Snowbird Cherokees, Part 1 - Family Traditions

The Snowbird Cherokee discuss the importance of family and traditions.

Throughout history, native cultures have often been displaced by new emerging forces, removed to remote, out-of-the-way places. In 1830, the U.S. Congress narrowly passed the Indian Removal Act, which made the eviction of Native Americans from their homelands official U.S. policy. During the bitter winter of 1838, 12 thousand Cherokees were forced to march over 800 miles from the Appalachians to Oklahoma territory. When it was over, a quarter of them had perished on what has become known as the Trail of Tears. Several hundred Cherokees managed to flee from their homes before the soldiers arrived and, for months, survived. They could not bear to leave the land of their ancestors. They became the Eastern band of the Cherokees, of Snowbird.

They are somewhat isolated from the reservation and are independent, which has made them a strong community. Cherokee lands and hunting grounds once covered much of what is now the Southeastern United States. Today, the main reservation of the Eastern band Cherokees is the Qualla boundary, in western North Carolina's Swain and Jackson Counties. It centers the town of Cherokee. About 50 miles southwest, near Robbinsville, in Graham County, lies the Snowbird community, where tribal lands are scattered, some belonging to Cherokees and some to non-Indians. About 25 miles southwest of Snowbird is Tomotla, in Cherokee County, where the fewest full-blooded Cherokees live.

The Trail of Tears separated the tribe and isolated the Eastern band from the larger Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, but reconnections have been made over the years. Even though different of Cherokee dialects are spoken, they quickly understand each other. It has become an annual tradition for each band to host an annual Trail of Tears Gospel Sing, through which families travel the long distance to reunite and strengthen the bond between them.

In earlier times,the Cherokees believed in the sacredness of all things. Above all else is the belief that life must be lived in harmony with others and with all things--sun and moon, the seasons, plants and animals, spirits, water, fire, wind and smoke. The earth itself was delicately balanced between the upper world of benevolent, guiding spirits and the underworld of evil. Failure to keep harmony brought disaster in all forms--drought, storms, sickness and death. Evil actions brought evil to others.

Among their family traditions is the custom of having extended family members, often called aunts and uncles, serve in roles within the family, and there are often "multiple mothers" who assume parental roles for each other's children. If a grandmother has sisters, they are all called grandmothers. It is not unusual for childless aunts and uncles to adopt children from large families.

(Produced in 1995 by South Carolina ETV)