Cherokee Ancient History
Cherokee Clans
           in Ancient History
There were seven clans in antiquity. There is a common misperception that the Ah-ni-ku-ta-ni or ancient Cherokee priesthood comprised an eighth clan of the Cherokee People, but this belief is a commonplace myth. The Ah-ni-ku-ta-ni appointed a member of each of the seven clans to represent both the spiritual forces the Cherokee believed existed in the Natural World, and the ritual of ceremonies related to the progression of the human spirit from birth until entry into the spirit world to perform the sacred ceremonies for the Cherokee people from the mother city of Keetoowah. In ancient times, the priests would travel extensively within the Cherokee homeland performing the ancient ceremonies in each of the Cherokee townships. After the extermination of the ah-ni-ku-ta-ni by the Cherokee People, the ancient Clan system continued to exist but no longer represented the original ancient symbolism of the Ah-ni-ku-ta-ni rituals practiced in ancient times. The Clan systems remained simply as a bureaucratic artifact of the earlier cultural incarnation of the Cherokee culture, and much of the traditional knowledge and understanding of the origins of the names and purposes of the clan system was lost or forgotten.


Each clan had a name that corresponded to the seven levels of spiritual progression of the human spirit as it grew and evolved on the path through life. The existence of the clans and the original culture and religion of the Ah-ni-yv-wi-ya were closely intertwined to such a degree, that the Cherokee language itself expressed the natural world in religious and spiritual terms. In Ah-ni-yv-wi-ya society, the language, social structure, and interaction with the natural world were viewed as an interwoven tapestry that were inseparable and that existed this way to preserve the balance of forces between the two worlds, the world of physical reality, and the world of spirituality. By way of example, The word for "person" was "yv-wi" which means " it has a spiritual energy" or "it is a sentient being". This word was not only used to describe the human people, Ah-ni-yv-wi-ya, but also the deer people (a-wi-yv-wi), the bird people (tsi-sqa-yv-wi), the tree people (tlv-hv-yv-wi), and the star people (no-qui-si-yv-wi) in the ancient language. This word describes that all elements of the physical world contain a "spark" or "flame" of the spirit of the immortal and imperishable Creator spirit (also called the Aportioner in ancient legends).


The emblem of the Cherokees is a seven pointed star. This symbol is believed to represent gu-ta-ni(yi) from the ancient legends told by the Ah-ni-ku-ta-ni, which tell that the Cherokee People and all human people came from gu-ta-ni(yi), the "place of the sun", a star in the heavens.


In the original beliefs of the Ah-ni-yv-wi-ya, the physical world was a mirror image of the spiritual world, and every object and tangible element of matter that existed in this world did so because a corresponding spiritual energy in the spirit world allowed it to have form and substance in this reality. By way of example, When an animal or plant became extinct, it was believed that the spiritual energy that defined it had been taken back into the spirit world, and correspondingly, that the Creator Spirit (U-ne-la-nv-hi) could cause this energy to be physically manifested when it was time for certain forms of life to reappear in the physical world. Likewise, if a strong wind came and broke the limbs from a tree, it was because this was what was intented to happen. This acceptance of the realities of their world by the Cherokees evolved a common saying that was much used in the ancient culture, and it still used extensively in many of the Ah-ni-ku-ta-ni ceremonies which was "ni-go di-sge-s-di" which translates "that's just the way it is." By way of example, the final blessing given to a newly married couple in a traditional Ah-ni-ku-ta-ni marriage ceremony is not "you are husband and wife" but is "ni-go di-sge-s-di", or "that's just the way it is."

There was also a strong belief that all the elements of nature were in balance, and that this balance had to be restored if disturbed by the human element. Under Clan law, if someone killed the member of another clan through murder, a person from the clan who committed the offense would have to be sacrificed in order to restore the balance of energies between the two worlds.


