Cherokee Indians


This is a culture that includes more than 350,000 people. Dating back to the earliest history of the United States, the Cherokee people have been a part of this nation. They are a culture of shared language, clothing, traditions, and beliefs. While the Cherokee people living in this country today are very different from those living hundreds of years ago, they still work to preserve the elements of their culture so that their children can know where they come from. There are three federally recognized bands of Cherokee Indians in the United States. These include the Cherokee Nation, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.


The Cherokee Nation, headquartered in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, is the second largest American Indian tribe, with >225,000 citizens. Under a self-governance agreement with the U.S. Congress, it receives direct funding to deliver healthcare services to enrolled tribal members. Services are provided through the Cherokee Rural Health Network, comprising two hospitals and six tribally managed outpatient clinics that provide healthcare without charge.


Cherokee Indians value their family, however different from most situations, the women is under absolute control of everything. She holds her clans name, all the children belong to her, and the man must settle in her village after the marriage ceremony. The man is there to make children and provide meat for the family. As the husband’s ability to hunt exceeded the needs of his family, it is common that he is then allowed to have more than 1 wife. The other wife (or wives) was usually chosen by the first wife, and often she (they) were widowed sisters or other members of her clan.


Cherokee people did not eat opossums because they were scavenger animals and their meat was considered unclean. Concerning marriage the Cherokee were not allowed to marry within their mother or their father’s clan. It is common for Cherokee today to have a Cherokee wedding as well as a civil ceremony. Cherokee Indians seem to be known for their attitudes towards white people, as they have always been very willing to accept outsiders in to their ranks. Today there are many “mixed blood” families. The term mixed blood refers to a family with at least 1 Cherokee Indian original tribe member. Their significant other may be white, Hispanic, African American, or any other race.

Forbidden Ways

There are several practices that the Cherokee have considered forbidden both for their health and their religious beliefs. Some of these forbidden practices included the following:

  • After killing a deer the hunter should cut out the hamstrings and leave them behind. He should not leave them in the meat. He should also not leave without offering a prayer for pardon to the deer. He should use the tip of the deer's tongue as an offering of thanks by putting it in the fire. It is also common for people to throw some of the meat from every meal to the fire as an offering of thanks.
  • Women who are pregnant should avoid eating squirrel, speckled trout, rabbit, and they should be sparing with salt. They should not loiter in doorways or wear anything tied around their neck such as a neckerchief. For three months after birth the mother should not prepare meals for her husband and should avoid sexual intercourse with him, she should also avoid touching him in general.
  • Foods from the opposing realms of this world should not be mixed. For example foods from the upper world of sky such as birds should not be mixed with foods from the lower world of water and underground such as fish.
  • Members of the same clan may not have sexual relationships with each other.
  • The mourning period lasts for one year during which the name of the deceased should not be spoken.


Concerning religious traditions there is a specific dance that the Cherokee practice known as the “Stomp dance”. There are a series of dances preformed around a sacred fire in a counter-clockwise direction throughout the night. On September 6th, the anniversary of the adoption of the new constitution following the trail of tears is celebrated. They celebrate with parades, traditional arts and crafts, and concerts. Other than that it is said that Cherokee Indians today celebrate most, if not all, of the traditions that we do.

Communication Style/Language

Today, the majority of Cherokee people living in the United States speak English . There is, however, a Cherokee language that is described as one that is complex with soft sounds.  A little over 20,000 people in the United States speak the Cherokee language known as Tsalagi. As the Cherokee people were struggling to adapt to the larger white culture in the nineteenth century, a chief and scholar named Sequoyah created a written Cherokee language. Similar to that of the Japanese style, the Cherokee writing system is a syllabry. Syllabry means that a character represents each syllable. The Cherokee people valued education, and at one time in the early 1900s, their schools in Oklahoma were superior to those found in the neighboring states of Texas and Missouri. That changed when the Bureau of Indian Affairs took over. As Cherokee children were enrolled in schools, it became the practice in Oklahoma to automatically assign them to classes for slower learners. The Cherokee nation adopted many aspects of the white culture: the dress, the language, the housing, and even the religion. In fact, one of the biggest religions in the Cherokee nation is the Baptist religion.

