Cherokee structures of religious belief essay

Dieri, Bevenda, Cherokee structures of religious belief and touch upon tribal beliefs about god and gods, key myths and rituals

The Dieri, an aboriginal tribe of Australia, the Oklahoma tribe of the Cherokee, and the Bevenda may all be subsumed under the common category of ‘native people,’ when comparing such indigenous faiths with the common faith of those who colonized these individuals, namely white Christians. However, upon closer examination of the religions practices of these groups, there emerge equally striking differences between one another that belay such easy elision under the term ‘native.’

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The Cherokee, first and foremost, were shamanistic in their ways of religious belief and practice. Although, to some outside observers, the Cherokee religion and medicine seemed primarily reliant upon herbs for medicinal treatment and as an efficacious way of accessing the spiritual realm, in fact these herbs were not viewed as inherently sacred in and of themselves. They were seen as aids that, through the expertise of a shaman, could help the gifted shaman create a bond or a link with the spiritual world. The shaman’s expertise was what made the ritual, his prayers, and the herbs both useful and sacred.

The emphasis on shamanistic healing highlights how, for the Cherokees, concrete issues such as physical and mental healing, and functioning effectively in the specifics of a harsh environment formed the focus of Cherokee ritual. Practice thus was more important either than endowing physical objects with permanent magical powers Cherokees, or embarking upon elaborate philosophical exposition. The physical was less sacred than moments of time created by the shamans.

John Mooney, an early observer of the Cherokee noted that the ceremony and verbal chanting was seen as merely aiding the shaman’s unique ability to heal and to bridge the gap between the present world of humans and the world of the ancestors he was attempted to access. Even Cherokee rituals of fun, such as the ‘ball game’ that provides the skeleton for the modern game of lacrosse, had a strong spiritual component to their rules, and quite often players would appeal with prayers or to shaman for aid in their games. Thus the barrier between the secular and the sacred, so important to modern Christianity, was of far less importance to the Cherokee — in fact it was virtually nonexistent.

Cherokee creation myths speak of the Earth as a great island floating in the sea, held in place by four cords placed at the four directions and attached to the sky vault, The earth is also spoken of as being formed from a water beetle’s movement.

In other Cherokee creation myths animals, plants, and other natural phenomena, have prominent places. There is no reference to a Creator as a singular force or entity, and in fact there is no beginning point in time, rather the earth comes into being in a kind of ‘between time.” “In the aforementioned myth recorded by Mooney, it is stated that the maker of the plants and animals is unknown,” although contemporary Cherokee certainly do speak of a Creator — however if this reference is due to Christian influence upon the Cherokee cosmology, it cannot be determined at this date.

The difficulty of translation is always a crucial factor to keep in mind when evaluating accounts about native tribal views. One of the most vexing problems arises in regards to the Dieri, whom are noted for, during times of drought, much like the South American Aztecs, for practicing a form of ritual human sacrifice. This use of human sacrifice would suggests a more concrete belief in the need for ritual, physical practices than the Cherokee and an investiture in the elements of the ritual, as opposed to the space and time of the ritual’s practice, and the power of the practitioner’s gifts and words, as was common to Cherokee invocations.

However, one must remain skeptical of these assessments, given the frequent biases of accounts of aboriginal life. What is clear is that the Australian Aborigines, one of the oldest recorded civilizations, do differ in their cosmological understanding of the world in relation to the Cherokee in that they posit a creator did give birth to the land. “Most Aboriginal people believe that all life as we know it today (human, animal, or plant) is part of a vast and complex single network of relationships which can be traced directly back to the great spirit ancestors of the Dreamtime.” This is characteristic of the worldviews of both the Dieri and the Bevenda

Thus, in the Aboriginal worldview, although there is no singular creator as such, clearly there are creating forces with separate existences to either humans or animals. Animals do not function prominently in the aboriginal mythological structure as in the Cherokee. Rather, the natural world is a result of the actions of the metaphysical beings whose actions created the world. But these beings are not accessed through the powers of specific, shamanistic individuals. Rather than endowing certain individuals with an ability to access the dreamtime, certain places are conferred with a particular potency. Through sacred space, rather than sacred rituals, “in this dreaming lies the sacredness of the earth.”

The Cherokee’s transitory way of sustaining themselves in the plains provide an ideal support of shamanistic theological structures, while the aboriginals less transitory way of life thus sustains a worldview that allows them to live in particular sacred places. The ritual objects for the Cherokee are less important than the rituals themselves, and the individuals who make use of these rituals. Although like the aboriginal tribes, the Cherokees do not create a strong rift between sacred and profane life, the aborigines were far more likely to imbue humans rather than animals with cosmological significance in the form of their ancestors, and to give real ‘power’ in their theological understanding to objects, rather than merely to objects in the context of rituals. This may be due to their more territorially bound way of life, and the fact that they were not dependant upon such a narrow range of animals for sustenance as the Cherokee. However, beyond such speculation about these distinctions it is more important to remember the existence of these distinctions, and the unique differences territory and history create in the lives of diverse native peoples.

Works Cited

Cherokee Religion.” Citied Mooney, 1995, pp.239-240. Accessed on January 14, 2003 at

Dreamtime.’ Accessed on January 14, 2003 at

Noss, David S. A History Of World’s Religions. 10th Edition. New York: McGraw Hill, 1999

Cherokee Religion,” citing Mooney: 1995 p.420,

Cherokee Religion,” citing Mooney: 1995 pp.239-240,


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