Each Clan was matrilineal, and clans were run by a council of grandmothers of that clan. The decisions and rulings of the Grandmothers were absolute, as was their authority. The Clans also combined their Councils of Grandmothers during certain important decisions which were held in a Central Cherokee Council Lodge which existed in each Cherokee town or city for social gatherings and important discussions. If an individual broke the ancient laws, they were brought before the appropriate Clan Grandmothers for judgement. It was well known within the ancient society that the Clan Grandmothers were strict and would show no mercy to those who had committed serious breaches of social conduct. Because of this, even today Grandmothers and important women within Cherokee Culture are highly respected, obeyed, and honored. Cherokee children were taught not only to respect their male elders, but also to show extreme reverence and respect to the Grandmothers of the Cherokee culture. The Green Corn Ceremony performed anually during the corn harvest was to honor Se-lu, the Corn Mother, and the mothers and Grandmothers of the Cherokee People.


Hollywood has done much to represent that all Native Americans have a concept called Mother Earth and that American Indians viewed the Earth (e-lo-hi) as the supreme mother. While this was a Lokata and Souix belief, it was not a belief of the Cherokee People in antiquity. The Cherokee did not view the earth as the "mother" of the human people, but as a place made for the Human People to live and which in and of itself was also a living thing. Se-lu, the Corn Mother, was viewed as the mother of the human people in ancient Cherokee legend.
Spiritual Significance of the Clans in Ah-ni-ku-ta-ni Rituals


In ancient times, the clan names represented to the Ah-ni-ku-ta-ni the balance between the spiritual forces that shaped and guided the human spirit on its journey and development through life in preparation for entry into the spirit world. The Ah-ni-ku-ta-ni teach that life is made up of four distinct sections and paths, 1) development in the womb 2) childhood 3) marriage and parenting 4) elders (grandmothers and grandfathers) and the perpetuation of the culture through the ancient ceremonies. Each section or quadrant of life was represented as part of the ancient sun symbol or crossed circle commonly seen in ancient mississipian culture. It was taught by the Ah-ni-ku-ta-ni that following entry into the spirit world, all of the people still continued their dances, ceremonies, and family relationships in the afterlife in a place set apart for the people. Cherokee traditionally buried their dead in the earth as they believed that the plants fed the animals, the animals and plants fed the people, and the people, at their death, should return to the earth and feed the plants.


Membership in a particular clan did not mean that the members of the clan were in some way blocked or held at a particular level of spiritual development or attainment. Clan membership and the existence of the clans was simply meant to represent a balance of the spiritual forces that made up the world of the Ah-ni-yv-wi-ya. All members of the society could participate in the ceremonies and were all viewed as equals. Since the Wolf Clan represented the final level of attainment and was also the clan of the warrior class, it membership over time continued to grow in ancient times until is became the largest of the Cherokee Clans. It was believed that if an Ah-ni-yv-wi-ya did not fully complete these levels of development, they would not be able to find their way to the place set apart for them with their people in the spirit world and would wander in darkness on the Earth after death as a spirit.

Ancient Spiritual Symbolism of the Cherokee Clans

Ah-ni-ga-to-ge-wi or Wild Potato Clan represented the material plane of earth or physical matter (earth).
Ah-ni-gi-lo(la)-hi or Long Hair Clan represented the human people (breath).
Ah-ni-(k)a-wi or Deer Clan represented the spirit of life, and procreation (life).
Ah-ni-tsi-sk-wa or Red Tailed Hawk Clan represented the development of the human intellect (air).
Ah-ni-sa-ho-ni or Blue Holly Clan represented purification in preparation for the ceremonies (purification).
Ah-ni-wo-di or Paint Clan represented the four directions, the ceremonies and structure of society and the evolution of social organization. (four directions(colors), ceremonies)
Ah-ni-wa-ya or Wolf Clan represented the doorway to the world of spirits and the development of higher social consciousness (spirit world, sacred fire).


