cherokee women and children -- 5/11/15

Today's selection -- from Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation by John Ehle. The structure and customs of families and societies has varied widely through history. An example is Cherokee society in North America in the 1700s:

"A Cherokee woman had more rights and power than European women. She decided whom she would marry, and the man built a house for her, which was considered her property, or else he came to her or her mother's house to live. The house and children were hers. She and her brothers reared them. If she bore too many children, or if a child were deformed, she had the right to kill the unwanted infant. Should the father kill one, he would be guilty of murder. To obtain a divorce, she packed her husband's clothes in a bag and set it outside her door. She was free to marry someone else, and so was he. Many divorces occurred, many remarriages. A system of serial monogamy developed, and adultery was common, even though frowned upon. The Cherokees, unlike most tribes, did not generally enforce laws against it. ...

"The year was 1771. When the Cherokee woman lay down to bear a baby, she did not know that the child she was about to deliver was to be a leader, a chief among his people. It was for her a fond hope, a dear hint of a promise. Mothers were allowed to suspect as much. The house in which this particular mother lived, in which she lay down on a reed bed to deliver, was made of saplings tied to corner posts, with plaster inside and outside. The house had an earthen floor. In the middle of the roof was a smoke hole for the fire. The place was the town of Hiwassee, on the Hiwassee River at Savannah Ford, located in territory then claimed by the state of North Carolina, sooner or later to be formed into the state of Tennessee. The river was a bawling, brawling torrent off the west slope of one of the highest mountain ranges in eastern America ...

"Sad are the lullabyes an Indian mother sings to her baby as she measures the time from day to day, danger to danger.

"A boy growing up would usually eat at home and would be limited to two meals a day in order to strengthen his willpower and appetite. At mealtime his mother and father, brothers and sisters would be present, as might visitors who had arrived with-out notice. These strangers would present themselves simply by saying 'I am here.'

"'So you are,' the mother would say.

"They would be members of the mother's clan visiting from another town, or local clan members who had sniffed out the best meal.

"Food would include warm boiled beans, bread -- a corn and bean batter baked in corn husks in the house fire -- and fish or meat: deer, rabbit, squirrel, or pork, either baked or stewed.

"A Cherokee boy living in a town was not taught by his father. He was taught by the other men of his town, particularly his mother's brothers. It was through the mother that he gained clan identity, which afforded him citizenship. There were seven of these clans. One did not marry within one's own clan, for the members were family. In each of the forty-three Cherokee towns, the seven were represented. The members of the Bird clan (to name one) were responsible for feeding and protecting and serving the needs of members of the Bird family. The women were in charge of their own houses and owned the children. Communal areas were set aside for each woman and her daughters to raise vegetables, and the women cooked meals and cared for the babies. The men were in charge of a boy's training. In a town the boys of all seven clans or families were sometimes trained together, sometimes singly. [A Cherokee boy] came to know several fathers, most of them his uncles. He also had a word for mother, but it designated more than one person, often including his blood mother's sisters and other women of the Deer clan.

"If two uncles disagreed about an element of discipline, additional votes would be sought until a consensus was reached. The father might give his opinion, but he was never asked to do so. All boys of a village received the same instruction. Deviations were not acceptable."


John Ehle


Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation


Anchor Books Doubleday


Copyright 1988 by John Ehle


3, 8-9
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