  • Since the 1970s, there has been a traditionalist awakening among the Cherokee, with many members returning to their ancient beliefs. Traditional doctors made use of many medicinal plants as well as ritualistic words and actions. The Cherokee view the world as two levels—a world above where we live and a world below. The world below is believed to be the opposite of our world—when it is winter here, it is summer there, etc. The Cherokee believe it is vital to maintain balance in all things so as not to upset the equilibrium between the two worlds. Modern Cherokees often hold a mix of both modern and traditional views.


  • Today, most Cherokee people dress in a modern fashion and can be seen wearing jeans or a tee shirt. However, some individuals still wear moccasins or a ribbon shirt. Regarding physical appearance, Cherokees tend to have higher cheekbones, almond shaped eyes, straight hair, darker eyes and hair, and skin tones varying generally from light to dark brown. Of course, just like any other culture this is not true for all Cherokee people, those are just a few prominent traits that have been associated with this culture.Appearance is not the only criteria for membership in the Cherokee tribe. A controversy is being waged now on what constitutes being a member of the tribe. Cherokee ethnicity is complicated by the fact that while still living in the southeast, many Cherokee owned slaves. When they were forced westward into Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears, they took their slaves with them. During the Civil War, the Cherokee aligned with the Confederacy, and after the war they were compelled to free their slaves. These freedmen lived with and intermarried with the Cherokee. In 1906, the Dawes rolls listed all members of the Cherokee tribe. Today, the tribe, in an effort to weed out those who claim falsely to be Cherokee, has established a criterion that one must have an ancestor on the Dawes rolls to be considered Cherokee. This eliminates many Cherokee of African-American descent and several lawsuits have been filed. In addition, some African-Americans who have ancestors on the roll are still being denied tribal benefits.  The battle over who is and who isn’t a member of the Cherokee nation continues to be waged.

Food and Feeding Habits

  • Bean Bread
    •1 cup of cornmeal •½ cup flour •2 tsp baking powder •1 tbsp sugar•2 cups milk •¼ cup melted shortening •1 beaten egg •2 tbsp honey •4 cups drained brown beans
    Mix all of these ingredients, except beans, thoroughly, and then fold in the beans. Pour into greased, heated pan. Bake at 450 until brown (usually 30 minutes or so) According to Aggie Lossiah, this is the old traditional recipe: “Sure, corn meal is the main part of bean bread. Corn meal is the main part pf the food eaten by us Indians. Beans are used too. If you folks will visit with me for a while, I’ll show you how bean bread ought to be made. How my old Cherokee granny made it when we lived in that cave of the Tennessee River, only I have a few pots and pans like my old granny never had. Maybe I’ll give you a a taste of some that I cooked yesterday, if you want it. You passed my corn patch yonder as you came up the mountain. That’s flour corn, the best kind to eat. Right in that patch is where I gathered this corn I’m going to use. I’ll set the beans to cooking here by the fire in the fireplace whilst we go out to the branch to skin the corn. First, pour some water into this iron pot here over the fire. Sift in some good wood ashes. Pour in the shelled corn. Stir once in a while and let cook until the bubbles begin to come up. Take out a grain to test it with the fingers, to see if the skin is ready to slip. That is the way we tell if it has been in the lye water long enough. Wash the corn in a basket seive to get rid of the skins. Put the corn into the wooden beater (Ka No Na ) and beat it with a heavy piece of wood. Yes, use the little end; the big end is to give weight. Feel the meal to see if it is fine enough. The hot beans and their soup are poured into the pan of meal,. No, leave out the salt. Work quickly so the mixture will not get cold. Work the mixture into a ball. Flatten the ball because we are making “broadswords” as my granddaddy called them. Wrap the corn blades around the dumpling. The blades were pulled green and hung up by the little end to dry, then scalded to make limber. Fold the ends under to hold or tie with a strong grass. We’ll cook these in the iron pot out by the branch. The clear water I left out there should be boiling by now.  The bean dumplings will have to boil about an hour.” Do no put any salt in Bean Bread or it will crumble.

