Monday, March 15, 2010

HUM 221: Cherokee religion ... gospel sings and a 'harmony ethic'

We'll gloss over some of the surface points in class today, but you'll want to read the linked material. Be forewarned: Sometimes I've based the 50-point question on the final exam in HUM 221 on these readings, other times it's been one of the 25-point questions. (You do realize what I'm telling you, don't you?) We'll begin with their gospel singing tradition, and move on to the way their traditional religion and philosophy sought to create a balanced way of life. Warning: There's a lot of shlock written about Native American spirituality, but I have tried to sift through the material available on the World Wide Web and link you to legitimate sources below.

Gospel music

The Cherokee, both in Oklahoma and North Carolina, have a strong tradition closely allied with Southern gospel singing. 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 BACHorgan.com website for classical musicians, 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. (Follow link to directory of downloads.) 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).

'Harmony ethic'

  • In a 1998 article titled "Maintaining Balance: The Religious World of the Cherokees" she wrote for the Tar Heel Junior Historians program of the North Carolina State Museum, Karen Raley sums up 250-plus years of Cherokee history, religion and cultural adaptation.
  • Michael Garrett, a counselor and education professor at the University of Florida, has written several popular books on how readers can apply traditional Cherokee values to increasingly fragmented, busy 21st-century lives. He is excerpted on the Web.
You should read these authors for yourself, but I will summarize part of it here. I will also link to sources on a Cherokee "harmony ethic" that aims to maintain balance in relations between people.

"Like other native peoples," Raley says in her Junior Tar Heel Historian article, "the Cherokees did not try to rule over nature but instead tried to keep their proper place within it." The key to doing this was balance, which meant conserving the gifts of nature and doing right to others. "When Cherokees gathered medicinal plants in the forest," for example, "they harvested only every fourth one they found, leaving the other three to grow undisturbed for a future use." Raley adds:

All of these practices contributed to the balance of their world. The Cherokees believed that if the balance of nature was upset, everyone would have trouble. They feared a loss of balance could cause sickness, bad weather, failed crops, poor hunting, and many other problems. Humans were responsible for keeping the balance within themselves and between the animals, the plants, and other people.
To this end, their stories and legends were about harmony and balance. So was their traditional religion.:

Native American peoples did not use a word such as “religion,” but, as you have read, every part of their world had a sacred connection or religious meaning. Their ideas of religion were everything to them. They believed the world should have balance, harmony, cooperation, and respect within the community and between people and the rest of nature.

Cherokee myths and legends taught the lessons and practices necessary to maintain natural balance, harmony, and health. Cherokee songs, dances, stories, artwork, tools, and even buildings expressed the moral values of their culture. The Cherokee homeland and its mountains, caves, and rivers also carried symbolic meanings and purposes.
During the 1700s and 1800s, many Cherokees converted under a U.S. government “civilization” policy "intended to convert the natives to Christianity and to pacify them." But, Raley says, the old values of harmony and balance found their way into the Cherokee practice of Christianity:

In time, the New Testament of the Christian Bible was translated into Cherokee and written in the Cherokee syllabary. Scriptures, hymns, and services also began to be spoken in the Cherokee language. Still, communities blended older Cherokee values like respect and sharing into the practices of their new Christian churches. Some of the traditional Cherokee healers even became ministers or elders in Christian churches.

Today, about ten thousand Cherokees live in North Carolina. Most of them are Christian, but traditional ideas can still be found in the use of traditional plants for healing, dances that reinforce the Cherokee identity, references to some of the old sacred Cherokee sites, and a festival that is held each year at Green Corn time.
Raley's article is written for high schoolers, but it is by far the best brief introduction available on the Web about Cherokee values, religion and spirituality.

