INTRODUCTION – Secret History of the Cherokees


           The Cherokees have fallen into a cultural abyss wherein they are neither white nor Indian—  Cecil Dick,      Keetoowah Traditionalist, 1980                         

 My name is Sequoyah. I was born in the Center of the World, in the small Cherokee Overhill village of Tamatly, or Tomato, where Ball Play Creek runs into the most beautiful of all moving waters, the Little Tennessee River.  My mother Wu-te-he and I lived in a small log cabin on the west end of the village and we raised some pigs and grew vegetables and tobacco.

      My father, Nathaniel Gist, was a German of Levantine descent.  Mother said he was bright-eyed and muscular with thick dark curls of hair that she and her sisters loved.  My father knew much about ledger books and surveying. He left our river in the year 1776, just months after I was born, to fight in the war against the British alongside his friend George Washington, but he would return to our Little Tennessee village again and again.

     The ancient Cherokee War Trail ran right past our cabin door. This trail linked all the villages so that help could be provided in times of trouble. Young messengers would run the trail, enlisting willing fighters.  We had our male war chiefs but they were appointed and held in strict check by the women. It was the women’s council that made final decisions in every matter of importance, especially one as final and irrevocable as war.

     The migratory path of the woods bison also ran nearby my mother’s house. Twice a year, with the changing seasons, these huge shaggy buffalo, more solitary and  larger than the plains bison, would clump up into large, dangerous herds and travel between the Bluegrass Hills of Kentucky in the north, where they summered, and the mild coastal savannahs of Georgia where they wintered . In the old days the Real People, as the Cherokees were then known, would hunt the beasts by herding them over buffalo jumps, high cliffs from which the animals would fall to be slain below. Since ancient days, the Cherokees had hunted the sacred creatures in that fashion. Once the bison were so numerous that the earth trembled announcing their arrival, but the herds had dwindled down steadily since my mother’s birth, and were by my childhood years a meager remnant of their former numbers.  The old women said the bison would soon be gone. There were many new hunters and more guns in our lands.

      I was born in the Center of the World, and my mother Wu-te-he was the niece of Moytoy, the first Cherokee Emperor, founder of the Kingdom of Paradise with his capital at Great Tellico, three villages upriver from Tamatly.  My friends and I would paddle our swift cypress canoes up and down the Little Tennessee where we knew almost everyone, through the myriads of forested islands, mindful of fish traps and deadfalls, past huts and gardens.  We stopped to swim naked with the beautiful girls, diving for crawdads and mussels in hidden places, sharing their little fires to grill a fish or roast a potato, telling each other jokes, the latest gossip or the persistent rumors of war.

      Occasionally, giant war canoes would pass us on the river — enormous vessels carved thin and sleek from single huge chestnut logs with fifty or sixty Cherokee warriors on board.  Pushing their paddles, armed with clubs, spears, longbows and rifles, they swept by on some somber mission, their bodies tattooed, their fierce faces painted red and black.  I can tell you our villages were safe in those days.  More often the big canoes passed slowly, noisily, bound to some celebration or festival, full of people, heaped with piles of food and cooking fires smoking, dogs onboard barking at dogs ashore, and squealing children hanging half overboard, their small but sharp weapons waving.

      There was always an abundance of fish of one kind or another running our river. Bass, catfish, sturgeons, eels, perch, and salmon overflowed the fish traps. Flocks of wildfowl darkened our skies.  The ducks, swans, geese, and wild pigeons were followed by the great hunters of the air, the hawks and falcons and white-headed eagles. 

      Our family was well known and we had numerous excellent friends and relations all through the Overhill villages and well beyond. We often gathered to revel in each other’s company, and finding no good reason to leave, we would stay, playing ballgames and marbles, singing and feasting, and hiding away with the girls in the nearby groves for days. 

     Few missionaries had dared venture so close to the Center of the World and as yet none of us had given up our ancient ways to those pale, sad interlopers who could neither sing nor dance properly. My father Nathaniel Gist and my grandfather Christian Priber were both Europeans by race — but both lacked any inclination toward religion and both sensibly seemed to prefer our wild ways, our lives in the forest. Possibly the vicious Jesuits or the heartless Spaniards would have converted a few of us if they could have lain their sharp swords to our necks. But before they got that close to the Center of the World, my uncle Moytoy’s Wolf Clan warriors would have put out their greedy eyes with well placed arrows and left their bodies by the dark water, a feast for the Uktenas.

     Yes, in those days we sang our own songs, both ancient and new, in that lovely forest world. We danced all night around our sacred Fire, and we danced the sunrise. 

Sequoyah continues: 

      My grandfather Christian Priber had come among the Cherokees with a consuming desire to learn and understand their ways – to try and unravel their Considerable Mysteries. Grandfather was a Saxon, he had been to universities and he spoke and wrote German, Latin, French, Spanish and some English. He made his way to South Carolina, gave away his possessions and journeyed deep into the interior of the forested continent, alone with just his good looks, wit and personality to sustain him and his leather bag of notebooks to detail his journey.

     Somewhere well inside the boundaries of the Cherokee lands he was swept up by the Wolf Clan guardians and he convinced them to escort him unharmed to the central village of Great Tellico. There in the large round council house on the Sacred Mound, Priber was allowed to meet the women’s leader, the Beloved Woman or the Pretty Woman as she is called.  The Beloved Woman was tall, muscular and fair-featured.  As they stood beside the Most Sacred Fire, she spoke to my grandfather and questioned his motives for his long journey to the Very Center of the World.