    “The traditional Cherokee diet consisted of mostly wild meat, especially wild hogs and white-tailed deer, and corn and bean bread, pumpkins, dried fruit, and nuts, which were usually ground into a flour to be used in other dishes. The principle crops they grew were maise (corn), beans, and squash. They also grew pumpkins, sunflowers, sweet potatoes, peaches and watermelons. Around 1739, Cherokee women began growing cotton and flax, and they became expert spinners and weavers. During the summer months, the Cherokee also harvested large numbers of fish.”

    Time Consciousness

    “In the 1700s, the Cherokee Indians viewed time as unlimited and never had a specific time that a ceremony was suppose to happen. It was more relaxed. As Americans took over Native American lands, Indians were forced into reservations and their children were  forced to go to schools  and follow American laws so they were forced to be more time conscientious.”

Mental Process/Learning

Several education programs and services have been put together to support the learning needs of the Cherokee people. One of these is the Cherokee Nation Education Division, a group whose purpose is to “…develop and support comprehensive social, educational and employment programs for Cherokee People. These programs will provide educational and employment opportunities that prepare tribal members for a full active life as tribal citizens as well as citizens of the United States.”

In 1925, the Cherokee people founded the Sequoyah School, an Indian boarding school that now covers more than 90 acres with a dozen major buildings on a campus five miles southwest of Tahlequah, Oklahoma. In November 1985, the Cherokee Nation took over operation of the Sequoyah School from the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs). It is now operated through a grant and is regionally and state accredited for grades 9-12. The Cherokee nation also offers many scholarships for higher education students of a Cherokee background.

The major language of the Cherokee is the Iroquoian language invented by the Sequoyah.

Examples include ditiyohihi (Cherokee: ᏗᏘᏲᎯᎯ), which means “he argues repeatedly and on purpose with a purpose,” meaning “attorney.” Another example is didaniyisgi (Cherokee: ᏗᏓᏂᏱᏍᎩ) which means “the final catcher” or “he catches them finally and conclusively,” meaning “policeman.”

Many words, however, have been borrowed from the English Language, such as gasoline, which in Cherokee is ga-so-li-ne (Cherokee: ᎦᏐᎵᏁ). Many other words were borrowed from the languages of tribes who settled in Oklahoma in the early twentieth century. Other examples of borrowed words are kawi (Cherokee: ᎧᏫ) for coffee and watsi (Cherokee: ᏩᏥ) for watch (which led to utana watsi or “big watch” for clock).

Work Habits/Practices

The Cherokee people were hunters, gatherers, and farmers. In earlier times women were responsible for most of the farming, and were given ownership of the farms, homes and most posessions, except hunting weapons. The men did the hunting, fishing, and cleared fields for planting.

Historical Health Practices

Practices of the Cherokee people include herb treatments, sweat baths, bleeding, rubbing, and cold baths, which were usually done in nearby running streams.

Sweat Baths

  • A tribe member would enter a small earth-covered log house, disrobe and immediately sit down next to the boulders which had been heated by a great fire. A concoction of beaten roots of wild parsnip was poured over the boulders. The door to the log house would be closed, allowing the patient to sit in the room with sizzling steam. This sweat bath was regarded as a great cure-all for health problems. The practice was resorted to by the Indian tribes in all parts of the country during times of contact with smallpox. The treatment was not effective however, and many died. “One old Indian writer wrote that they died “like rotten sheep” and at times whole tribes were swept away. One of the customs to ward of the miserable disease was to eat the flesh of the buzzard, which was believed to have complete resistance from sickness, due to its polluted smell, which was believed to have kept the disease spirits at a distance.”


