The mixed history of Cherokees and Christians

Tobacco was a sacrament in the old Cherokee religion, the smoke a messenger carrying prayers to the spirit world.

Wine is part of a sacrament in the Christian tradition, signifying the blood of Jesus.

Dr. R. Michael Abram sees a rich irony here. Abram and his wife, Susan, are the owners and curators of the Cherokee Heritage Museum and Gallery in Cherokee, N.C. He is a keynote speaker at the Native American Festival at Sycamore Shoals State Park in Elizabethton this weekend.

“Take those two items and put them in each other’s culture with no religious meaning,” he said in a phone interview, “and both get into trouble.”

Millions of American Indians have struggled with alcoholism, and millions of other Americans – descendents of Europeans who brought Christianity – became addicted to tobacco.

That’s not a bad metaphor for the uneasy history between whites and Indians, which has been punctuated by conflict, ignorance and suspicion.

When he teaches about Cherokee heritage, Abram finds that religion is a popular topic.

The Cherokee belief system embraced a complex collection of legends, rituals, symbolic colors and numerology. While scholars can identify several common ideas, such as a reverence for fire and water, other specifics are hard to pin down. Scholars disagree, for example, on Cherokee thinking about a single, ultimate creator.

“It depends what century you’re talking about,” Abram said. “It was always evolving.”

But one constant was how Cherokee beliefs saturated daily life.

“You can’t just tease apart Cherokee culture and the old religion,” he said. “The religion is interwoven with daily life – medicine, government, all aspects of Cherokee life. I like to think of Cherokee life as a basket, with all the strands woven with one another.”

The Cherokee culture, once spread over thousands of miles in the Southeast, started changing dramatically as European settlers pushed westward in the 1700s. Christian missionaries, notably from the Moravian Church, lived and worked among the Cherokee and were strong advocates for their rights. The first conversions to Christianity came before the American Revolution, and by the early 1800s a number of prominent leaders were devout Christians.

But there was a dark side as well: European settlers, often misreading or ignoring the teachings of their Christian faith, systematically and violently drove out the Indians.

To this day, many Cherokee revile President Andrew Jackson because of his removal policies, which Abram compared to the Nazi Holocaust. Even faced with fierce opposition from other white leaders, including Davy Crockett, Jackson rammed through his policies bent on Cherokee removal.

According to Abram, Jackson used the Cherokees’ trust of clergymen against them, appointing the Rev. John F. Schermerhorn as his treaty commissioner to settle the now-infamous 1835 New Echota Treaty, which led to the expulsion of the Cherokee nation from the eastern United States. In 1838, the remaining 17,000 Cherokee people were force-marched over 1,200 miles to what is now Oklahoma. Starvation, sickness and exhaustion on this “Trail of Tears” took between 4,000 and 8,000 lives.

Today, few Cherokee practice the traditional religion. Many are fervent Christians who consider the old ways “pagan.” Others are what Abram calls “mixers,” combining ideas from Cherokee religion with Christian teachings.

Despite obvious differences, the two religions echo each other at certain points. The “going-to-water ceremony,” an important Cherokee initiation rite, is reminiscent of baptism, for instance. Then there’s Stone Coat, a central figure in Cherokee mythology, who sacrificed himself for his people and is “certainly a Christ-like figure,” according to Abram.

Abram, who grew up as a Pentecostal and is still a Christian, has “absolutely no qualms about that mixing.” In fact, he thinks white Christians could learn a few lessons from the Cherokee religion.

“The old religion followed ways of nature and emphasized preservation and balance. It was practiced in every aspect of life all the time,” Abram said. “The idea of establishing balance – that’s what really stands out in the old Cherokee religion.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 6 June 2009. (Parts of this column were first published on 4 June 2005.)