There existed unique ceremonies among the Ah-ni-ku-ta-ni for each of these levels of attainment. The paint clan was named because they gathered the four sacred colors used in the ceremonies for the people. Many of the Ah-ni-ku-ta-ni scholars were members of the Paint Clan, but many of the Ah-ni-ku-ta-ni in ancient times came from the Wolf Clan and Blue Holly Clan. By tradition, a member of each clan was selected to represent all of the people during special ceremonies which were only performed by the leader of the Ah-ni-ku-ta-ni and the seven priests who represented each of the seven clans. The seven stemmed ceremonial pipe ceremony was one such ceremony which was only performed by the Ah-ni-ku-ta-ni and the seven priests prior to the seven year renewal ceremony.


The four sacred colors gathered by the Paint Clan were:
Red - for the East and symbolized power and healing
Blue - for the North and symbolized Adversity and Struggle and those things that harmed the human people.
Black - for the West and symbolized the doorway to the spirit world, death, and the place of the thunder beings.
White - for the South and symbolized blessings, virtue, the rains that fell from the skys, purity and all that was good.

Ceremonial objects that incorporated the colors blue or black were required to contain the other sacred colors in order to balance the object. The color blue was typically obtained from the bark and stems of the Sourwood tree which grew in the Cherokee homeland. The stems of this tree were also used to make Sacred Eagle Wands which also incorporated white or near white eagle feathers from either the golden or bald eagle. These wands were used in the Ancient Eagle Dance which is still practiced by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the Ah-ni-yv-wi-ya.


The Ah-ni-yv-wi-ya did not have pipe carriers or pipe holders as did the Lakota or other Plains Indians, but did use a variety of ceremonial pipes for both recreational and ceremonial use. These pipes used ceremonial tobacco, varieties of Nicotiana Rustica for recreational and personal ceremonial use, and a sacred blend of four secret plants for ceremonies of the Ah-ni-ku-ta-ni which did not contain or employ Nicotiana species. Cherokee personal pipes were typically made of river clay which had been fired, and a small river cane pipestem. Formal Ceremonial pipes used by the clans used Red or Grey pipestone (also called bluestone) and pipe stems made from hollow stems of American Sassafrass or some cases, Sourwood. The seven stemmed pipe was made only for a single ceremony of the Ah-ni-ku-ta-ni from red pipestone, then destroyed and returned to the spirit world following the ceremony in preparation for the seven year rewnewal ceremony.


The Cherokee Moons Ceremonies which were performed were based on each of the thirteen phases of the moon which occurred each year. For each moon of the calendar year, the Ah-ni-yv-wi-ya performed a unique ceremony. A special ceremony was performed both yearly (mid-October) and every seven years called the renewal ceremony which used the Cherokee black drink prepared by the Blue Holly Clan for purification rituals. These collective ceremonies were intended to progress the Cherokee people through the various phases of spiritual and cultural development in Cherokee society. See also Cherokee Moons Ceremonies.
Clan Customs of the Cherokee Clans


Customs of the Cherokee clans have evolved since ancient times, however, tradtionalists still observe clan customs regarding marriage and certain social events. In modern Oklahoma Cherokee culture, Stomp Dances still observe clan rules and hiearchy for Stomp Dance Events.


The Cherokee society is historically a matrilineal society; meaning clanship is attained through the mother. Prior to Oklahoma statehood, the women were considered the Head of Household among the Western Cherokee in Oklahoma, with the home and children belonging to her should she separate from a husband. The knowledge of a person's clan is important for many reasons; historically, and still today among Cherokee traditionalists, it is forbidden to marry within your clan. Clan members are considered brother and sisters. In addition, when seeking spiritual guidance and traditional medicine ceremonies, it is necessary to name your clan. Seating at ceremonial stomp dances is by clan, as well. Ceremonies which require the Cherokee to address to fire or perform washing in the sacred circle of an Ah-ni-ku-ta-ni ceremony requires the name the clan to which the Cherokee belongs.


Cherokees born outside of a clan or outsiders who were taken into the tribe in ancient times had to be adopted into a clan by a clan mother. If the person was a women who had bourne a Cherokee child and was married to a Cherokee man, she could be taken into a new clan, and her husband was required to leave his clan and move to her new clan. Men who were not Cherokee and married into a Cherokee household could simply be taken into his wife's clan.


