Living History: Connecting with Heritage, Part II

img_0819Some people are fortunate to grow up in a community and/or family where heritage is fixed and known to all. Others know little about their ancestors or have only vague information whence they came. The latter was the case for a young man I met this summer at the Oconaluftee Indian Village in Cherokee, North Carolina. Jaikob Craig is now well versed in his Cherokee heritage, so much so, that he delivers lengthy orations on Cherokee history and culture unaided by notes of any kind. There was a time, however, when this would not have been possible.

When he was younger, Jaikob had little interest in the Cherokee part of his heritage despite his grandfather’s having given him a Cherokee name, Kolanu (koh-lah-nuh) or Raven, because he was a quiet, observant child. Jaikob also knew little about his clan. Those recognized as Cherokee are divided into seven clans with clan association being matrilineal. For reasons that were not made clear during our interview, Jaikob’s family lost their clan affiliation. I suspect that this may have been through marriage outside of the tribe. He is now a member of the Wolf clan by marriage. It was Jaikob’s younger brother who expressed dismay that Jaikob  had no interest in their heritage and urged him to learn.

After graduating high school with honors, Jaikob attended college for a time, majoring in Native American Studies and studying for his EMS certification, but he has not completed either course of study to date. Like many young people today, he is still uncertain what he is meant to do for his life’s work. He and his wife are youth leaders in their church. Perhaps he is destined for the ministry. Whatever he ultimately chooses to do, I believe he will be a success. For the time being, he finds connection with his heritage through his work with the living history museum of the Oconaluftee Indian Village where he gives lectures on Cherokee traditional dances, tribal government, and the trial clan system.

There are seven clans in Cherokee Society: a ni gi lo hi (Long Hair), a ni sa ho ni (Blue), a ni wa ya (Wolf), a ni go te ge wi (Wild Potato), a ni a wi (Deer), a ni tsi s qua (Bird), and a ni wo di (Paint). During traditional times, the Cherokee were led by two chiefs, one for peace and one for war.

The Long Hair clan was known as the peaceful clan. Peace Chiefs came from this clan. Often prisoners of war, orphans of other tribes, and others with no Cherokee clan were adopted into the Long Hair Clan.

The Blue Clan was known for members who had special skill in making medicines and treating illness in children. It is thought to be the oldest of the clans.

The Wolf Clan produced the tribe’s protectors. They were the largest clan. The War Chief traditionally came from this clan.

The Wild Potato Clan were keepers of the land, farmers and gathers basically. Potatoes were a staple in the traditional diet.

The Deer Clan members were runners, messengers, and hunters. They respected and cared for the animals of the forest, killing only what they needed for the tribe’s survival. They delivered messages between persons and villages.

The Bird Clan members were also messengers, but of a more spiritual nature than the Deer Clan. Birds were believed to carry messages between the People and the Creator, so Bird Clan members were charged with caring for the birds. They were the only clan allowed to collect eagle feathers, which were presented to tribal members who had earned them.

Members of the Paint Clan were historically known as a prominent medicine people. Medicine is often ‘painted’ on a patient after harvesting, mixing and performing other aspects of the ceremony.


Dance arena

Dance was an important part of Cherokee society. There were dances to celebrate the harvest and other life events. Dances were performed with great ceremony and were times of feasting. Preparations began early in the morning with the celebrations often lasting late into the night. Of the dances I saw demonstrated when we visited the village, the harvest dance and the bear dance stand out in my memory. The dancers entered the dance arena in male/female pairs. In the harvest dance, the women mimed gathering while, the men “placed” the harvest in baskets. The bear dance demonstrated bears moving and fighting. All of the dances were performed in rhythm to rattles, chanting, and a drum beat.


Jaikob chanting for one of the dances. 

Of all the Cherokee traditions, the “ball game” is the most interesting to me. I think this is because it still exists in a modern incarnation, LaCrosse. In traditional times, the ballgame was used to settle disputes among villages and with other tribes. My Georgia history professor said that it was occasionally played to the death. The town of Ball Ground, Georgia, about 50 miles north of Atlanta in Cherokee County, is believed to have been a major site for the game.

The Oconaluftee Village has daily demonstrations of traditional Cherokee arts and crafts. These photographs are from August, 2016.