The Fascinating Roots of the Cherokee People

Image result for cherokee indians asheville 1700s

Modern day full-blood Cherokee warriors arrayed in war paint for powwow ceremonies.

Image result for Cherokee Green Corn Festival

Image result for Cherokee Green Corn Festival

Cherokee Origins Are Steeped in Mystery

There are two prevailing views about Cherokee origins. One is that the Cherokees are relative latecomers to Southern Appalachia, arriving after a separation from their northern Iroquois tribesmen, possibly after a war or other conflict. The other theory is that they have been there for tens of thousands of years.

Ancient Southeastern Maps

Related image

Native American women listen intently at Red Earth Festival ceremonies in Oklahoma. Tribes which participate in these events include Cherokee, Comanche, and Choctaw, among others.

Some historians believe that Cherokees came to Appalachia as late as the 13th century. Over time they moved into Muscogee Creek territory and settled on the sites of Muscogee mounds.[1] Several Mississippian sites have been mis-attributed to the Cherokee, including Moundville and Etowah Mounds but are in fact Muskogee Creek. Pisgah Phase sites are associated with pre-contact Cherokee culture, and historic Cherokee villages featured artifacts with iconography from the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex.

Related image

A Cherokee woman pounds corn in a hollowed out log, no doubt in the same manner her ancestors had for thousands of years before her. Corn was a staple of the ancient Cherokee, and is still venerated by them as sacred. Photo dates to early 1900s.

Image result for cherokee indians green corn ceremony 1700s

Image result for Cherokee Green Corn Festival

Image result for cherokee indians green corn ceremony 1700s

The other possibility is that Cherokee people have lived in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee for a far longer period of time. During the late Archaic and Woodland Period, Indians in the region began to cultivate plants such as marsh elder, lambsquarters, pigweed, sunflowers and some native squash. People began building mounds, created new art forms such as shell gorgets, adopted new technologies, and followed an elaborate cycle of religious ceremonies. During Mississippian Period (800 to 1500 CE), Cherokee ancestors developed a new variety of corn called eastern flint, which closely resembles modern corn. Corn was central to several religious ceremonies, especially the Green Corn Ceremony.

Image result for All Nations Green Corn Festival & Pow Wow

Image result for All Nations Green Corn Festival & Pow Wow

Powwow dancing at the Green Corn Festival in Asheville North Carolina.

Image result for cherokee indians asheville 1700s

Warrior clan of AniKituhwa, Cherokee County North Carolina.

One account recorded in the late 18th century speaks of a “Moon-eyed people” who had lived in the Cherokee regions before they arrived. The group was described in 1797 by Colonel Leonard Marbury to Benjamin Smith Barton. According to Marbury, when the Cherokee arrived in the area they had encountered a “moon-eyed” people who could not see in the day-time.[2]

Among the many unique accomplishments of the Cherokee people include:

The Cherokee were the first people to cultivate a type of corn called “eastern flint”  – a strain which most resembles modern corn in the United States. Corn was central to several religious ceremonies, especially the Green Corn Ceremony. The river region of what’s now named as the small town of Saluda North Carolina is believed to have first been settled by the Cherokee thousands of years ago. The town is named for the Saluda river which runs close by.  Saluda means “green corn” in Cherokee.

Related image

Cherokee warrior in full regalia at the Green Corn Festival and Powwow in Asheville NC.

Image result for cherokee indians green corn ceremony 1700s

Cherokee arts and decorative crafts have long employed the clever use of outer corn husks to make toys, dolls, and ceremonial fetishes. These are all corn husk dolls made by the Cherokee.

Image result for All Nations Green Corn Festival & Pow Wow

Related ethnic groups who are connected to the most distant genealogies of the Cherokee include: Iroquois (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, Tuscarora), Nottoway, Meherrin, Coree, Wyandot, and Mingo

According to many researchers, the Cherokee people, are in effect, part of the southern lineage of the original Iroquois Nation.

I’d like to cite a comment from a 1961 Symposium on Iroquois and Cherokee culture and history which took place in Boston. The comment makes reference to an even earlier study which was written by an author last name Mooney in 1900:

“The Iroquoian stock, to which the Cherokee belong, had its chief home in the north, …. It is evident that tribes of common stock must at one time have occupied contiguous territories, and such we find to be the case in this instance. The Tuscarora and Meherrin, and presumably also the Nottoway, are known to have come from the north, while tradition and historical evidence concur in assigning to the Cherokee as their early home the region about the headwaters of the Ohio, …. [Mooney, 1900, p. 17.] “

Northern and eastern North America
Linguistic classification: Iroquois

Pre-European contact distribution of the Iroquoian
languages shown in pink

Family division

Southern Iroquoian


Much of what is known about pre-19th century Cherokee culture and society comes from the papers of American writer John Howard Payne.  Payne writes:

“The Payne papers describe the account by Cherokee elders of a traditional societal structure in which a “white” organization of elders represented the seven clans. According to Payne, this group, which was hereditary and described as priestly, was responsible for religious activities such as healing, purification, and prayer. A second group of younger men, the “red” organization, was responsible for warfare. Warfare was considered a polluting activity, which required the purification of the priestly class before participants could reintegrate into normal village life. This hierarchy had disappeared long before the 18th century. The reasons for the change have been debated, with the origin of the decline often located with a revolt by the Cherokee against the abuses of the priestly class known as the Ani-kutani( “Aní-” is a prefix referring to a group of individuals, while the meaning of “kutáni” is unknown).[3][4]”

There are also many very very old Native American myths, stories and tribal legends, passed down from antiquity, surrounding the genesis of the Cherokee people, which I will cover on another page.

The Cherokee have been named in dozens of ways, using differing words and phrases. I have underlined and starred the root words below which I feel lend the most gravitas toward the modern day pronunciation.

The First People

The Principal People: Aniyunwiya (ᎠᏂᏴᏫᏯ) [ Cherokee word and spelling ]

The Star People

Tuscarora – a sub nation of  the Iroquois: “Aniskalall” meaning (Cherokee), an old Iroquois word

* Tsalagi (ᏣᎳᎩ) or ‘’tsa-la-gi’’ [ Cherokee word and spelling ]

* Tchalaquei  Spanish, circa 1755

** Cheraqui   French document circa 1699

Oyata’ge’ronoñ aka “inhabitants of the cave country”

* Cha-la-kee, aka “those who live in the mountains” [ Choctaw ]

Chi-luk-ik-bi, meaning “those who live in the cave country”  [ Choctaw ]

* ‘The Cacique people’ from De Soto’s diary 1540  [ also spelled Cacaque ]

People of the Seven Clans

People of the Seven Sisters [ Pleiades ]

Today, Cherokees refer to themselves ‘’tsi-tsa-la-gi’’ (I am Cherokee).[28]


The Legends of the Original Cherokee Priests, or the Ani-Kutani

The Ani-kutani was the original name given to the ancient priesthood of the Cherokee people. According to Cherokee legend, the Ani-Kutani were slain during a mass uprising by the Cherokee people approximately 300 years prior to European contact.

Map of De Soto's great expedition into the interior of southern North America, 1539-1543.

Map of De Soto’s great expedition into the interior of southern North America, 1539-1543.

Since most historical records state that first contact with the Native Americans living in southern North America was made by Hernando De Soto during his well documented expedition of 1539 – 1543, this would place the popular revolt of the Cherokee people against their ancestral genetic Ani-Kutani  priesthood at approximately 1143.A.D.  

This uprising was sparked by the fact that the Ani-Kutani had become corrupt and conducted sexual improprieties.[1] The ancient structure of Cherokee Society and the Cherokee Clans were closely linked to the beliefs of the Ani-Kutani.

The Ani-Kutani might be connected to the Longhair Clain, or Anigilohi, or “fire priests” that existed in historic times. They were either a clerical class and/or a hereditary clan. “Aní-” is a prefix referring to a group of individuals, while the meaning of “kutáni” is unknown.[1]

During the many documented contacts which Hernando De Soto had with the Cherokee people, one is especially noteworthy. He was informed during a meeting with 6 Cherokee [ Cacique ] chiefs that their ancestors [ the Ani-Kutani priesthood ] had foreseen the conquering of their lands by a race of white people long ago:

“Six chiefs arrived at the camp, stating that they had come to find out what people it might be; for that they had [been told by] their ancestors that they were to be [conquered] by a white race;”

excerpt from the diary of Hernando De Soto courtesy of the National Humanities Center

Perhaps the uprising which took place in the 1100s of the Cherokee red clan warrior class against the white clan ruling class of the Ani-Kutani ancestral priesthood was precipitated by just such a prophetic pronouncement. Pause to consider that a red clan warrior would be made instantly livid if his ruling patriarch of the white clan informed him that his future, and the future hopes of his offspring, were to be erased by a race of people he has never yet met or seen. Perhaps the red clan warriors were so infuriated by this Ani-Kutani prophecy that they temporarily lost self-control and decided to kill the messengers. This is only speculation on my part, but I am looking into it.

The Diaries of Hernando De Soto

Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto conspicuously referred to the many North American Indians as the ‘Cacique’ in the extended diary of his travels and misadventures in North America with his accompanying exploration party of 600 Christian men. It’s easy to see how the modern spelling CHEROKEE might have derived from that word. He traveled into Cherokee territory in what is now western North Carolina and met “Chief Coca of the Cacique” on July 16th 1540. He described the Chief Coca as wearing a mantle of marten furs over his shoulders and wearing a tall feathered hat or headdress, “surrounded by many attendants who were playing flutes and singing.”