An excerpt from Medicine of the Cherokee (1996) by Michael Garrett and his father J.T. Garrett appears on the InnerSelf.com website. It is accurate in its summary of the harmony ethic, even if it has some overtones of pop psychology. In it, they say people can change their lifestyle by adapting Cherokee ways:

There is something known as the "Harmony Ethic," based on the communal spirit of cooperation and sharing, which guides much of traditional Cherokee living. It is a way of life that gives purpose and direction to much of our interaction in this world. In Cherokee tradition, wellness of the mind, body, spirit, and natural environment is an expression of the proper balance of all things. If we disturb or disrupt the natural balance of ourselves or others, illness may be the result, manifesting in the mind, body, spirit, or natural environment. However, all aspects are affected by such disturbances of the delicate balance as we easily realize when we abuse ourselves or others.

The Harmony Ethic is a way of maintaining the natural harmony and balance that exists within us, and with the world around us. ...
The Garretts say it includes:

  • A nonaggressive and noncompetitive approach to life. ...
  • The use of intermediaries, or a neutral third person,
    as a way of minimizing face-to-face hostility and disharmony in interpersonal relations. ...
  • Reciprocity and the practice of generosity ... even when people cannot afford to be generous. ...
  • A belief in immanent justice ... [that] There is a natural order to things, and, sometimes, there are situations or experiences that are "out of our hands", so to speak. ...
Some other links, if you're really interested:


  • "Cherokee Values and World View," an unpublished but frequently cited paper by Native American anthropologist Robert K. Thomas, who in 1958 defined the harmony ethic like this: "The Cherokee tries to maintain harmonious interpersonal relationships with his fellow Cherokee by avoiding giving offense, on the negative side, and by giving of himself to his fellow Cherokee in regard to his time and his material goods, on the positive side."

  • An anonymous Amazon.com customer's review of Sharlotte Neely's Snowbird Cherokees: People of Persistence (1993), a book that's well worth reading itself: "The most useful thing about this book for someone who knows nothing else about the Cherokee is that it explains how the 'harmony ethic' is still a part of the way Cherokees live, and how it has subtly changed the Cherokee way of practicing Christianity, and how we deal with modern political and economic life. It shows that it is possible to be "traditional", in a sense, while being fully engaged with the modern world. It also shows that Indians are not the cardboard cutouts so often seen in the movies, or in 'New Age' explorations of native spirituality. ... If you read this, back it up with [John] Finger's broader histories of the Eastern band, [James] Mooney's classic exploration of Cherokee mythology, and, if you take them with a grain of salt, the Garretts' 'Cherokee medicine'" series. Then, take a trip to Graham County, preferably around Memorial Day weekend when you can be a part of Snowbird's annual 'Fading Voices' festival at Little Snowbird Church, stopping in Robbinsville [N.C.] to visit the Junaluska Burial Place. You'll be welcomed, but if you can't make it Snowbird, this book is the next best thing."

An excerpt from Michael Rutledge's Forgiveness in the Age of Forgetfulness is available on line at http://cherokeehistory.com/law.html. Rutledge, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a law student at Arizona State University. He tells a legend to illustrate how the traditional "strict liability law for any killing" played out when a woman killed a rattlesnake and the snake's kismen demanded vengeance.

Do we have anything like a “harmony ethic” in American popular culture today? If so, what is it? How does it work? Post as comments to the top blog post.
For Wednesday, read the post, the linked documents and each other’s comments.

23 comments:

Roman said...

We still have some harmony with nature. People use their leisure time to enjoy outdoor activities such as picnic, walks, sports, hunting. etc. We also strive for peace and harmony within oneself. People go to church or practice religion to find a meaning for their life. They want to find an acceptance in their own self worth. We also as a global society try to create harmony in the sense of the United Nations meetings. This doesn't always happen, the there are efforts to create and keep peace and harmony.

Jake Hill said...

Yes we have a harmony ethic because you have to find your peace within yourself to keep yourself sane. Without this we could not function. We find things we like to do in our off time to relax our bodies like a vacation or going to a game.

Shakeria said...

yes we do... when we go to church... when we pray....

brok said...

We do have harmony ethics in our lives today, one way is through the church. people come together as one congreation in their respective churches so it falls in line with harmony ethics.

Jessica said...

