The Seven Sacred Ceremonies of The Cherokee People
THE SEVEN CEREMONIES
The Cherokee have and always have had 7 major ceremonies. Many of these went on for several days and involved fasting, feasting, chants, dances, staying awake all night, immersing in water, purifications rites and divination rituals. These often took place around the time of the New Moons. When the first sliver of crescent light could be seen on the right side of the moon, it was the beginning of a new moon and a ceremony was conducted to cleanse from past impurities and give fortitude for the new moon, of which there were 13 each year.
One Cherokee tradition states that the Great Creator made the earth in 7 days and this work was completed on the new moon of Autumn. For this reason we have our Fall ceremony known as “The Great Moon”. This is the traditional “New Year” for the Cherokee. However, it is also possible to start counting the major ceremonies on the first new moon of Spring. This would be the new moon nearest to the “Vernal Equinox” (our first day of spring).
So the First New Moon of Spring Ceremony came at the time when the “Cold Moons” were over and the people emerged from their round “Winter Houses” where they had kept a fire burning and were kept warm during the snows and blizzards. It was a happy time to be out in the fresh air more and once again begin their activities of raising gardens, hunting, fishing and interacting with the other nations surrounding them. Like the other ceremonies, it was a time for starting with a clean slate and put behind them all negativity and be spiritually and physically refreshed.
First New Moon Of Spring
This ceremony was and is observed around the time the new grass begins to grow. This festival was a major one and people came to the capital city from surrounding villages to attend it. 7 hunters went out to secure venison and other meat for the feast. 7 women and 7 men were commissioned to oversee the festival. In the 7 sided counsel house the fire keeper and his assistant prepared the alter (fire mound or “hearth”) for the sacred fire which was present at all the major ceremonies. 7 kinds of sacred wood were used in this fire. The Friendship Dance was done by the women on the first evening of the festival. The next morning the people went to water at the nearby river, immersing themselves 7 times. Divining crystals (made of quartz) were consulted by the pastors/elders to determine what the future held for the people. A new Sacred Fire was now burning in the center of the council house, attended to constantly by the Fire Keeper and his assistants. The lodges had all their fire mounds cleaned and hot coals from the sacred fire were carried to these lodges. Thus a clean slate was opened before the people for the new ceremonial year.
Celebrated with fruits from the previous fall harvest are brought to ceremony and consumed to remember the continuation of the Creator’s care and blessing. This festival initiates the planting season and incorporated predictions concerning crop success or failure. It lasts seven days and includes dancing and the re-lighting of the sacred fire by the “fire-keeper”.
There ceremony includes sacrificing a deer tongue in the fire. All the home fires were extinguished and rekindled from the sacred fire’s coals, symbolizing fresh beginnings, and renewal of life from Mother Earth.
Corn was the “staff of life” for our Cherokee ancestors. They devoted two major yearly ceremonies to honor their cultivation of corn. The Green Corn Ceremony came in early summer when the corn stalks were still green but some young ears of corn began to present themselves. Thus, there was the “promise” of a good harvest of corn and all the other agricultural products that helped them sustain life. During this ceremony the “Uku” Peace Chief placed the tongue of a dear and some corn along with tobacco into the Sacred Fire to symbolize thanks for good hunting (plenty of meat) and good harvests (plenty of plant food) which would result in good health for the people.
The ceremony was held in the middle of the ceremonial grounds. Included in the rituals were the stomp dance, feather dance and buffalo dances.
At certain points of the ceremonies the people fast, play stickball, have sacrificing and took medicine. Then after the ceremonial fasting they would feast. Another ritual observed was rinsing themselves in water and having prayer.
It is believed when you recieve a cleansing it washes away impurities or bad deeds and starts a new life. The cleansing ceremony was performed by a priest which was followed with fasting and praying and other sacred practices.
New corn is not to be eaten until after the ceremony takes place. Messengers are sent to notify the towns of the nation about when the celebration will take place. Along the way they gathered seven ears of corn, each from a field of a different clan. After the messengers return, the chief and seven councilors fast for six days. The ceremony begins on the seventh. Again, the sacred fire is extinguished and rekindled.
As the with the First New Moon Ceremony, a deer tongue is sacrificed in the sacred fire. Kernels from the seven ears of corn that have been gathered from the clans are also sacrificed along with the sacred nicotania rustica. Food that was made from the new corn was brought to the town house and everyone was fed. The Chief and his councilors could only eat corn from the previous year’s crop for another seven days.
This ceremony happened in late Summer when the corn had matured and was ready for harvest. Similar to the Green Corn Ceremony, it was to give thanks giving to “The Great One” for a bountiful harvest of corn (which represented all agricultural foods). During this ceremony the “Corn Dance” was done in which the motions of harvesting corn were incorporated into the dance.
