The Cherokee Indians, descendants of the Iroquois, lived in the southeastern United States until the mid-1800s when white settlers forced them off their land and onto reservations. They were also forced to sacrifice many of their customs and rites, but literature, archaeology and the oral tradition preserved the knowledge of those cultural traditions, which were characterized by spirituality, respect for elders, love of nature and the bond of family.
Death and Grief
Family members and the community's religious leader gathered around when death was imminent for a member of the tribe. After the person took his last breath, the women sang a lament, repeating the person's name over and over, and the men covered their heads with ashes. Formal mourning lasted seven days. On the mornings of the sixth and seventh days, the family went to the grave site where the women wailed. On the seventh day, the family joined the community at the town council house for a meal. The other community members offered their condolences to the family and engaged in a ceremonial dance.
After the person died, a family member washed the body, using water, lavender or boiled willow root. The body was then anointed with lavender oil, as lavender was believed to cleanse the body of impurities. Not only the body of the deceased, but the house in which he died and his family were viewed as unclean. "The personal belongings of the deceased were either buried with him or burned at the grave site," according to the Cherokee By Blood website. The priest performed purification rituals for the home and family.
Cherokee tradition mandated a person was to be buried on the day he died or the next day. It was the priest's job to bury the body, "either in the floor directly under the place where the person had died, under the hearth, outside near the house, or in the case of a distinguished chief, under the seat he had occupied in the town council house," according to Cherokee By Blood.
If the person was buried outside, the priest and a relative performed the burial. Sometimes they dug a grave, buried the body and laid stones upon the grave to keep animals away. Or they built a tomb using wood and stones. During the Pisgah phase, from about A.D. 1000 to 1500, bodies were buried in pits with the head facing west. For adults, the skulls were flattened at the forehead and the back of the head before burial. People were buried with shells, shell bowls, turtle-shell rattles and perforated animal bones. In 2011, the Department of the Interior reported that the University of Colorado Museum had in its possession human remains and funerary objects believed to be from the Cherokee. Objects included bears' teeth and sharpened animal ribs. The museum was making an effort to return the remains and funerary objects to the Cherokee people.
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