Thursday, February 09, 2006

"Amazing Grace" has deep Cherokee ties

In Ron Ruehl's 1998 documentary The Principal People: Eastern Cherokee History and Culture, the old hymn "Amazing Grace" is sung as background music to scenes of the Trail of Tears. That is historically accurate. It is one of several hymns associated with the forced removal of the Cherokee people to Oklahoma in 1838, and the song is considered an unofficial Cherokee anthem.

While Cherokee religious practices varied -- and still do -- a number of them had converted to Christianity by the time of removal. They were known as enthusiastic hymn singers, and one missionary who visited Georgia and Tennessee in 1837 said the Cherokee sang "with far more correctness, as regards time, enunciation and effect than what is found among white congregations" (Robinson 48). William G. McLoughlin, in a study of missionaries to the Cherokee before removal, cites a contemporary Baptist publication that counted more than 500 Baptists alone on the Trail of Tears and says "throughout the long trip they held regular services and sang their hymns in Cherokee to keep up their spirits" (326). One of those hymns, according to oral tradition, was "Amazing Grace."

One of the first books translated into Cherokee in Sequoyah's new alphabet, in fact, was a hymnal first published between 1828 and 1835 and still used today. Its version of "Amazing Grace" is a free translation, and it has been translated back into English like this:
God's son
paid for us,
then to heaven He went,
after paying for us.

But He said,
when He rose,
"I'll come again,"
He said when He spoke.

All the earth will end
when He comes.
All will see Him
All over the earth.

All the good people living
He will come after.
Heaven always,
in peace they will live. (Robinson 5-6)
For more information: The text of "Amazing Grace" is also available in English, Cherokee transliteration and Sequoyah's syllabary on a website put up by a group of people of Cherokee heritage from California. The late Will Wiley Rogers, who wrote a guest workshop on the hymn for the website, has more information and links. One of the links will take you to the official Cherokee Nation website, which has downloadable MP3 files of "Amazing Grace" and other gospel songs from a CD cut in commemoration of the Cherokee National Holiday in 2000. It's worth a listen. The best all-around source is Willena Robinson, Cherokee Hymns: History and Hymns (Tulsa: Cherokee Language and Literature, n.d.). McLoughlin's book is Cherokees and Missionaries, 1789-1839 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994).

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