The Ah-ni-go-te-ge-wi or the Wild Potato Clan's subdivision is Blind Savannah . Historically, members of this clan were known to be 'keepers of the land,' and gatherers The wild potato was a main staple of the older Cherokee life back east (Tsa-la-gi U-we-ti). At some Oklahoma Cherokee ceremonial grounds, the Wild Potato arbor is to the left of the Wolf arbor.


The Ah-ni-gi-lo-hi or the Long Hair Clan, whose subdivisions are Twister, Wind and Strangers, are known to be a very peaceful clan. In the times of the Peace Chief and War Chief government, the Peace Chief would come from this clan. Prisoners of war, orphans of other tribes, and others with no Cherokee tribe were often adopted into this clan, thus the name 'Strangers.' At some Oklahoma Cherokee ceremonial grounds, the Long Hair arbor is on the East side, and also houses the Chiefs and other leaders of the ground.


The Ah-ni-(k)a-wi or the Deer Clan were historically known as fast runners and hunters. Even though they hunted game for subsistence, they respected and cared for the animals while they were living amongst them. They were also known as messengers on an earthly level, delivering messenges from village to village, or person to person. At some Oklahoma Cherokee ceremonial grounds, the Deer arbor is to the left of the Wild Potato arbor.

Ah-ni-tsi-s-qua or the Red Tailed Hawk (Bird) Clan were historically known as messengers. The belief that birds are messengers between earth and heaven, or the People and Creator, gave the members of this clan the responsibility of caring for the birds. The subdivisions are Raven, Turtle Dove and Eagle. Our earned Eagle feathers were originally presented by the members of this clan, as they were the only ones able to collect them. At some Oklahoma Cherokee ceremonial grounds, the Bird arbor is to the left of the Deer arbor.


The Ah-ni-sa-ho-ni or the Blue Clan's subdivisions are Panther, or Wildcat and Bear (which is considered the oldest clan). Historically, this clan produced many people who were able to make special medicines for the children. At some Oklahoma Cherokee ceremonial grounds, the Blue arbor is to the left of the Long Hair arbor.
The Ah-ni-wo-di or the Paint Clan were historically known as a prominent medicine people. Medicine is often 'painted' on a patient after harvesting, mixing and performing other aspects of the ceremony. At some Oklahoma Cherokee ceremonial grounds, the Paint arbor is to the left of the Bird arbor.


The Ah-ni-wa-ya of the Wolf has been known throughout time to be the largest clan. During the time of the Peace Chief and War Chief government setting, the War Chief would come from this clan. Wolves are known as protectors. At some Oklahoma Cherokee ceremonial grounds, the Wolf arbor is to the left of the Blue arbor.

Cherokee Marriage Customs Between the Clans

Cherokee Marriages were as much between the Grandmothers of a clan as between the couple themselves. It was not permitted to marry within your own clan. A potential suitor had to select a young woman from another clan. Typically, the clan leaders would be consulted before such a selection was made.
Elias Boudinot wrote the following article in The Cherokee Editor on February 18, 1829 regarding Cherokee Clan marriage customs.

This simple division of the Cherokees formed the grand work by which marriages were regulated, and murder
punished. A Cherokee could marry into any of the clans except two, that to which his father belongs, for all of
that clan are his fathers and aunts and that to which his mother belongs, for all of that clan are his brothers
and sisters, a child invariably inheriting the clan of his mother.

When a young man had chosen a girl he wished to marry he would kill a deer and bring an offer of deermeat to the home of the girl he was interested in. If she chose to marry him, she cooked the deer meet and offered it to him. If she rejected the deer meat, it was assumed to be a denial of this suitor. This courtship required approval of both clans before courtship could occur. It was only permitted to court one woman at a time. Although there are examples of polygamy in the ancient culture, this practice was not generally engaged in. There were also instances of same-sex cohabitation, however, there was never a concept of same sex marriage or same sex courtships. There are historical instances of "extended families" where another male or female would cohabitate with a married couple. Provided all parties were in agreement, including the clan leaders, this conduct would be allowed. These are the only examples of same sex relationships known to have existed in ancient times. The age of consent for Cherokee young people was typically fifteen for girls and seventeen for boys, but was not a strict practice.

If the couple chose to marry, the groom had to obtain the approval of his clan leaders to complete the marriage. Typically, he required the approval of his Clan Grandmother and her relatives. The bride had to obtain the approval of her mother's sister, or if unavailable, her Grandmother or Great Aunt. If all parties agreed, then the couple was permitted to marry.


Clan Marriage Ceremonies of the Ah-ni-ku-ta-ni

On the morning of the marriage ceremony, the groom was expected to leave before dawn and go to a spot near a river or other body of running water, and kindle a fire before the first light of dawn with coals taken from his clans fire. In Ah-ni-yv-wi-ya culture, the first light of dawn was considered the most powerful time of the day. He was also expected to be met there before dawn by his close male relatives and men he hunted with from his clan. The young man was expected to talk about his adventures and make his goodbyes to his friends. Only his close personal friends and family members were allowed to attend and only with the groom's personal invitation. After the fire had burned down, the groom waited for the coals of the fire to go out, then he would collect these coals from the fire and take them with him to the marriage grounds. It was not permitted to pour or splash water on the fire -- the coals had to go out on their own and not be mixed with the spirit of water. This was considered a time of farewell for the groom to his clan, since after the marriage, he would leave them and go live with his wife's clan.

The groom then returned with the coals and presented them to the priest who would use the spirit of the grooms clan fire to kindle the marriage fire. On the day of the marriage, the groom and bride were not allowed to look at each other until they were married. Even today in the Western Cherokee culture in Oklahoma married couples often do not look directly at one another in public. Averting the eyes to avoid direct eye contact in ancient Cherokee culture was considered a polite form of respect to another persons privacy. This practice apparently grew out of the communal settings of many clan living arrangements, where the only privacy a person had was for others within a communal dwelling to avert looking into another persons living area.
The man would then prepare for his marriage feast with his family. The grooms clan would prepare a feast for the groom and his guests and clan members, the groom would be in attendance. The brides family would prepare a feast for her clan, however, she would not attend her feast, she would prepare herself for the ceremony. Both feasts would proceed through the noon hour when the sun crossed its zenith in the heavens. When the feasts concluded, the marriage ceremony would proceed.

The actual ceremony was performed within a sacred circle. If the council house was present, the ceremony would be conducted there within a circle in which a fire had been kindled, usually in a slight depression in the ground or center of the council house. The bride and groom would approach the circle and be brought in separately. The couple would then be surrounded with a smaller circle of sacred cedar branches. The groom would wear his buckskin garments. The bride would wear a white buckskin dress with her hair parted down the middle and corn pollen sprinkled down the center of her hairline. The groom would be accompanied by a male member of his clan. The bride would be accompanied by a male member of her clan, typically one of her brothers. The groom would then offer to exchange garments with the brides brother or male relative. If he accepted the garment, the groom would then offer deermeat to the bride. She would accept the deermeat, and give it to her male relative. The bride would then offer the groom an ear of corn. The groom would give the corn to his male relative to accept on behalf of his clan. The two male relatives would then leave the sacred circle. The priest would then perform a ceremony addressing the witnesses from the clan, and the ancestor spirits, and tell them "Ni-go di-sge-s-di" or "that's just the way it is." At that point, the couple were considered married.


The guests and couple would perform a marriage dance similar to the running dance (see Stomp Dance) around the fire with the guests and feasting and dancing would be performed through the night. The couple was not required to stay during the night portion and could depart early, however, the guests would typically dance and feast throughout the night. Marriages were a very community centered event and were typically large social gatherings involving an entire Cherokee township, but this was not always the case. The guests also typically would take home individual branches of cedar from the inner marriage circle used during the ceremony and use them to bless their homes.