Yes, I believe there is some harmony in todays culture. People are still caring and respectful to other human beings.
The harmony ethic is a way of life that gives purpose and direction to much of our interaction in this world.

http://innerself.com/html/relationships/communities/harmony-ethic.html

Michael Hayes said...

The closest thing we have to a harmony ethic is peace. i t is something we try to maaintain with other individuals as well as other nations. Its both a personal goal and a national goal. It is an effort that we try but it is not always successful, and this causes wars and such

Brad Selvaggio said...

We still have a sense of harmony eithic because we do all sorts of things that include nature going to church and finding peace.

Alex said...

I do believe that we have harmony in our culture today. Our harmony is what allows us to live in peace today. Without it there would be no meaning to life.

Michael D. said...

Not really we tend to take stuff for granted, be wastefull, and not always share like we should. Although there are instances were "harmony ethic" exists such as our religious lives were we can donate to help the poor and try to become one with our community by praying. We also can achieve "wellness of the mind, body and spirit" through church.

Tara Proctor said...

The Harmony Ethic is a system based upon caring for fellow human beings through the expression of deep respect and kindness. This is the way of a harmonious survival. It also emphasizes the presence of choice. I do believe we are all taught about harmony ethic and how we should treat other people and nature and the things around us, but not everyone follows those guidelines. Harmony ethic kind of goes along with just simply having respect for other people and things and showing it.

Michael D. said...

Not really we tend to take stuff for granted, be wastefull, and not always share like we should. Although there are instances were "harmony ethic" exists such as our religious lives were we can donate to help the poor and try to become one with our community by praying. We also can achieve "wellness of the mind, body and spirit" through church.

mikefleshman said...

We still have harmony with our nature and god today. We go to church and practice a religion and we also try to come together as a community. We try to live in peace in the world today and strive to achieve understanding of each other.

logan eader said...

i think that the American culture does not have a "harmony ethic". we as a culture are so different for the Native Americans because or belief system or our religious backgrounds are not the same. although, if we have some kind of harmony in our society, its not on the level of the Native Americans.

TMAC said...

We do have harmony ethic during church, and to enjoy activities. We have harmony with each other and also our self. And in times of need we have harmony ethic.

Lucas Baugher said...

I believe us Americans have harmony ethical beliefs. Many of us lead very busy lives and there is always a need to relax and take some time off. Going to church on sundays, relaxing outside in the sun, and other hobbies are included in this. If people do not take any time of from work or do not take a break, they will break down physically and emotionally. It is vital to have some type of peace in your life and i believe many Americans do have harmony in their lives today.

Chris Day said...

I believe we still have harmony around in our society today. I find my harmony in music. Music is a way for me to relax and just listen to the beats and lyrics.

Catey Rutschke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kathleen said...

I think that there is definately a harmony ethic still around today. Even in our crazy world, many people still find the time to enjoy nature and all it has to offer. They really appreciate it. I also think that with the growing awareness of the global evironment problems, it can be seen that our nation as a whole really cares about the environment and wants to keep it clean.

Kyle K. said...

i dont think we have as many harmonies as what these native americans had, but we still practice some that are the same as what they did. we go to church, we gather to pray and still worship things that they worshiped.

lena ater said...

I do believe that we do have some. Some use their time to go fishing hiking and camping with their friends and family.I grew up in a church and knowing religion. People were also taught to respect their elders. But things don't always turn out the way you want them to.

Cait131 said...

Harmony with nature is something that still exists today. People are constantly doing things outside, ranging from just spending time out there to playing sports. Church is something people also do that deals with harmony in nature. People till this day, although not everyone, care about others out there. Everyone should treat others with respect. There is also certain kinds of peace throughout the world till this day.

dave maziarz said...

i believe that people today have harmony ethic...most people pratice some sort of religion and go to church. i think people to this in order to create a sense of peace about themselves.

calenevill said...

yes we do, through congregating in church or sunday school, prayer,etc. ..without harmony we wouldnt have has much peace with ourselvs