Native American Legends
A Cherokee Legend
Women in the Cherokee society were equal to men. They could earn
the title of War Women and sit in councils as equals. This privilege
led an Irishman named Adair who traded with the Cherokee from 1736-1743
to accuse the Cherokee of having a "petticoat government".
Clan kinship followed the mother's side of the family. The children
grew up in the mother's house, and it was the duty of an uncle on
the mother's side to teach the boys how to hunt, fish, and perform
certain tribal duties. The women owned the houses and their furnishings.
Marriages were carefully negotiated, but if a woman decided to divorce
her spouse, she simply placed his belongings outside the house.
Cherokee women also worked hard. They cared for the children, cooked,
tended the house, tanned skins, wove baskets, and cultivated the
fields. Men helped with some household chores like sewing, but they
spent most of their time hunting.
Nancy Ward, or Nan'yehi (nan yay hee), is the most famous Cherokee
Beloved Woman. The role of Beloved Woman, Ghigau (Ghee gah oo), was
the highest a Cherokee woman could aspire to. A Ghigau had a voice
and vote in General Council, leadership of the Woman's Council,
the honor of preparing and serving the ceremonial Black Drink, the
duty of ambassador of peace-negotiator, and the right to save the
life of a prisoner already condemned to execution. One such prisoner
was a settler named Mrs. Bean, who was captured in an attack on
illegal white settlements on the Watauga (wah tah oo gah) River.
Mrs. Bean taught Nan'yehi such skills as spinning, weaving, and
the raising of animals, which Nan'yehi in turn taught the rest of
the Cherokee. This provided the Cherokee with some food during the
winter months, but gave them more work.
The title Ghigau also translates to "War Woman," and Nan'yehi
earned the title by taking up her husband's gun when he was slain
in a battle against the Creeks and leading her people to victory.
Another War Woman, Cuhtahlatah, won honor during the American Revolutionary
period by leading Cherokee warriors to victory after her husband
fell. She later joined in a vigorous war dance carrying her tomahawk
It was important to the Cherokee that their losses be compensated
with the same number of prisoners, scalps, or lives. Woman led in
the execution of prisoners. It was their right and responsibility
as mothers. They celebrated the capture of prisoners with song and
dance and joined in torture at the stake. Women had the right to
claim prisoners as slaves, adopt them as kin, or condemn them to
death "with the wave of a swan's wing."
In the Cherokee society your Clan was your family. Children belonged
to the entire Clan, and when orphaned were simply taken into a different
household. Marriage within the clan was strictly forbidden, or pain
of death. Marriages were often short term, and there was no punishment
for divorce or adultery. Cherokee women were free to marry traders,
surveyors, and soldiers, as well as their own tribesmen.
Cherokee girls learned by example how to be warriors and healers.
They learned to weave baskets, tell stories, trade, and dance. They
became mothers and wives, and learned their heritage. The Cherokee
learned to adapt, and the women were the core of the Cherokee.
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