Published on September 5, 2013 by Casey
Women in the Cherokee society were equal to men. They could earn the title of War Women and sit in councils as equals. This privilege led an Irishman named Adair who traded with the Cherokee from 1736-1743 to accuse the Cherokee of having a “petticoat government”. Clan kinship followed the mother’s side of the family. The children grew up in the mother’s house, and it was the duty of an uncle on the mother’s side to teach the boys how to hunt, fish, and perform certain tribal duties. The women owned the houses and their furnishings. Marriages were carefully negotiated, but if a women decided to divorce her spouse, she simply placed his belongings outside the house. Cherokee women also worked hard. They cared for the children, cooked, tended the house, tanned skins, wove baskets, and cultivated the fields. Men helped with some household chores like sewing, but they spent most of their time hunting.
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Nancy Ward, or Nan’yehi (nan yay hee), is the most famous Cherokee Beloved Woman. The role of Beloved Woman, Ghigau (Ghee gah oo), was the highest a Cherokee woman could aspire to. A Ghigau had a voice and vote in General Council, leadership of the Women’s Council, the honor of preparing and serving the ceremonial Black Drink, the duty of ambassador of peace-negotiator, and the right to save the life of a prisoner already condemned to execution. One such prisoner was a settler named Mrs. Bean, who was captured in an attack on illegal white settlements on the Watauga (wah tah oo gah) River. Mrs. Bean taught Nan’yehi such skills as spinning, weaving, and the raising of animals, which Nan’yehi in turn taught the rest of the Cherokee. This provided the Cherokee with some food during the winter months, but gave them more work.
The title Ghigau also translates to “War Woman,” and Nan’yehi earned the title by taking up her husband’s gun when he was slain in a battle against the Creeks and leading her people to victory. Another War Woman, Cuhtahlatah, won honor during the American Revolutionary period by leading Cherokee warriors to victory after her husband fell. She later joined in a vigorous was dance carrying her tomahawk and gun.
It was important to the Cherokee that their losses be compensated with the same number of prisoners, or lives. Women led in the execution of prisoners. It was their right and responsibility as mothers. They celebrated the capture of prisoners with song and dance and joined in torture at the stake. Women had the right to claim prisoners as slaves, adopt them as kin, or condemn them to death “with the wave of a swan’s wing.”
In the Cherokee society your Clan was your family. Children belonged to the entire Clan, and when orphaned were simply taken into a different household. Marriage within the clan was strictly forbidden, on pain of death. Marriages were often short term, and there was no punishment for divorce or adultery. Cherokee women were free to marry traders, surveyors, and soldiers, as well as their own tribesmen.
Cherokee girls learned by example how to be warriors and healers. They learned to weave baskets, tell stories, trade, and dance. They became mothers and wives, and learned their heritage. The Cherokee learned to adapt, and the women were the core of the Cherokee.