With great respect for the tradition of sharing wisdom and imparting knowledge through storytelling, the following Cherokee Wisdom is provided by J.T. Garrett, Ed.D., MPH, Member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Eagle Song Meditation Billy Two Rivers Hunt playing the Native American double flute by the Haw River
While you are reading the following beautiful Cherokee wisdom you may wish to listen to:
Billy Two Rivers Hunt - Eagle Song Meditation We (Songbear & Myself) were gifted this song from Spirit in the winter of 2002. Following the events of September 11, 2002 many families, friends and loved ones had no closure from their loved ones. This song was created just for that reason – CLOSURE!!
Now I invite you to close your eyes and imagine that you are on the back of the wings of an Eagle, Your Eagle. You are going to fly as high as you can to Spirit and connecting with the loved one(s) that have crossed over without hearing or saying “farewell”. As you make this connection In Spirit, greet them with a smile and your loving arms for they are waiting for you to come to them now. After the connection is MADE….get back on the wings of your Eagle and come back to this world that we now live in, but with your loved ones with you and forever by your side and in your heart. “For heaven” as one elder said, “is living in our families’ hearts, long after we are gone.”
THE FIRST FIRE
In the "Old Wisdom" teachings, the first fire was the beginning, and every ceremony honors the fire as the ancestor and elder teachers with a reverence and almost mystical acceptance. According to the legends, it starts with a powerful existence or force that is in all things of creation. That includes those things we can see and those things we cannot see. It seems to flow through and connected with all things. Mother Earth represents the physical existence of this force as creator of life and caretaker of life, so to speak. Therefore, we honor Mother Earth with our pipe stem by pointing to her first, then to Father Sky. An elder Medicine Man said that the "Old Ones" would add a slight circle movement with the stem before bringing the pipe stem back to the center. It was to recognize that all this mystical force exist in our circle of life. In this way, Mother Earth is our teacher for how to survive and to continue our way of life.
This force had two keepers in the beginning to recognize that all things existed in pairs and opposites as well. This was the Sun and the Moon. A Cherokee elder used to say that for every living being here on Mother Earth there is a star that physically shines a light that is connected to us. When we pass on, our "little light" goes up into the skyway or sky vault to always be there. I was always taught that as Cherokees we came from the skyway as stars manifesting the energy of the Great One.
The number three represents the sacredness of relationship, as taught by our Earth Mother. It takes two to create the force, or what the earlier Cherokee as "nv-wo-di" or pronounced as "nah wah t(d)ee." With two of anything, there is always a third existence that supports survival in the form of food, warmth, and wellness to be in harmony and balance. Therefore, the number three was relationship. Fire was one of those natural elements of Nv-wo-di that is considered sacred, like the number three used in ceremonies as told by the keepers of the secrets or traditions. The elder teachers say we always will seek to be connected to the place where our relationship takes us back to the first fire. They say that we have a memory in the cells of our body and our spirit that connects us back in time to our ancestry connections. Therefore, we always have a spirit or ancestor guide that links or connects us to the first fire and the beginning of time.
ANCESTRY AND CONNECTION
My grandfather, Oscar Rogers was of the Walkingstick family. That family was from one of the seven mother towns. Prior to the "unsettlement period" when American was beginning to be settlements, our town or was one of the Overhill Settlements in Poke County, Tennessee. It was called the Great Hiwassee or "Ay uh wa si Eg wa hi" near Savannah Ford. There was a strong connection of these families on the Ocoee River near the junction with the Hiwassee River, or "Ug wa hi" and with Chestua or "tsi stu yi" or called Rabbit Place near the mouth of the Chestua Creek at the Hiwassee River in Poke County, Tennessee. While there were many small villages in the Overhill Settlements, eventually it was all lost to expansion of the non-native people.
The Middle Settlement of "Kituhwa" or the towns on the headwaters of the Little Tennessee, the Tuckaseegee, and the Tuckaleechee were considered the first settlement. It was the place of refuge for the lower and valley settlements as well during threatening times for the Tribe. Each of us have this "connection with all our relations," as the elder said, "It is important that we know and find our family and life connections to know ourselves and to understand our journey.
