did happen. These other thunders are always plotting mischief.
Green Corn Ceremony
The thunder beings are viewed as the most powerful servants of the Apportioner (Creator Spirit), and are revered in the first dance of the Green Corn Ceremony held each year, as they are directly believed to have brought the rains for a successful corn crop.
Medicine and Disease
It is said that all plants, animals, beasts and people once lived in harmony with no separation between them. At this time, the animals were bigger and stronger until the humans became more powerful. When the human population increased, so did the weapons, and the animals no longer felt safe. The animals decided to hold a meeting to discuss what should be done to protect themselves.
The Bears met first and decided that they would make their own weapons like the humans, but this only led to further chaos. Next the Deer gathered to discuss their plan of action and they came to the conclusion that if a hunter was to kill a Deer, they would develop a disease. The only way to avoid this disease was to ask the Deer's spirit for forgiveness. Another requirement was that the people only kill when necessary. The council of Birds, Insects and small animals met next and they decided that humans were too cruel, therefore they concocted many diseases to infect them with.
The plants heard what the animals were planning and since they were always friendly with the humans, they vowed that for every disease made by the animals, they would create a cure. Every plant serves a purpose and the only way to find the purpose is to discover it for yourself. When a medicine man does not know what medicine to use, the spirits of the plants instruct him.
The Great Spirit
The Cherokee revered the Great Spirit, simply referred to as Unetlanvhi, or "Creator", who presided over all things and created the Earth. The Great Spirit is said to be omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. The Unetlanvhi was said to have made the earth to provide for its children, and should be of equal power to Dâyuni'sï . The Wahnenauhi Manuscript says that God is Unahlahnauhi, meaning "maker of all things" and Kalvlvtiahi, meaning "The one who lives above". In most myths the Great Spirit is not personified as having human characteristics or a physical human form.
Other Venerated Spirits
Signs, Visions, and Dreams
The Cherokee traditionally hold that signs, visions, dreams, and powers are all gifts of the spirits, and that the world of humans and the world of the spirits are intertwined, with the spirit world and presiding over both.
Spiritual beings can come in the form of animal or human and are considered a part of daily life. A group of spiritual beings are spoken about as Little People and they can only be seen by humans when they want to be seen. It is said that they choose who they present themselves to and appear as any other Cherokee would, except that they are small with very long hair. The Little People can be helpful but one should be cautious while interacting with them because they can be very deceptive. It is not common to talk about an experience one has with the Little People. Instead, one might relay an incident that happened to someone else. It is said that if you bother the Little People too often you will become confused in your day-to-day life. Although they possess healing powers and helpful hints, the Little People are not to be disturbed.
Traditionally there is no universal evil spirit corresponding to Satan in Cherokee Theology. An Asgina is any sort of spirit, but it is usually considered to be a malevolent one. Uya, sometimes called Uyaga, is an evil earth spirit which is invariably opposed to the forces of right and light. There is also Nun'Yunu'Wi, an evil spirit monster who preys on humans, and Kalona Ayeliski (Raven Mocker). These spirits preyed on the souls of the dying and would torment their victims until they died, after which they would eat the heart of the victim. Kalona Ayeliski are invisible, except to a medicine man, and the only way to protect a potential victim was to have a medicine man who knew how to drive Kalona Ayeliski off, since they were scared of him.
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- Jack Frederick Kilpatrick. The Wahnenauhi Manuscript: Historical Sketches of the Cherokee. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1966