     The Beloved Woman was tattooed with sacred designs from head to foot.  Her face was decorated on both sides with the image of a rattlesnake, the rattles at her temples, and the bodies curved around her cheeks.  The mouths of the rattlesnakes were tattooed over the corners of her mouth, so that when she spoke, they spoke. Naked, except for jewelry of fresh water pearls, a swan feather cape, and a crown of green parrot and redbird feathers.  She smelled of fragrant oils and her breath was sweet.  As she spoke to Priber, she discerned that this stranger’s fate was inextricably linked to hers, and that of all the Cherokees.  And even before they had learned the words to speak properly, each knew each the other’s heart.

      By the Beloved Woman’s wish, Priber was sent off to the Deer Clan women’s lodge, and there he dwelled whilst the women transformed him and taught him their manners, their ways of dress, and their language. When he left their lodge he was considered a Deer Clan Cherokee warrior.  He learned the subtleties of the language and created a Cherokee dictionary that I still possess along with much of his writing. He befriended one of the most powerful of the warriors, Moytoy, a consort of the Beloved Woman. They hunted, traveled and warred together, and as Priber became confident of Moytoy’s political skills, he set an unconventional plan into action.

     Priber convinced the council of women that if the Cherokees had a single person acting as leader, a man, the Europeans would treat them with much more respect. The women agreed to try this non-traditional tactic. Moytoy became Emperor Moytoy, and Priber acted as his prime minister, but the women’s council, as always, made all the decisions and the Europeans were none the wiser.

     The plan succeeded. The Cherokees prospered. The French, English and Spanish backed away from the growing Cherokee unity and might. Moytoy renamed Tellico Paradise and the Cherokee’s surrounding lands were renamed the Kingdom of Paradise.

      The rule of law established in the Kingdom was considered outrageous by the European colonial leaders.  It was based on the ancient Cherokee Law, a complicated series of verbal edicts the Europeans neither knew nor understood.  Men and women were considered equals under those laws.   Slaves and servants who had run away from the Europeans were welcomed into the tribe and given towns where they could live. Children were raised communally under the old clan laws. Women owned their property and could divorce with ease. Traders coming to the Cherokee lands were scrutinized, and their measuring scales tested for accuracy by the Cherokees themselves.  Advantages such as these made running off to join the Cherokees a very attractive proposal, and the villages of runaways became die-hard Cherokee allies. The British colonial authorities became furious at such treachery, blaming the situation on Christian Priber, and a price was placed on his head.

     After Priber had spent ten years in the Kingdom of Paradise, a catastrophe befell the people of the Little Tennessee villages. Smallpox, the scourge of new white inhabitants, found its way to the Center of the World. No one was sure how the epidemic started.  Some said it had spread from an English ship with a slave cargo on a nearby river. Others swore that English traders had intentionally introduced smallpox by trading contaminated blankets with the Cherokees.  However this holocaust began, by the time the pox had finally subsided, over half the Cherokees were dead and our possessions, cabins and clothing had to be destroyed, cleansed by fire.

      Soon enemies moved in on the Cherokee lands.  Our greatly diminished numbers made keeping these enemies at bay a taxing job. White ruffians and criminals from the coastal penal colonies moved upland and established themselves in villages across the river, using African slaves to grow herds and crops. Calling themselves “Tennesseans,” they introduced new diseases and weakened the Cherokees further by hunting out the wild game and introducing the “deer hide” economy.

     The Wolf Clan’s job of protecting the passes became an endless, almost impossible task. Yet beset as they were, still the Cherokees flourished.  Although Priber was captured and died a prisoner, the seeds of unity and resistance he planted had already taken hold. The buffalo were nearly gone and tame cows were being bred. Could these strange spotted docile beasts replace the great ya-na-see, the bison?

     Talks began among the Real People, the Cherokees, about moving west to the French and Spanish lands, where white men were few and giant herds of bison, elk, and deer flourished.  The Americans coveted our ancestral home, and theirs was a force to be reckoned with. The Center of the World was shifting to the west.






8 Responses to “INTRODUCTION – Secret History of the Cherokees”

  1. RACES IN TAHLEQUAH—First Murv’s World blog March 25, 2010 « Murvsworld's Blog Says:

    […] Blog Just another weblog « Hello world! INTRODUCTION – Secret History of the Cherokees […]

  2. brett stokes Says:

    cool. waddo

  3. danny maxwell Says:

    What I have read so far is captivating. The historical language in the first chapter is a hoot, reminds me of Mark Twain.

  4. bob Says:

    no questions, no remarks,
    keep ’em coming.

  5. carol long Says:

    Keep them coming………Great

  6. Marie Leaf Says:

    This storyline goes along with what I have been told about the Real People coming west before the Trail of Tears on their own. Fascinating images come to mind from your writing. Cannot wait to read more.

  7. Idiot Window Says:

    Okay, so you got me with the first paragraph.
    Now, whether to keep reading or go to the first chapter and hail a waiter to set me at the dinner table near the stage, and prepare myself for a wonderful meal with vino for the punch!
    Let me just first whet my appatite with music, as you bow to take my order, and I settle in for a feast of a work.
    Close curtain.

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