  • “The Cherokee’s art of bleeding was resorted to in a number of cases, in particular rheumatism and in organizing the ball game. The two methods used in executing the operation were bleeding and scratching, the latter resulting in the preliminary rubbing on the medicine. This procedure consequently brought a direct contact with the blood. The bleeding was performed with a small cupping horn; thus the suction was applied in the ordinary manner, after scarification with a piece of flint or piece of broken glass. Within the drawn blood the shaman declares that he has found a minute pebble, a sharpened stick or other rarities. He repeatedly pretends to suck out such an object that he has asserted has caused the evil within the patient.”


  • “Scratching is a painful procedure that is performed with a brier, a flint arrowhead, a rattlesnake’s tooth, or even a piece of glass, according to the nature of the ailment. This practice is performed on the young men for the ball game. The shaman thus uses an implement resembling a comb, having seven teeth made from the sharpened splinters of the leg bone of a turkey. A pattern is utilized in which the scratcher is drawn four times down the upper part of each arm, thus making 28 scratches each about 6 inches in length. This operation is repeated on each arm below the elbow and on each leg above and below the knee. Finally, the implement is drawn across the breast from the two shoulders so as to form a cross; the same pattern is repeated on the back in which the body is thus gashed in nearly 300 places. These scratches did not penetrate deep enough to result in a serious outcome. The blood is allowed to flow freely. The medicine applied appropriately in the wounds is intended to toughen the muscles of the player. The patient then plunges into the stream and washes off the blood. In rheumatism and other local diseases the scratching is restricted to the part infected. “


  • “Rubbing was used generally for pains and swellings of the abdomen. This method was employed with the tip of the finger or the palm of the hand. In one of the formulas for treating snake bites the manipulator is told to rub in a direction contrary to that in which the snake coils itself, the tradition being that this is just the same as uncoiling it. Blowing upon the part infected, as well as upon the head, hands and other parts of the body, is an important characteristic of the ceremonial performance. In one of the formulas it is specified that the doctor must blow first upon the right hand of the patient, then upon the left foot, then upon the left hand, and finally upon the right foot, thus making an imaginary cross.”

    Present demographics and significant statistics

    • According to the 1990 US Census, there were 369,035 Cherokee Indians in the US, 19% of all of the American Indians in the nation.
    • ·         Cherokees, compared to non-Native Americans living in Oklahoma, report significant lower income levels which has been determined to contribute to significant higher disease rates such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and substance abuse.
    • AIDS among Native Americans is higher than that for White dominant culture(Lowe, 2008).
    • Native Americans are disadvantaged socioeconomically, with 31.6% living below poverty level, compared with 13.1% for all races in the United States.
    • Unemployment for Native American men is 16.2% and 13.4% for Native American women, compared to 6.4% for men and 6.2% for women in the total U.S. population.
    • Native Americans are:

    – 770% more likely to die from alcoholism-  650% more likely to die from tuberculosis

    –   420% more likely to die from diabetes

    –   280% more likely to die from accidents
    –  52% more likely to die from pneumonia or influenza  (As compared to the statistics of the U.S. general population)

–  The life span of Native Americans is approximately 10 years shorter

Implications for Cherokee Health Care Today

  • Answers to the following questions were gathered from these research articles regarding Cherokee Indians and other American Indians·         Perceptions of medical interactions between healthcare providers and American Indian older adults·         Cherokee self-reliance and word-use in stories of stress·         A cultural approach to conducting HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C virus education among Native American adolescents

    Is there a perceived discrimination problem?

    According to one article, there was not a significant sense of discrimination between health care providers and their American Indian patients. The majority of patients rated their health care providers as being understandable, encouraging, friendly, and also that they often asked for clarification. The biggest issue in this sense was simply that the health care providers tended to rate themselves as not providing as effective interactions as the American Indians thought, which could be evidence of fear of perceived discrimination on behalf of the health care workers (Garroutte, Sarkisian, Goldberg, Buchwald, & Beals, 2008).

