Courtesy of Metropolitan Library System of Oklahoma County
The pendulum is once again swinging, and the fate of the Cherokee Nation is in constant limbo. The ancestral land is gone, tribal sovereignty is in constant peril, and the agreements between the United States and the tribes are once again under threat. However, underneath the hate, racism, injustice, and darkness, a slight ember can be detected, a light that has survived centuries of persecution.
At the end of a seamlessly never-ending tunnel of darkness, our sacred fire can be found at the heart of the Nation, our eternal fire. Unlike many indigenous tribes who have lost their cultures, histories, and languages, the heritage of the Cherokees is thankfully one that can be found in quantity. Though many documents have yet to be recorded or digitized, much information about the Cherokee people can be found online. Suppose one were to research the Cherokee people online. In that case, countless resources can be found, many of which regarding historical treaties with the United States, the revitalization efforts of the Cherokee language, and even the history of the Cherokee Pheonix, the first native American newspaper in an indigenous language. This past year especially has seen the Cherokee Nation mentioned a number of times concerning the reevaluation of the Treaty of New Echota, promising a non-voting representative to the US congress for the Cherokee Nation.
Although remarkable work has been done in preserving and recording the history of the Cherokees, one topic still seldom discussed in depth is the role and explanation of Cherokee religion and spirituality. What is it? Were the Cherokee religious? What did the Cherokee practice before the introduction of Christianity, and does it still exist?
So, I will tell you about my first-hand experience with Cherokee spirituality and how it has allowed me to become closer to our people and ancestors. However, before I depict my perspective, we first need to understand what the Cherokees practice; the Stomp Dance.
The Stomp Dance
Though the majority of Cherokee society currently practices Christianity, traditional Cherokee ceremonies continue to be active in the Cherokee Nation, known as Stomp Dances. In fact, a segment of Cherokees continues to observe and engage in Stomp Dances in local communities like the Echota grounds in Tahlequah, Cherokee Nation. These traditional dances are held on ceremonial lands known as Stomp Grounds. Not as widespread as they were in previous years, several ceremonial grounds continue to be active. The Echota Stomp Ground is just one of 7 remaining; however, participation has dwindled over the last decade, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic, as a significant number of members were elderly.
The Stomp Dance is a ceremonial custom that contains spiritual and social meaning. Several tribes have a variation of the Stomp Dance which can be seen in Shawnee and Creek traditions. For the Cherokees, the dance is well-known and affiliated with the Green Corn Ceremony. This custom can be traced back to the original capital of the Cherokees, Keetoowah, located in modern-day North Carolina. Historically, during the Green Corn Ceremonies, coals from the central fire in Keetwooah would be carried to all the outlying communities. The fires of these communities would be extinguished before the start of the ceremony and re-lit from the embers of the central fire during the Green Corn dances. Though this tradition is no longer practiced extensively, a variation continues today.
Now, the ceremony in itself is quite unique. Typically, Stomps Dances start at the beginning of spring to the end of fall and are held on the first Saturday of each month, though not all Stomp Grounds follow this schedule. Moreover, the ceremony does not occur in one afternoon but instead takes place all night, starting a few hours after sunset and continuing until dawn the following day. Many rounds of dancing take place throughout the night, with a break in the middle of the ceremony. For some Stomp Grounds, the rest signifies the break of the fast. Several members practice this custom by fasting the entire day until break when the community joins to share a meal. During the Green Corn Ceremony, fasting can take up to three days. For the entirety of the ceremony, members are obligated to remain awake throughout the night, and from personal experience, the best method to achieve this is to keep on dancing!
The structure of the ceremony is strict. Only men are allowed to remain in the circle of the grounds and, depending on one's clan, will sit at a designated arbor, each representing a specific direction. Before any dances can commence, the grounds must be opened by the Speaker of the grounds. The Speaker enters the circle and walks up to the fire facing east towards the central fire previously located in Keetoowah. During the opening, the Speaker recounts a prayer telling the history of the Cherokees from their origins, the hardships that our ancestors faced, and finishing with gratitude that we can continue to traditions of our past mothers, father, and siblings.
Before each dance, one male member of the Grounds is given the responsibility of calling out each song leader and all the participants to that round of dancing. Though there are set songs that have continued to be sung throughout the years, each song is unique in that the selected song leader has developed their own variation on the traditional rhythms, melodies, and lyrics. Some leaders may even have a personalized dance form slightly different from the original dances.
Each dance has a structure of alternating male-female in a spiral wrapping around the central fire. Visitors are located towards the end of the spiral, then the young children, and finally, odd-numbered combinations. Always dancing counterclockwise, males dance with stomping steps to the rhythm set by the women with their shell shakers. Between each dance, there is typically a few minutes of rest. The dance is not meant to be a challenging task in any way. However, most members will dance all night, and some members even join every round hosted. The ceremony ends at dawn, and shortly after, a stickball game is hosted.
During my childhood, I had the unique opportunity to practice my traditional heritage. Not only was I given the privilege of growing up speaking my native tongue, but I had the chance to practice some of my people's traditional customs, like the Stomp Dance. My ceremonial journey began at a young age, and at the time, I did not quite understand what the Stomp Grounds and Stomp Dances signified. Some would say it is a form of worship or religious practice, which in essence, can be considered true.
However, for the sake of this story, I find that it would be improper to title such a ceremony as religious but instead as spiritual. For the Cherokees and many tribes around the United States, the connection to our ancestors is a pillar of the culture. Growing up in the tribe, oftentimes, I would hear stories of our ancestors, whether it be past leaders, family members, or simply a member of another family. However, as I grew older, I found that the closest I felt to our ancestors was during our people's stomps.
During times of hardship, during periods of joy, I often found immense comfort and community at my grounds. During the dance, there is jubilation that is found only in the sound of turtle shells moving as one. The crackle of the fire and the rhythm of hundreds of feet, and the smell of the cool night air raise my spirit to the sky. The voices that sing our ancestor's songs and the smoke that filters up toward the great Creator erase all politics, fear, and sadness. At the center of it all is the light, the flame, the sacred fire of our ancestors. A light that has survived forced removal, harsh winters, and a trail full of tears. I find solace in knowing that my great great grandfathers sang the same songs, my ancestors laughed in the same language, and that our traditions will continue.