As Jews mark Yom Kippur beginning at sunset yesterday, Cherokees worldwide are gearing up to celebrate their own cycle of fall festivals, including a New Year or Great Moon Gathering, which, like the Jewish High Holy Days, appears to begin earlier this year than in the past. The Alabama Echota Cherokees, for instance, are holding their 16th Annual Festival on Saturday and Sunday, September 28-29. It will take place at the Oakville Indian Mounds & Park, 1219 County Rd. 187 in Danville, Ala.
Although few people know it, Cherokee traditions in this country are responsible for deeply ingrained American customs, like saying “unh-hunh” for yes (the Cherokee word) and numerous elements of Southern cooking, such as cornbread.
According to experts (Ellen Koskoff, Music Culture in the United States, 2005; Charlotte Heth, Stomp Dance Music of the Oklahoma Cherokee, 1975), the Cherokee greatly favor “anhemitonic scales.” One of these five or six note scales is built into every Southeastern Indian flute made today. It can be simulated by playing all the black notes on a piano keyboard, and it is deeply embedded in the harmonies of country music songs, an industry that originated in the Cherokee’s former homeland of Tennessee.
The harsh but harmonic Dorian mode of Nashville underlies much of American Indian music. To get an idea how it sounds, think of the song “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor,” the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” or the Doors’ “Light My Fire.” (Most of the Doors’ songs, in fact, are in the Dorian mode.) Derivation of Native American monophonic musical forms from Siberia and Mongolia simply does not wash— except in one case. The rawhide drum featured in modern-day powwows and associated with Asiatic Plains Indian tribes, the “heartbeat drum,” is the exception that proves the rule. This type of drum is absent among the Cherokee, who had only the water drum, another import from the Old World, specifically ancient Libya and Egypt.
The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma got the season off to a gala start with its 61st Annual Cherokee National Holiday on Labor Day weekend. This group of Cherokee descendants traces their roots in Oklahoma back to the days of Indian removal in the 1830s and is recognized by the U.S. Federal Government as a sovereign nation under Indian treaties from the nineteenth century. It boasts 300,000 card-carrying members today and is frequently in the news for rancorous law suits against other Cherokee groups. Their main “rival” is the United Keetoowah Band, also federally recognized and also headquartered in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. A third federally recognized group is the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in Western North Carolina. This Indian nation’s website claims a history of 11,000 years and original territory of 140,000 square miles covering eight present-day southern states, centered on Tennessee, although it has been granted official status only since 1924.
The Echota Cherokee Tribe of Alabama is smaller and quieter than the Big Three. It is one of nine Indian groups or tribes along with Choctaw, Shawnee and two other Cherokee recognized by the Alabama Commission of Indian Affairs. The Echota still live close to the land and maintain tribal property in their communal name to this day, with several thousand families scattered statewide around Falkville, Alabama. When they have a homecoming it is an emotional event.
We are happy to see that the Echota have an active women’s society, and that their current principal chief is female, Charlotte Hallmark. We wish them and their members a joyous New Year. Jews have been celebrating their peoplehood on this date for 5774 years but Cherokees can point to many more thousands of years of existence.
Links for Cherokee Indians
Anomalous Mitochondrial DNA Lineages in the Cherokee (blog post, Oct. 19, 2009)
Cherokee DNA Project (gateway)
Red Man’s Origin (Cherokee migration story)
Red Man’s Origin, narrated by Shandon Loring (audiobook retail sample)
The Bear Went over the Mountain (ebook, with Echota and other Cherokee genealogies)