    In another article, there is a perceived discrimination problem, Cherokee Indians are considered a minority group in the states so they are often looked down upon. They at a disadvantage and more than thirty percent are below the poverty line. “Many of these youth will also experience stress specifically associated with being a member of a minority group in the United States, such as racism, discrimination, trans-generational trauma, and post-colonial oppression (Lowe, Riggs, Henson, Elder, & Liehr, 2009).

    In the article regarding HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C, they discuss how not all, but many native American Cherokee Indians view diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C are “white man’s diseases”. Having read this statement and the rest of the article, it becomes evident that the problem of HIV/AIDS and HCV are more or less ignored if possible in this culture. It seems as if their belief that this is a white man’s disease is perceived as a reason to not address this current health issue (Lowe, 2008).

    What are the biggest differences between the culture you are researching and the US culture?

    One of the biggest differences in terms of culture between white Americans and American Indians seems to be simply the concept of cultural identity. American Indians seem to have different levels of cultural connection and identify themselves differently based on their personal level of cultural being. Results of this study differed based on how much cultural identity that patient reported themselves as having. This was mentioned in the article where it was said that, “Patients who rated themselves high on the measure of American Indian cultural identity were especially culturally distinctive from providers, who gave themselves much lower average scores on this index.” This differs from white Americans where there is not necessarily as much of a individualized cultural identity, and any difference in the identity did not have any correlation to differences in the results (Garroutte, Sarkisian, Goldberg, Buchwald, & Beals, 2008).

    Another article highlighted the biggest difference in that Cherokee Indians experience greater amounts of emotional distress compared to their white peers. A lot of this is related to social change and challenging the way of life. Cherokee’s come from very close knit families where everyone works together. Cherokee families are being split apart because the parents have to look for work outside of the home and the children  also have to go outside of the home for school (Lowe, Riggs, Henson, Elder, & Liehr, 2009).

    In reference to the article A Cultural Approach to Conducting HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C Education Among Native American Adolescence it seems as if this particular group of Cherokee Indians is choosing not to recognize and take care of a very harmful disease just because the disease originated from white men. When discussing White Americans, regardless of whom or where the disease came from it is going to be addressed and taken care of in the best way possible. Another difference between the Cherokee Indians and the White Americans that was brought up in this article was the recognizing of a group as compared to the recognizing of an individual. “Cherokee consider the whole greater than the sum of its parts” and white Americans are traditionally more individualistic (Lowe, 2008).

    Identify health risks/high risk behaviors common to this culture.

    Cherokee Indians have higher disease rates as compared to white Americans. They have increased rates in diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, cancer and substance abuse (Lowe, Riggs, Henson, Elder, & Liehr, 2009). There are a number of Native American groups in which there is a much higher than normal incidence of Hepatitis C, nay of which are located in areas where alcoholism and methamphetamine use is high. Meth is cheap and easy to produce and it produces a rapid aphrodisiac effect making very appealing to the Cherokee youth. This point alone immediately puts these adolescence at a much higher risk for Hepatitis C. According to the article, STD’s including gonorrhea, Chlamydia, and primary and secondary syphilis are rated as having the second highest incidence rate in the Native American population as compared to any other racial/ethnic group. Although homosexuality may be seen within some groups, it does not mean that it is embraced as a culturally acceptable practice. Gay Native Americans are often discriminated and taunted in their groups, leading to a lack of understanding as well as the discouragement of seeking out any medical services if needed. This being said, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS and/or Hepatitis C within these groups tends to be higher (Lowe, 2008).

    Any cultural taboos or important things to take note of?