STORY OF THE FIRST FIRE
The story of the first fire is hared in a legend told by the elders about a time when the animals were concerned about keeping warm in the cold winter nights. According to an elder, "As the story goes there was this large sycamore tree that was across the large water. The animals went to council and asked the 'Ga lon e da' for warmth in the winter. Well, lightning was called upon to strike the tree that caused a fire. The animals could see the smoke from the fire, but they did not know how to get to the fire and to bring the fire back to their homes." "The snake said he would swim across the water and crawl into the bottom of the tree to get to the fire.
The ashes were so hot that to this day he is called the black snake or 'ga le gi.' He failed to bring back the ambers. The Screech Owl, 'wa gu gu' flew across the great water, but his eyes got black circles around them as he looked down at the burning sycamore tree stump. The War Bird called the Raven or 'go lan u' flew to the top of the sycamore to bring the fire home. It burned his feathers and coal smoke covered his wings and body, which is the reason the raven is black today. Finally, the little Water Spider or "kana ne sgi, an a ye hi" asked to bring some fire back across the great water. With ease she skipped across the water, then wove a web on her back to bring a fire ember back for the animals to have warmth. Today she has the back color on her back, but she is credited with giving us fire."
FIRE BROUGHT INTO THE LONGHOUSE
It is unsure when fire was actually brought into the hothouses or the longhouses, but the Cherokee did have a "normal" dwelling and a winter hot house with its stores of corn and beans close. One elder said that the Cherokee did not dance around the open fire as shown in films, but in designated areas near the dance ground in front of the council house and away from the ball ground and chunkey yard. Ironically, the houses were built with two large posts with a smaller post between then, packed with clay and grass as a plaster with bark or thatch roofs. Certain houses would be whitewashed with lime and crushed clam shells with a smoke hole, rather than a chimney. Hothouses were used for sleeping during the cold weather called "o si" with a fire pit in the middle and beds around the walls. The beds had short posts for legs and white oak or ash splints woven on a sapling frame. Cane mats were placed on the woven framework and skins for coverings. Later, chimneys were built on the outside with fireplaces. A fire would be kept burning during the day to have a warm inside area for the cold evenings. At bed time, the fire would be banked with ashes with a smoldering fire for smoke to be pulled upward through the smoke hole.
There was hothouse in a designated location as a special place for sweat baths called "a li a lu u ta wa sti." White river rocks were heated in the fire then raked out on a floor where prepared liquids would be poured over the rocks for steam. The old "Medicine" would include barks from cherry, mulberry, persimmon, poplar, sycamore, cucumber tree, and wild parsnip roots. After the baths, the person would take a cold plunge in the river.
The sacred fire would burn in an altar made of clay in the council house. It would be rekindled each year with a ceremony in October/November. This was an "honored fire" called "a tsi la, ga lun kwe ti yi that was kindled by rubbing two pieces of basswood together with dried goldenrod to initiate the fire. Seven woods would be used for the fire including black jack oak, post oak, red oak, locust, redbud, sycamore, and wild plum. Strings of white beads would be place between each pile of wood separated to represent each of the seven clans. On the day of the ceremony, each fire in the homes would be put out and cleaned of old ashes. The women would come to the council house to be given some of the fire to take home to start a new fire. Tobacco would be offered and a feather would be used to fan the smoke in the four directions.
THE FIRE AS ELDER
In the old Cherokee teachings, fire is associated with the elderly, the beloved ones. Today, we have the Eternal Flame at the Mountainside Theatre to represent the important role of fire in the traditional life of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. A beloved man was in earlier times the keeper of the Council House fire. Elderly or old has the connotation of being wise and having some special powers and or connection with the Great One. Fire was sometimes referred to in ceremonies as the Ancient Red or Ancient White or as Grandfather/Grandmother. A similar association is with the sun as a force of nature, as well as the Ancient White relating to the white ashes spread over the grave. Ancient Red was referenced in ceremonies using a sacred fire for the stickball game and with victory with war. The color symbolism also included white with old age, wisdom, purity, and peace.
