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 sonFor 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).
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.
in peace they will live. (Robinson 5-6)
- 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.
"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.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:
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.
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.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.
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.
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 Garretts say it includes:
The Harmony Ethic is a way of maintaining the natural harmony and balance that exists within us, and with the world around us. ...
- 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. ...
- "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.