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This volume, Karahkwa covers a range of cultures and themes from North America’s eastern and south-eastern regions.
Many of the stories have been told as part of the Iroquois and Cherokee traditions. The Iroquois are a historically powerful northeast Native American confederacy in North America. They were known during the colonial years to the French as the Iroquois League, and later as the Iroquois Confederacy, and to the English as the Five Nations, comprising the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca. After 1722, they accepted the Tuscarora people from the Southeast into their confederacy and became known as the Six Nations.
The Iroquois have absorbed many other individuals from various peoples into their tribes as a result of warfare, capture, and by sheltering the displaced. Culturally, all are considered members of the clans and tribes into which they are adopted.
The historic St. Lawrence Iroquoians, Wyandot, Erie, and Susquehannock, all independent peoples, also spoke Iroquoian languages, and they are often considered Iroquoian peoples because of this similarity, all being descended from the Proto-Iroquoian peoples. Politically, however, they were traditional enemies of the Iroquois League. In addition, Cherokee is an Iroquoian language. The Cherokee are believed to have migrated south from the Great Lakes in ancient times, settling in the Southeast United States, including what is now Tennessee.
Like many cultures, the Iroquois' spiritual beliefs changed over time and varied across tribes. Generally, the Iroquois believed in numerous deities, including the Great Spirit, the Thunderer, and the Three Sisters, the spirits of beans, maize, and squash. The Great Spirit was thought to have created plants, animals, and humans to control the forces of good in nature, and to guide ordinary people. Orenda was the Iroquoian name for the magical potency found in people and their environment. The Iroquois believed in the spiritual force that flowed through all things, and they believed if people were respectful of nature, then the Orenda would bring about positive results. There were three types of spirits for the Iroquois: 1) Those living on the earth, 2) Those living above the earth and, 3) the highest-level spirits controlling the universe with the most high being known variously as the Great Spirit, the Great Creator or the Master of Life.
Descriptions of Iroquois spiritual history consistently refer to dark times of terror and misery prior to the Iroquois Confederacy, ended by the arrival of the Great Peacemaker.
Tradition asserts that the Peacemaker demonstrated his authority as the Creator's messenger by climbing a tall tree above a waterfall, having the people cut down the tree, and reappearing the next morning unharmed. The Peacemaker restored mental health to a few of the most violent and dangerous men, Ayonhwatha and Thadodaho, who then helped him bear the message of peace to others.
Cherokee spiritual beliefs are held in common among the Cherokee people - Native American peoples who are indigenous to the south-eastern woodlands, and today live primarily in communities in North Carolina (the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians), and Oklahoma (the Cherokee Nation and United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians). Some of their beliefs, and the stories and songs in which they have been preserved, exist in slightly different forms in the different communities in which they have been preserved. But for the most part, they still form a unified system of theology.
Cherokee Nation makes the following cultural observation; “Cherokee culture encompasses a longstanding tradition of language, spirituality, food, storytelling and art, both practical and beautiful. Cherokee culture is not static or frozen in time. Much of Cherokee culture has been passed through generations of Cherokee families. Beliefs and knowledge of the culture vary from individual to individual, from family to family and from one locality to another. Much of the spiritual and ceremonial aspects of traditional Cherokee life are not shared publicly, out of respect for communities who continue to preserve these very special lifeways. Many Cherokees embrace a mix of both modern and traditional aspects of culture, and people today follow many faiths. There is no universally agreed upon way to express Cherokee culture.”
For my part, the journey through these many and varied stories is a delight and a wonder. I can almost smell the woodsmoke…