Clan Married Life

Once a couple had married, they lived with the wife's clan. Since any children born to the couple were of the same clan as the woman, her brothers or male relatives typically were responsible for the social and cultural development of the children. It was the wife's male relatives who typically disciplined and taught the children, and not the father. The father's clan did have the privilege of choosing the names for the couples children. This was generally done by one of the father's sisters or Clan grandmothers.
If a women's husband failed to please her, was unfaithful, or disgraced her clan, she could divorce him by simply placing a deerskin outside of their dwelling and placing his belongings on it, at which point, he was expected to leave. He could return to his own clan or move in with the unmarried men of her clan.
The early Europeans, after their first contacts with the Cherokee people, were confused by the Cherokee men's inablity to make quick decisions in counsel and trade meetings. It was later learned by the Europeans that the men were required to return home and discuss these matters with their wives and obtain their approval. This resulted in the early Europeans commenting and recording that the Cherokee had a "petticoat government." In a traditional Cherokee Household, the wife owned all property and the children, and the husband was always required to obtain her approval on family or clan matters. Contrary to many myths from the early Europeans, Cherokee wives were not permitted as part of the culture to "beat their husbands with a stick" for disobedience to the wife. Although it is recorded that this type of behavior did occur in instances of domestic disputes, it was not a socially approved or sanctioned practice, nor was any form of spousal abuse, whether involving the husband or the wife.
The wife was required to obtain her husbands approval on matters of their children and clan affairs and work as partners in their relationship. Wives were not allowed to divorce their husbands for frivilous reasons. Divorce, as other elements of Cherokee Clan life, typically required the approval of the Clan leaders and also required a sound basis for the married woman's decision. Men were not allowed to divorce their wives or end a relationship without the approval of their clans, although a husband could request to end a marriage or relationship for valid reasons of incompatibility or infidelity.
Clan Voting and Banishment in Ancient Times
When important matters required the entire township to meet for discussion in Cherokee communities, and it was a matter that required group consensus, or a clan internally had a group meeting on an important matter, each person would bring both a black and white stone or shell bead for voting. A basket would be present for the individuals to cast their votes. A white shell or bead signaled a postive vote, a black stone or bead signalled a negative vote. The voting system was not democratic in this case. If there were a proponderance of votes one way or the other, the minority voters were expected to discuss their reasons for being the minority vote and both sides were expected to come to balance and compromise and the votes would be recast. The voting would continue over and over again until the majority of the members voted en masse one way or the other. Votes were not secret, and was an open affair with all other members knowing who was casting the deciding vote. After the final vote was cast, any members who refused to change their votes were subject to sanctions, which could include banishment from the township, or the entire tribe, depending on the nature of the seriousness of the topic being decided.
The Cherokee in ancient times believed that all things must be balanced and that agreement was always possible. When this was not the case, those members who refused to compromise were usually asked to leave the community. This was the reason for the numerous Cherokee townships that existed, and the method by which the Cherokee seeded new communities. When groups could not agree, they separated and created a new Cherokee township. This system worked and over time resulted in the Cherokee occupying huge areas of the Southeast.
There were many instances in ancient times when a young couple fell madly in love and wanted to marry and were unable to obtain permission from their clans to do so. These couples could, and at times did, run off into the woods together and cohabitate as husband and wife. If they remained until the next Green Corn Ceremony, they could return to the community and be taken back as husband and wife to live with the woman's clan. Green Corn was the high religious ceremony of the Cherokee People, and all debts and minor infractions of the law were typically forgiven between parties at this time. This practice allowed slight deviations from the ancient religious laws to be tolerated in the interest of the preservation of Clan and family relationships, should disagreements arise between clans over minor matters. Serious crimes were not forgiven and required severe punishments. Certain classes of offenses required either the offender to present themselves for punishment, or another member of their clan to take the place of the offender. In ancient times, if a Cherokee committed a major offense, such as murder, the people most likely to hunt him down and bring him to the Grandmothers for judgment were the members of his own family or Clan.
Modern Cherokee societies and Nations, with the exception of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians are true democratic societies which no longer allow banishment of tribal members.
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