A sacred belief is that the unity of fire, sun, lightening, and even the rainbow represents a divine power with reference to the Ancient Ones. The old ones believe they will never be struck by lightening because of the close relationship of being elderly. There is also thought to be magical powers in wood or a tree struck by lightning. A sacred word used only in ceremonies in earlier times was "yo wah" and "ga lon e da" that may have been taken from the expression "cho ta un e le eh" that translates as the elder fires above (Ed Sharpe). Earlier Cherokee regarded fire as a grandparent, and it was to be treated with respect, "like the elderly as old ones." Even a piece of burned wood ember or charcoal would be place in a "Medicine bag" for a child that would be away from their grandparents.
CELEBRATION OF FIRE
In 1984 at Red Clay in Tennessee there was a Celebration of Togetherness between the Eastern Band and the Cherokee Nation from Oklahoma in April 1984. They united for the first time since the Removal when in 1838 thousands of Cherokees were forced to gather at Red Clay to begin an almost 1,000-mile "Trail of Tears" to Indian Territory in the West. The Sacred Fire was carried to northeastern Oklahoma that was kept alive and even returned to the Qualla Boundary in 1951. The gathering a year before the march west was the last time the Eastern Band as it is called today was with their brothers and sisters of the removed Cherokee Nation.
Fire as a healing and purification in the sweatbath or "a si" was used in ceremonies that included Indian runners and ball players. Tobacco was an essential element as "tso lun e go" or the White Ancient One with certain formulas and incantations in ceremony with the fire.
The association of fire with the sun and the moon or "nun da" means light. The sun or "iga ehin nun da" is the source of the light or "e hi" or day as "ega." The moon is referred to as "nun da su no ehi" where the light or "e hi" is in the night or "su no." The sun has been referred to in stories as the sister to the moon, the daughter to the moon, and even as in the male gender. The moon has been referred to as the sun's elder brother, the grandfather, and as grandmother moon. The moon in earlier times was even the protector in ceremony and prayer as the protector to the ball player, as the fire is the protector to the hunter. Reference to the sun and moon as "apportioners" in ceremony called "un eh lan u hi." CEREMONY The ceremony for the Spring Full Circle would usually be the Spring Ceremony of Friendship or First New Moon of Spring; however, 2004 is also the time of celebrating the sixth annual ceremony called the "Bounding Bush Ceremony" or "elah uah tah lay kee." This is not a ceremony used in my or my grandfather's lifetime, and little is known about it. It was more of a time of feast and dance. Normally there would be feather hoops held by the dancers as they moved in columns. Instead, a feather Medicine Wheel will be carried by the dance leaders as men and women follow in a single circle, unlike the paired columns of earlier times. Pine needles would be carried and in the center of the circle of dancers would be someone with a box or basket.
He would dance around within the circle, singing and holding the box or basket in front for each to drop a piece of tobacco into the box. In earlier times it would be repeated three successive nights. On the fourth night there would be a feast preceding the dancing that would begin after midnight. On the fourth night the pine needles would be dropped in the box. Everyone would circle around the altar fire as each dancer would approach the fire three times, as the person as keeper of the tobacco and pine needles would offer them to the fire. This would conclude the six great annual ceremonies. To follow the First New Moon of Spring tradition, women will perform the Friendship Dance. Symbolically, the men will provide meat for the ceremony, while women will provide corn. Seven men and seven women were chosen earlier; however, the "counselors" will choose seven men and women to oversee the ceremony. There is a gathering of the fire on Friday evening. The seven barks (white oak, black oak, water oak, blackjack, basswood, chestnut, and white pine) will be used for the sacred fire and a prayer for strength as helpers, as tobacco is offered to the fire.
J.T. Garrett, Ed.D., MPH Member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians