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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Christmas, Firecrackers, Tea Kettles, and Gifts!


As you can see, my big green friend is getting into the holiday spirit!  But what you may not know is that he also sings “I’m a little teapot”, because in Cherokee the same word is used for both a tea kettle and an alligator.  If you ever saw the old hobnail-style cast iron tea kettles that sat in a fire, you can easily see the resemblance to an alligator puffing and snorting, its breath fogging up on a cold morning.  The word written beneath him is “tsulasdi,” the word for both tea kettle and alligator.  (in some areas, tsulasgi is used)

The word above him his “danistayohihv”, which a literally means “they go shooting.” Why would Christmas be celebrated with that phrase?  Because in the old days, the big family Christmas dinner required the man to go hunting on Christmas morning.  Christmas morning was filled with the festive sounds of children shredding and crackling gift wrapping paper, and the sounds of hunters in the woods.  Another sound of the holiday is the sound of firecrackers, especially here in the South.  Imagine long strings of firecrackers and think of the similarity to long strings of flashing Christmas tree lights... which used to crackle and pop when worn out.  See the similarity?  So the expression they go shooting refers to hunters, firecrackers, and Christmas tree lights.


Ulihelisdi Danistayohihv!
Be Happy, They Go Shooting

Still time to save $140 on a full year of Speak Cherokee. At $20 per month, you’d pay $240 for 12 months. Until the end of December, you can have a full 12 months access to the interactive course material for $100!


Still time for Christmas delivery of a Cherokee Calendar Calculation and Analysis (20 – 25 pages). Normally $97, our holiday special is $77. Order by Saturday December 17, and I’ll guarantee digital online delivery in PDF form by Dec 23.

Until next time,
Wishing you all the best,
Brian Wilkes
www.SpeakCherokee.com 

Monday, November 14, 2011

What Does Kemal Ataturk Have To Do With Sequoyah?



I’m sure you recognize the name Sequoyah… he created the writing system that allowed a great body of Cherokee knowledge and history to be committed to paper, and to survive for future generations.

You may not recognize Mustafa Kemal Ataurk, the father of the modern republic of Turkey. Each, in his own way, is responsible for the literacy of his people, but through almost opposite means.

Seeing the advantage that written communication gave the US military during the 1813-14 Creek War, Sequoyah set about creating a writing system for Cherokee. With an exceptionally sharp ear, he identified the separate sounds of the language, and created 144 characters, 85 of which are used today. For those who spoke Cherokee, it was a simple matter of listening to the syllables and memorizing the characters. Osiyo is spelled o-si-yo.

Kemal Ataturk, on the other hand, grew up surrounded by literacy. A career military officer, he came to lead Turkey from empire to republic, and realized that democracy required education and literacy. He decided that Turkey’s future would be better linked to Europe than to Asia, and remade his country accordingly. While Turkish had been written and printed for centuries with the beautiful but complex Arabic script, he required it to be written with a modified Latin alphabet, as used in all the major European powers except Russia. At the same time, he began a campaign of mandatory public education, including girls, and a literacy program.

Both men succeeded in bringing widespread literacy in a short time. Sequoyah’s was to create a distinct and separate written language to accommodate what he foresaw as the separation of the Cherokee people AWAY from American society. Ataturk sought to integrate his people INTO Europe by creating a system that would not only make Turks literate in their own language, but would lower the barriers to Europeans learning Turkish and doing business with the next republic.

In my years of learning and teaching the language, I’ve come to see Sequoyah’s syllabary as a shining example of the unique Cherokee identity. Like Russian or Korean, it’s immediately recognizable to anyone who has seen it. “Don’t know what it says, but I know it’s Cherokee, and it means we're still here!” Unfortunately, for most students, it becomes an obstacle rather than an aid. many are sidetracked into learning the syllabary, only to realize that they still can’t speak very much. The real way we learn languages is by hearing them over and over. Later, after we already speak as much as we speak of a language, learning to write is comparatively easy.

The Speak Cherokee language course is audio and video based for that reason. Spoken words are matched with images. Listen again and again. It is not another wordlist or set of written lessons. On the web pages of Speak Cherokee, you will find very little syllabary. However, It is being made available in PDF form as a back-up for those who want to learn syllabary as well, because different people prefer different learning styles.

Psychologically, there is no longer “foreign” script acting as a deterrent or roadblock.

Time will tell whether this approach is more efficient, but the initial response has been positive.

Donadagohv,
Brian Wilkes

PS: Native American History Month Special - save $140 on a full year of Speak Cherokee!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Deeper Meaning of "OSIYO"

Osiyo!

One of the question I frequently get is "What does Osiyo actually mean?"

The word is an emphatic variant of "Osiquu," the positive response to the question "Ositsu?"
"Is it well?" / "It is well."

The variant was popular in the 19th century as a closing to written letters. It was an equivalent to "We're all doing well." At a time when a letter from afar often brought bad news, such as a death, it gradually shifted to a salutation. "Don't worry, all's well, relax and enjoy the letter."

As time progressed, it became a spoken greeting, replacing the older "He!" and "Ka!" except in old prayers where the Holy Ones are being addressed. The late language instructor Sam Hider used to say that osiyo was the only proper greeting in Cherokee. In recent years, those whose first language is English have sought and created other greetings, such as "Osda sunalei" for good morning. However, that is really a statement of condition, and could equally be translated "The morning is good."

