Student Story: The Cherokee Nation

This article was written by Cianna Johnson, a student at the Rasmussen College Brooklyn Park, MN college campus. The article was originally written for a Humanities course.

My ethnic and cultural background is quite a jumble; I am Norwegian, Polish, Dutch, German, and two different types of Native American.  From my mother’s side, I am Cherokee.  As I was growing up, my mother told me of our tribe’s arts, and the strength, courage, and kindness they represented.  Through my mother and my studies, I have learned how the Cherokee have made an original art out of life, through practices like hunting and gathering, entertainment, healing, and even religion. The Cherokee have perfected these arts for pleasure and for survival.

The Cherokee tribe is native to what is now the Southeastern United States.  Before Europeans took and colonized their land, the Cherokee lived in what is now Georgia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, and some parts of Alabama. However, by the early nineteenth century, with the approval and urging of President Andrew Jackson, signer of the Indian Removal Act, Anglo-Americans started removing the Cherokee from their land.  The U.S. government and white settlers forced the Cherokee west, on the path that is now known as “The Trail of Tears.” Thousands died along the way from poor conditions like shortage of food, tumultuous weather conditions, and the spread of disease.

The Seven Cherokee Clans

The name “Cherokee” means “people of the fire” in the Cherokee language. They also call themselves “Aniyvwiya” which means “real people,” though most members prefer “Tsalagi.” The Cherokee nation is made up of seven known clans.  When marriages occur, it is forbidden to marry someone in the same clan. Each clan contributes to the beliefs of the Cherokee people. 

1. A ni gi lo hi (Long Hair) - known as the peaceful clan

2.  A ni sa ho ni (Blue )- the oldest clan; contains  a few medicine men and women 

3.    A ni way a (Wolf) - the largest clan; looked to as protectors

4.   A ni go te ge wi (Wild potato) - gatherers and caretakers; keepers of the land

5. A ni a wi (Deer) - known as fast runners, good hunters, and messengers

6. A ni tsi squa (Bird) – messengers, but between heaven and earth; the keepers of the birds

7.  A ni wo di (Paint) - the clan with most of the medicine people.

The names and descriptions demonstrate the Cherokee’s system for protecting nature and one another.

Living Spaces

Unlike other American Indian nomadic tribes, the Cherokee people did not live in teepees.  Instead, they resided in homes of mud and clay, and used branches, brush, and river cane to compose their roofs. By the 1700’s many lived in log cabin-type structures, which were stronger and protected better from the elements.


Under traditional law, Cherokee tales could only be told to other Cherokee or native peoples, and listeners would need to be invited, usually by the tribe mythkeeper.  There are two main groups of tales told by the Cherokee people. First, there are sacred stories, which explain how the Cherokee people discovered certain songs and healing ways. Then, there are smaller stories focusing on animals, which tell the tribe how and why animals look and act the way they do.


In traditional Cherokee music, only a few instruments are typically used. One main piece is the water drum: a clay pot, kettle, or gourd with about an inch of water in the bottom and a skin stretched over the open top, which a player raps with a stick  Another is the flute, made from river cane and was about 12” long.  For rituals, the Cherokee also make rattles, a form of maracas, made out of turtle shells or gourds.  Typically the flutes carry the melody and the drums and rattles provide the beat for songs.


The Cherokee people were also experts in basketweaving. The baskets were used for storage of food, clothing, and tools.  To make the baskets in distinctive colors, the Cherokee used dyes from roots and berries.  Here is an example of some of the baskets Cherokee peoples still weave, demonstrating contrasting colors and patterns. 

The Cherokee people were creative in much of what they did, and because of situation, that creativity was often focused on survival.  They used nature to make art; the Cherokee people hunted from nature, gathered from nature, and gave back to nature which in turn provided them with life.


Cherokee morning song-native american [video]. (n.d.). Retrieved August, 2011, from‌watch?v=IVqoxOcEqpk

Cherokee nation official website. (2011). Retrieved August, 2011, from Cherokee Nation website:‌AboutTheNation/‌Default.aspx

Cherokee summer house [Photo ]. (2008). Retrieved from‌cherokee/‌cherokee-houses.htm

Cherokee winter homes [Photo image]. (2008). Retrieved from‌cherokee/‌cherokee-houses.htm

Janaro, R. P., & Altshuler, T. C. (2009). The art of being human (9th ed.). New York: Pearson.

Vann, D. (2003). Cherokee society. Retrieved August, 2011, from

Welch, C. (n.d.). Fine art split basket [Photo image]. Retrieved from‌welchcarol.html

Welch, C. (2009). Fine art covered basket [Photo image]. Retrieved from‌welchcarol.html

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