Friday, April 9, 2010

Why You Can't Find "Wendeyaho" in a Cherokee Dictionary

Q: I hear people singing something they call the "Cherokee Morning Song," but none of the words appear in my Cherokee dictionary.

A: The song, popularized by Walela, is legitimate. It was sung by women only as part of the morning prayers, facing the rising sun, welcoming the new day. The men sang a different song that could be blended or even done as a "round" with the women's song; I've heard it exactly once.

I've spoken to Elders who actually remember hearing it sung in the mornings. However, the words are NOT Cherokee. Opinion differs on whether the words are:

[1] Saponi, a Siouan language of the Virginia-Carolina panhandle,

[2] one of the Algonquin languages of the Virginia/Ohio Valley, such as Delaware, Shawnee or Mattaponi, or

[3] Tihanama, a linguistic isolate spoken by a nomadic trading group that migrated annually from lower Michigan to the Florida Panhandle.

[4] Yet another highly dubious source calls it "ancient Cherokee," which is doubtful. The same source claims that there were actually over 30 Cherokee clans.

The only research on it by recognized academics points to Tihanama. According to one of the remaining fluent speakers, the phrase means “Our hearts (spirits) are strong.” There is no evidence for the claim often repeated on the Internet that it means “I am of the Great Spirit, aho.”

One Elder told us the song was actually brought by "the help," those who tended fields for the Cherokee landowners. These could have been refugees from any of the groups mentioned, who sought refuge in the Cherokee highlands after the destruction of the coastal and lowland nations. It could also refer to the Tihanama, who often hired out as seasonal farm labor. That would also explain why the Coolidge sisters and my own sources remember hearing it in the mountain communities of eastern Tennessee and Kentucky, in areas along the migratory route of the Tihanama.

Over the years, it has been adopted by many Cherokees, especially in the eastern portions of Tennessee and Kentucky. So despite its pedigree and linguistics, it has become a Cherokee song. Because of the song's popularity, the phrase may survive the impending demise of the Tihanama language.

Q: But I've been to presentations where Native elders have sung and even taught the song. Why would they do that?

A: Because [1] it's a pretty song, [2] thanks to the recordings, people may already be familiar with it, [3] it's simple enough for beginners to learn, and [4] the presenter doesn't speak Cherokee or know any real Cherokee prayer songs.


Terry said...

Osiyo -
I would like to know the man's song to learn.
Wado -

TGC said...

I heard it once, about 1995. It's a seven-syllable phrase starting with a "g" sound. I don't know how many of that nation still sing or even know the man's version, but I'll see what I can learn.

utlayolisdi said...

The elder Walker Calhoon has recorded some of the oldest stomp songs and the man's version of the morning song may be among those tracks.

Anonymous said...

Wado! I have always wondered about this song and why Cherokee classes at my local library ended with this song. Like What?! It didn't sound like all the words I'd just learned, but I felt it similar to "dohiya" and wondered if it was related to that word. I didnt want to offend anyone so I didn't bother asking that time. Many people forget that Siouxan-language speaking peoples inhabited the same area as the Cherokee, and I'm sure its creeped in that way, as you said, the Saponi for example. You've inspired me to do more research about it.

Anonymous said...

You may want to check the Seneca nations... and all the tribes have songs, they always will. The Pow Wow trail lives and will live forever! I was raised on it and learned more in those 2-4days a wk than most of the REZ dogs will ever know about their culture! Its sad really... I happen to live on the Salamanca REZ and I'm light skinned... also I'm Cherokee and Shawnee so the Iroquois have little respect for me and my family... they have such an amazing culture I just cannot help but be so upset when the younger members of the tribe can't even speak their native language WHEN THEY TAKE A MANDATORY CLASS ON IT ALL THROUGHOUT HIGH SCHOOL! I know members who couldn't even tell u what clan they were if u gave them a wk to ask their elders!
Sorry I got a little off subject and had myself quite the rant there didn't I!?
Often the northern tribes mix customs w southern tribes due to the Pow Wows... the best way to identify this song is to figure out what kind of drum it came from... is it sung w a high pitch and a fast shallow sounding drum or a little lower pitch and a deeper drum?
It is very likely the song is from a northern tribe such as the Iroquois or Onondaga... I would suggest looking up different drum groups...
If u need any help finding drums feel free to email me at

Always looking out,