Tahlequah Daily Press


June 13, 2011

Exploring Cherokee ancestry, clans

A conference held this weekend detailed the development of Cherokee identity.

TAHLEQUAH — Some people get up in the morning, thinking first that they are Cherokee, going to water and offering prayers.

Other Cherokee citizens get up and go about their business in the modern world, just like their non-Cherokee neighbors.

Many factors go into determining who is Cherokee, and each Cherokee lives life a bit differently. During the 10th annual Cherokee Ancestry Conference this weekend, participants explored the meaning of being Cherokee, the development of Cherokee culture, and how to research their Cherokee ancestors. The conference is sponsored by the Cherokee Heritage Center.

“I believe Cherokee culture is not in your blood. Cherokee culture is how you participate,” said Roy Hamilton.

Hamilton, a Cherokee citizen, author, and president of the Cherokee Arts and Humanities council, grew up among traditional Cherokees in the Wauhillau community.

He offered this definition of Cherokee life, as provided by a traditional Cherokee: “You depend on other people and other people depend on you. There are no job descriptions. You learn from watching. When you see a void, you step in and fill that role.”

Hamilton always knew he belonged to the Cherokee people. He didn’t think of his father as being a white man until he went to school in town and realized he had heritage that was other than Cherokee.

“I live my life as a Cherokee because that is what I am,” he said.

He learned lessons of life from his mother, aunts, uncles and other Cherokee elders in the community.

A traditional view would be that “a Cherokee does not own his life. Life is to be given, for the benefit of Cherokees and others,” he said.

In the process, it brings a balance to life within the Cherokee community and in the world.

While many Cherokees still participate in stomp dances and go to ceremonial grounds, far more do not and have assimilated into the modern world.

“Our culture is weak right now. There are about 300,000 Cherokees right now, and most are not living their cultural ways,” Hamilton said. “The farther we go back in our families, the more likely it is we will connect to a culturally traditional Cherokee person.

“What does it mean to be Cherokee? Every Cherokee you ask will have a different answer,” he said.

The challenge today is to try to balance living in the modern world with Cherokee tradition. This involves interdependency and support among the community, maintaining traditions of family and community.

During the past few months, Hamilton has surveyed members of Cherokee communities to obtain their definition of being Cherokee.

He read a number of these definitions to conference participants.

All involved awareness of, and trying to live, within Cherokee traditions. Interestingly, one respondent said having a white CDIB or a blue Cherokee Nation citizenship card was not essential for being Cherokee.

Many Cherokees today no longer know which clan they came from, said Ryan Mackey, a Cherokee traditionalist, language specialist and teacher in the Cherokee language immersion program.

Writing and speaking in Cherokee and English, he explained the development of the seven Cherokee clans as they are known today.

In traditional Cherokee life, before the removal from their southeastern homelands, clans played an important role.

“Clan is not the same value today as it was to our ancestors,” Mackey said.

As far back as is known in oral history, clans existed. According to legend, Cherokees originally came from an island that was destroyed, an island of turtles.

At one time four clans inhabited the island – the blue, yellow, black and brown or reddish-skinned, corresponding to the four major human races. Blue, or blue-veined, represented the whites.

Eventually the blue, black and yellow clans were washed off the island, leaving the reddish-brown ones, the color of the red ochre used for painting the body.

Later, the Cherokees lived “between two waters” before settling in the Smoky Mountains, Mackey said. By that time the seven clans had evolved.

“The clan was a big family that took care of you,” he said. “When we talk about clans today, we talk about culture.”

The clan system is matriarchal, passed through the mother. For example, someone is Bird Clan if his mother is Bird Clan.

In the five counties that constitute the heart of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, even some fullbloods do not know their clan identity.

This is particularly true of those who grew up in church families that shunned old ways, Mackey said.

“At one time clans were the foundation of Cherokee community,” he said.

“They said that when we were met by the first European settlers we had 40 to 60 tribal towns. According to Cherokee tradition, to have a real Cherokee tribal town you had to have all seven clans.”

The seven clans include the Long Hair, Wolf, Paint, Deer, Wild Potato, Bird and Blue. Each clan had its traditional specialties – such as warriors coming from the Wolf Clan, hunters from the Deer Clan, and good farmers from the Wild Potato clan. However, people from each clan knew many of the skills necessary for the community’s survival.

If a Cherokee traveled to a different village, “whether you knew them or not you were supposed to be blood related. You’d be welcomed as the same clan,” Mackey said.

Cherokees could not marry people from their own clans.

“No matter how pretty the girls were, you couldn’t marry them,” Mackey said.

People sometimes were adopted into other clans, such as when additional warriors were needed or people were needed to round out the number of clans after disease epidemics, he said.

“We know for sure from history that non-Cherokees and non-Indians were adopted into clans,” he said.

What if someone was born to a Cherokee father and a non-Cherokee mother? It depended on the Cherokee community, Mackey said. Some would not accept that person, some would accept him into his father’s clan. Other communities had a specific clan that adopted strangers.

“They said you were supposed to marry into your father’s’ father’s clan. That was the ideal clan to marry,” Mackey said.

Other speeches during the weekend covered resources and tips for ancestry research, and history, including the 13 Cherokee detachments on the Trail of Tears.

The latter presentation was given by Gene Norris, certified genealogist at the Cherokee Heritage Center. Norris also attempted to dispel many common myths with his presentation on “My Great-great Grandma was a Cherokee Princess and other Misconceptions.”

Norris and his staff in the genealogy department at the Cherokee Heritage Center hear that claim, and a number of variations, frequently when people come to the center claiming Cherokee ancestry.

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