This third Cherokee festival is called the Mature Green Corn Ceremony which is held about 45 days after the New Green Corn Ceremony. Before the festival, women perform a religious dance and decided when the festival would be held. Hunters are sent out to bring back game and there is a committee appointed for the festival.
An arch is built with green branches, making an arbor in the ceremonial grounds. The evening before the Green Corn Ceremony, all the clans take a branch that they use the next day during a noon ritual. Participants drank a special tea called a “Black Drink” which was used for cleansing and purifying. The people dance for days while feasting on game and corn. The ceremony lasts for four days.
The new moon which fell nearest the Autumnal Equinox (first day of Fall) was about the time of this festival. This constituted the “New Year” celebraton for our Cherokee ancestors. This would correspond to the ending of our September or the beginning of October. The people went to the river to immerse 7 times prior to the main part of the ceremony. The Diving Crystal was consulted to determine what the new year had in store for the people: peace or war, health or sickness and death. As with other ceremonies, there were times of fast and feasting and staying awake at night, and various dances. Friends Made Ceremony
This festival also went by the name of “Cementation, Propitiation, or Atahoona.” It was based on friendship, love, and making things right. Already at this time of year they were thinking about the cold moons arriving in the near future. Some of the more frail elders might not survive till spring, so if there was any mending of friendships to be done, now was a good time to do it. One part of this ceremony involved the exchanging of garments between two men to symbolize their eternal friendship. Only at this ceremony was the sacred “Yowah” chant sang. 7 selected men “cleansed” the capital council house in a ceremony in which they beat sticks made of Sycamore wood against the rim of the roof.
The Great New Moon Festival is held around October. This marks the beginning of the Cherokee New Year. It is believed that the world was created in the season of Autumn.
The main counselors determine when the new moon will appear. Again as previous festivals, hunters were sent out to catch game seven nights before the festival. Seven men are selected to take charge of all the planning and seven women are chosen to prepare the food. When the Cherokee people gather for the feast, each family gives food to the pastor/elder. Types of food are corn, pumpkin, beans among others. The evening before the main gathering, the women perform a religious dance. Again during the ceremonial part they go to the river for purifying, giving offerings to the sacred fire and praying.
Celebrated 10 days after the Great New Moon Ceremony. This ceremony symbolizes the unity between the Creator and mankind and also dealt with relationships between two people of the same or opposite sex. These relationships were bonds of eternal friendship in which each person vowed to regard the other as himself as long as they both lived. It was a ceremony that was a pledge of universal fraternal or paternal love. It also entailed reconciliation between those who had quarreled during the previous year. It symbolized the uniting of the people with the Creator and purification of body and mind. The New Moon Ceremony was said to have been the most profoundly religious of all the ceremonies. As with other observances, it also involved the rekindling of the scared fire.
This was a joyous ceremony were the Cherokee expressed unrestrained joy giving thanks to the Great Spirit and his helpers, acknowledging them as the source of our blessings. Dancing and feasting abound, and thansgiving was expressed by everyone tossing an offering of sacred tobacco in the sacred fire.
This was the last major ceremony before the arrival of the Cold Moons. It prepared the people for the hardships of surviving the Winter. This was a joyful ceremony with feasting and dancing. At one point at the end of the ceremony all people
surrounded the fire in the Sacred Square outside the Council House and approached the fire together and threw crushed tobacco leaves into the fire.
This festival is held about ten days after the Great New Moon Festival. Another purpose of this festival was to renew friendships, make new friends and for cleansing.
Participants are assigned tasks such as helping with the preparation of the various ceremonies, song leaders, musicians, the cleansing of the council house area, hunting game and cooking.
A new sacred Fire is built by the Fire Keeper and his assistants. The Fire keeper his assistants fast for seven days before the festival. There is a dance the night before the festival.
Others fast during special designated days. This festival renews the Fire, and the people. It also brings friendship by ceremonially forgiving conflicts from the previous year. This was seen as a brand new start. There is also a cleansing ritual that is performed at the river in running water. This festival lasts four days.
The Chief Dance (UKU Ceremony) – Celebrated once every seven years. The Principal Cherokee Chief is carried into the Sacred circle of the Sacred Fire, on a white chair, and acknowledged as the Chief of all the people by each of the clans. This ceremony reminds us of the one true Chief, the Great Spirit-Creator. Dancing and feasting follows. New garments were given to the Uku with dancing and great pageantry. This celebraton lasted 4 days.
This festival is held during the winter. Tobacco is gathered from the people who participate in the feast. The people use pine or spruce in a dance. The first dance movement is a march by alternating pairs of males and females. During the dance, women wear their turtle shells, formed a circle with the men in a single file and moved counter-clockwise in a circle. Each dancer takes two twigs of the spruce and wave them up and down like pigeon wings. The fourth night, they made offerings to the sacred fire.
Today, many Cherokee traditionalists still observe these festivals. Many ceremonial grounds observe some, and a few observe all of the occasions.
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