    In previous research involving American Indians, patients repeatedly raise concerns that interviews are rushed and have asked providers for patience. Minority patients have also been shown to give different accounts of topics actually discussed during a clinic visit than the account that there provider gave (Garroutte, Sarkisian, Goldberg, Buchwald, & Beals, 2008). The same article also said that “…humor may be an area in which providers should pay special attention in order to avoid miscommunication with American Indian patients, regardless of their cultural characteristics” (Garroutte, Sarkisian, Goldberg, Buchwald, & Beals, 2008).

    Another cultural taboo was highlighted in one of the articles. The Cherokee Indians use what is called a “Talking Circle” as a place to come together and share stories in a respectful manner. The elders often share their life stories in an attempt to help the younger members of the tribe open oneself up to the energy of the circle of life. “Native Americans have long used the circle to celebrate the sacred interrelationship that is shared with one another and with their world” (Lowe 2008).

    What are the top 5 things a nurse or health care provider would need to know about someone that identifies with this culture?

    1. Results of this study suggested that providers and patients often left the medical encounter with significantly different perceptions of “what happened” during the visit. This discordance was most often a result of the patients’ tendency to evaluate provider behavior more positively than did the providers (Garroutte, Sarkisian, Goldberg, Buchwald, & Beals, 2008).

    2. One article mentioned that providers should pay special attention to interactions involving information exchange with their American Indian patients. This could involve asking these patients for guidance on how to accomplish tasks more smoothly for patients who strongly identify with American Indian culture. The results of the study suggested that patients’ cultural identities are important to medical interaction (Garroutte, Sarkisian, Goldberg, Buchwald, & Beals, 2008).

    3. They need to know that Cherokee are at higher risk for hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. This is very helpful so doctors and nurses know what to assess (Lowe, Riggs, Henson, Elder, & Liehr, 2009).

    4. They also are at a higher risk for substance control so nurses and doctors need to be aware that withdrawal may be an issue (Lowe, Riggs, Henson, Elder, & Liehr, 2009).

    5. Using culturally specific models such as the Cherokee Self Reliance model can be used to in planning and implementing programs for care (Lowe, 2008).


    Cherokee Genealogy. (n.d.). – Native American Topics -Native American Indian Tribes – Over 2,000 articles on native american indians, their culture & traditions.. Retrieved March 28, 2010, from

    Cherokee Language and the Cherokee Indian Tribe (Tsalagi, Tsa-la-gi, Aniyunwiya, Chalaque, Cheroqui). (n.d.). Native American Language Net: Preserving and promoting indigenous American Indian languages. Retrieved March 28, 2010, from

    Cherokee society. (n.d.). Cherokee resources, Cherokee genealogy, Cherokee religion. Retrieved March 28, 2010, from

    Cherokee Taboos  Things Cherokee believed were not to be done. (n.d.). Manataka American Indian Council. Retrieved March 28, 2010, from

    Cherokee – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved March 28, 2010, from

    Dallas. (n.d.). CHEROKEE PRACTICES . TNGenNet, TNGenWeb Project, Inc.Tennessee Genealogy at its best. Home Page.. Retrieved March 28, 2010, from

    Facts for Kids: Cherokee Indians (Cherokees). (n.d.). Orrin’s Website. Retrieved March 28, 2010, from

    Garroutte, E., Sarkisian, N., Goldberg, J., Buchwald, D., & Beals, J. (2008). Perceptions of medical interactions between healthcare providers and American Indian older adults. Social Science & Medicine, 67(4), 546-556. Retrieved from CINAHL with Full Text database.

    Lowe, J. (2008). A cultural approach to conducting HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C virus education among Native American adolescents. Journal of School Nursing (Sage Publications Inc.), 24(4), 229-238. Retrieved from CINAHL with Full Text database.

    Lowe, J., Riggs, C., Henson, J., Elder, T., & Liehr, P. (2009). Cherokee self-reliance and word-use in stories of stress. Journal of Cultural Diversity, 16(1), 5-9. Retrieved from CINAHL with Full Text database.

    Top 25 American Indian Tribes for the United States: 1990 and 1980. (n.d.). Census. Retrieved March 27, 2010, from


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