Cherokee - Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The aboriginal religion was zootheistic and guided by a deep faith in supernatural forces that linked human beings to all other living things. Evil was understood to be the result of a disharmony with nature. Beginning in the early nineteenth century Christian missionaries succeeded in driving native religious beliefs underground, and today the Baptist denomination predominates among Christian Cherokee in Oklahoma and North Carolina. The existence of a supreme being in the native religion is not clear; however, there were numerous animal, elemental, personal, and inanimate spirits. These spirits were believed to have created the world and to reside in seven successive tiers of heaven, on earth, and in the water, where they remain until the exercise of their powers is properly petitioned.
Religious Practitioners. In aboriginal times priests received no special material considerations, although they did exercise considerable influence as a result of their divining and healing roles. In the nineteenth century Christian Cherokee pastors were an important factor in the conversion process.
Ceremonies. The native ceremonial cycle consisted of a series of six festivals, the last three of which were held in quick succession in the autumn, simultaneously with Important meetings of town councils. The Propitiation Festival, held ten days after the first new moon of autumn and the Great New Moon Feast, was the most important and was devoted to ritually eliminating ill will among villagers and promoting local unity. The six festivals have been collapsed into a single Green Corn Festival.
Arts. Singing was an important part of aboriginal and postcontact ceremonial life. For religious and other purposes texts are sung in Cherokee, but tunes and the manner of harmonizing are derived from nonnative sources.
Medicine. In the aboriginal culture disease was understood to be the product of spiritual malevolence brought on by violating taboos. Curing techniques consisted of herbal medicines, ritual purifications, and the enlistment of spirit helpers to drive out the malevolent forces. Western clinical medicine is now the treatment approach, although native conjurors still persist.
Death and Afterlife. Native beliefs ascribed death, like disease, to evil spirits and witches. Death was feared and so, too, were the evil spirits connected with death. There was also a belief in an afterworld, or "nightworld," to which the ghosts or souls of the deceased desired to go. A successful journey to the nightworld, however, depended on one's actions in life on earth. Funeral ceremonies had great religious significance, and among Eastern Cherokee the funeral is the most Important life cycle ritual.