This description lends credibility to the very old accounts of the Cherokee people as having an Ani-Kutani priesthood who ruled over them. The clan color of the AniKutani was white, whereas the clan color of the people’s warrior class was red.

De Soto had another encounter with the Cacique in the region which is now Mobile Alabama, indicating that during the mid 1500s the Cherokee people’s lands extended very far deep into the southern regions of North America. An account of contact made with the Cacique is recorded as having taken place at “Tasta-luca”, which of course is known today as Tuscaloosa Alabama. In another meeting  far further south with the Cacique, De Soto was given “three cloaks of marten fur” by the Cacique Chief in the gulf coast region, which was called at the time “Mauilla” [ Mobile ].  That would place the extended Cherokee nation as stretching from the southern Appalachian mountains all the way to the gulf coast of the Atlantic ocean during the mid 1500s.

The watery area surrounding Mobile Alabama is known today as Chacaloochee Bay, another word which appears to be a derivative of ‘Cacique’. The encounter led to an extended bloody battle between De Soto and his men during which 2,500 or more Cherokee were slaughtered and more than 100 of De Soto’s party also perished, along with 82 dead or injured horses. After this terrible bloodbath, De Soto traveled on with the remainder of his men into what is now Mississippi and explored the ‘great river’ region.

By 1715 the Governor of South Carolina estimated the population of Cherokees as somewhat over ten thousand in 30 villages.

The Cherokee Nation Today: Modern Era Eastern Cherokee Indian Land Trust (Qualla Boundary)

The Eastern Cherokee Indian Reservation, officially known as the Qualla Boundary, is located at 35°28′43″N 83°16′20″W in western North Carolina, just south of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The main part of the reservation lies in eastern Swain County and northern Jackson County, but smaller non-contiguous sections are located to the southwest in Cherokee County (Cheoah community) and Graham County (Snowbird community). A small part of the main reservation extends eastward into Haywood County. The total land area of these parts is 213.934 km² (82.600 sq mi), with a 2000 census resident population of 8,092 persons.[3] The Qualla Boundary is not a reservation, but rather a “land trust” supervised by the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs. The land was a fragment of the extensive original homeland of the Cherokee Nation. The people had to purchase their land to regain it after it was taken over by the US government.

Today the tribe earns most of its revenue from a combination of Federal/State funds, tourism, and the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, instituted in the early 1990s.

The following account is re-posted courtesy of the Asheville NC Now website:

Asheville History: Pre 1800s

Cherokee Indian with Headdress

With the exclusion of Native American History, Recorded history began with the visit of Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto to Western North Carolina in 1540. Early explorers first established trade with the Cherokee Indians in 1643. Many of these early trading routes, shared by settler and native alike, traversed the present location of Asheville. In the following years colonial expansion, which had swelled to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, infringed upon Cherokee lands and initiated raids on the Colonial settlements. Retaliation brought a force of colonists led by General Griffith Rutherford into Western North Carolina in 1776. His group laid waste to and destroyed many Cherokee villages crippling the power of a long standing nation, and leading to the sad story of the Trail of Tears.

As the Cherokee nation waned, a rush of mostly Irish/Scottish pioneers rushed into this nature haven. After the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780, considered by many to be a turning point in the southern campaign of the revolutionary war, many pioneers applied their wilderness and shooting skills to almost effectively wiping out what they deemed inexhaustible resources. Numerous predators such as the grey wolf and the panther, as well as the buffalo were brought to near extinction.

Early Settlers to Asheville and Western NC

The first settlers were chiefly Scotch-Irish Immigrants from Ulster in Northern Ireland. Their migration was stimulated by harsh British tariffs, which had shattered the wool & textile industries in Ireland.

Among these early settlers was young pioneer William Davidson, who in 1784 relocated with his family to settle in the valley paradise we now know as Buncombe County. William Davidson and kin are credited to being the first settler family, and lived on Christian Creek in the Swannanoa Valley region know as “Eden Land.”

A rise of Western North Carolina homesteads led to a legislative act initiated by Colonel David Vance and Davidson, establishing Buncombe County on Dec. 5, 1791. A small log courthouse was erected on what is now Pack Square. Approximately a year later John Burton, with state land grants, established the area settlement with the name of Morristown. Forty Two half acre lots were parceled and sold for about $2.50 apiece. In 1797, in honor of Governor Samuel Ashe, the area finally incorporated and received its current name, Asheville.

Cherokee Preservation Foundation

The Cherokee Language


Love it? Share it! Thanks.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s