Cherokee Lifestyles and Town Structure

August 09, 2012 Posted by: VIP / Intern Brooke

Cherokee way of life originated from the myth Kana’ti and Selu: The Origin of Game and Corn. In this myth, Kana’ti is a hunter who is always successful in the hunt, a protector, and avenger of his home. Selu is depicted as the mother of corn, agriculture, and the home. These two characters are central to the lifestyles of Cherokee men and women. [i]

           Cherokee society echoed the roles of Kana’ti and Selu in the duties of men and women. In fact, during Cherokee marriages, which were very simple, the groom gave venison to the bride to represent his willingness to provide for his family while the bride gave an ear of corn to her groom, signifying her readiness to become a good housewife.[ii] Cherokee males and females had a set balance of duties. A man’s primary responsibility was to hunt, an activity women sometimes participated in, as well. Though a Cherokee man’s duties revolved around hunting and fishing, he would also make tomahawks, bows, and carve canoes. Women were mainly responsible for duties within the individual towns. Cherokee women never had time to tarry, as they constantly had duties to occupy their time. They planted and harvested crops, smoked meats, tanned hides, made clothing, and took care of the home and children. Generally, Cherokee families were quite small, with three to four children per family considered good-sized.[iii]

Unlike European patrilineal society, Cherokee society was matrilineal.  Upon European colonization of the United States, this difference in lineage and hierarchy prompted Europeans to believe that Cherokee men were too lazy and the women were too powerful. Among the Cherokee, however, women were revered and respected for their natural abilities to provide life.[iv]

The priority for Cherokee tribes was mainly war. Cherokee warriors publicly boasted about their war deeds in a manner that provoked courage and awe in the young men.[v] Considered “war lords” in the Southeastern United States, when not at war with other tribes or Europeans, the Cherokee would often instigate war with their neighbors for practice.[vi]

The Cherokee’s fondness of war even affected their government and hierarchy. Each Cherokee town had two governments or chiefs: one red and one white. The Red Chief held power in times of war. The White Chief ruled in times of peace. During council meetings, the war state of the town determined which chief sat in the seat of power. While both chiefs sat near the sacred fire, when the Red Chief was in power, he sat closer to the fire than did the White Chief when in power. The Red Chief’s time in power was determined by the outcomes of the wars fought under his rule. The White Chief’s duration of power was based merely on his ability to address more menial matters. This further exhibited the Cherokee emphasis on war.

Tribal council met in the Town House, the largest structure in a Cherokee town and one that Lieutenant Henry Timberlake called a “metropolis.”[vii] This structure could hold approximately 500 people. Prior to the mid eighteenth century, the Town House had seven sides, one for each clan. Later Town Houses were fashioned in a circle, but still represented unity among the seven clans. During council, in a way that further exhibited the Cherokee matrilineal society, children sat with their mother’s clan, while their father sat with his.[viii]  These ordinary Cherokee sat together with their clans on seats called “sophas.” They sat in silence as they listened to their chief or other headmen speak and at the conclusion of the oration, together the tribes would respond with, “Toeuhah” or “it is true.”[ix] Along with the Cherokee chiefs and headmen sat war women who were revered among the Cherokee as they provided wisdom and guidance on war strategy. Also present at council were “Adwehis” dressed in masks at the entrance to the Town House in an effort to prevent evil spirits from entering. Adwehis also served as counselors to the Chief.[x]

           Individual Cherokee towns were not connected nor was one town held in higher power than another: they acted in harmonized coexistence. This coexistence was due to the interconnection of the seven clans system, internal rules, and their understanding of the balance system.[xi] The towns were grouped by location in one of seven regions: overhill, valley, middle, outer, and lower. Each region had its own dialect of the Cherokee language.[xii]

           The complexity of Cherokee lifestyle and town structure made the Cherokee society strong and lasting. Through their complex structures and fortitude Cherokee people remained unified in blood even through European contact, assimilation tactics, internal schisms, removal, and the division of the Eastern Cherokee Band of the Cherokees from the Cherokee Nation, along with the coalescing of all Indian Territory tribes into one group.

[i] James Mooney, History, Myths, and sacred Formulas of the Cherokee, ed. James Ellison (Fairview: Bright Mountain Books, Inc., 1992), 242-249.

[ii] Grace Steele Woodward, The Cherokees (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963), 40.

[iii] Ibid., 35.

[iv] Rennard Strickland, Fire and the Spirits: Cherokee Law from Clan to Court (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1975), 22

[v] Ibid., 35.

[vi] Ibid., 34.

[vii] Ibid., 44,45.

[viii] Ibid., 44.

[ix] Ibid., 43, 44.

[x] Ibid., 43.

[xi] Strickland, 11, 22,24,27-33.

[xii] Tyler Boulware, Deconstructing the Cherokee Nation: Town, Region, and Nation among Eighteenth- Century Cherokees (Gainesville: University Press of Florida), 10-31.; Moody, 16-17.

Note: Article written by Clemson Intern, Brooke New.

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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