My own pet peeve is the practice of placing an unnecessary apostrophe in the word: O'siyo. An apostrophe indicates a place where letter had been dropped. In can't, the apostrophe shows where the letters n-o in cannot have been dropped. Yet in osiyo, nothing has been dropped. I could understand someone who speak with the Kituwa "sh" sound using os'iyo to replace the missing h.
What I think happened is that when the first widely-distributed book on the language, Holmes & Smith's Beginning Cherokee was published in the early Seventies, the font used the same character for apostrophe and accent, making Ósiyo look identical to O'siyo. I don't recall seeing it before that, and haven't found it in any earlier written resource.

A language is a living thing, so changes occur frequently. Perhaps "Osda sunalei" will gradually gain acceptance, and "O'siyo" will look less annoying.

Thought you'd like to know some of the background of one of the most common expressions!

Donadagohvi,
Brian Wilkes


Looking for a unique holiday gift? " Consider a Cherokee Calendar Calculation and Analysis.
Save $20 off the regular price.

Monday, May 9, 2011

About Greetings, a New Dictionary, and the Mother's Day Special ends tonight.

Osiyo!

Greetings

The late instructor Sam Hider of Oklahoma used to say that there really is only one Cherokee greeting, "Osiyo". Modern adaptations from English, such as "osda sunalei" were actually statements, he said - "the morning is good"- rather than a wish for the listener to experience a good morning.He opined that simply borrowing English phrases and translating them word by word into Cherokee was not the same as learning the language and culture.

Of course, young people were quick to borrow English slang into Cherokee - "What's new?", "What's up?' Doing so was a definite "two-fer"... they could speak in a secret language outsiders understand, AND they could annoy their parents!

"Osiyo" actually derives from the rood word for "good," and Durbin Feeling reminds us that itwas once use as a closing in letters, just before the signature, sort of as "all is well here."  Gradually, it migrated to the top of the page to become the salutation.

Then what was the salutation?  The interjections "Ka!" or "Sgi!", which would translate loosely as "Hey!", a word used to get attention before conversation.

Mother's Day Special ... Just a Few Hours Left

Mother's Day has passed, and the Mother's Day Special will be taken down tonight. Until then, you can still save $20 on a Calendar Birthdate Analysis or save $93 on a full year of Cherokee instruction by following this link:

~ New Cherokee Dictionary - in Searchable PDF format ~

I've been studying the language for about 20 years, and have volumes of note and wordlists. It used to be much harder to get a grasp on the language, and there were few researouces available. Over the years, I've digitalized my lists, and I realized I have about 17,000 listings. Thinking these could help other students, I've been "cleaning up" the variant and "creative" spellings and duplicate listings. The result will have about 15,000 entries spanning about 300 pages.  

So many of you have said you wanted this, that I decided to give you a break. The final version will run about 300 pages, and about 15,000 entries. It will be priced at about $20 for a searchable PDF download.
Several varients will be given for some words. Here's a sample:



So here's the deal: pre-order the Dictionary now, and pay only $9.97. When the dictionary is released, you'll be sent the download link. When the dictionary IS released, this $9.97 offer will be removed.

~ New Cherokee Hymnal ~

On Easter, we released the New Cherokee Hymnal, in large type for people like me. Ten of the most popular songs, and budget-priced at $5. Perfect for your local classes and signing groups! You can learn more here: http://www.SpeakCherokee.com/hymnal

That's enough for now, but there's more to come... including the 10-Day Immersion course coming up in Cherokee, NC.

Until next time, Osiyo!
Brian Wilkes


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

new Cherokee Hymnal Available! And, Answering Your Questions...

Responses to Hymnal:
 
“Thank you!! I just purchased and downloaded the Hymnal. It's great!”
-        BM, Wichita, KS
 


Loretta writes:

I have 3 questions:
1 - You don't indicate what the price is for the Birthday Analysis.  You say it's reduced $20, but you do not give the price.  Even when I clicked on the flowers & the link, you only give the price for the Speak Cherokee Level One
Thank you, I’ve corrected that. The Analysis is reduced to $77.
2 - Also, you say that the page will come down after May 9, or after the first 10 people have subscribed.  So, how will I know at the time of payment if the 10th person has just subscribed immediately before me, and then I can't get my money back from you? 
I’ll take the link down after #10, and you won’t be able to complete such a purchase. Even if somehow you had, I only have to hit two buttons in PayPal to make a refund; that’s one reason I use it. In this case, since we’re have weather-related power outages which could prevent me from taking the links down in time, I will honor any completed purchase.
3 - How are the lessons in Speak Cherokee delivered?  (internet?  email?  regular mail?  DVD?) I have only dial-up access to the internet, so downloading a video, for ex., is extremely slow.  What would I need computer-wise/software-wise to access these lessons in an efficient manner.  Please clarify re the above.  Thank you!
The program is delivered via a password-protected web site. To be honest, dial-up isn’t good for this. If there’s enough interest to justify the expense, I may put the material into a stand-alone program you’d download into your computer. So far, there’s only been one other request for that.
I’ve also considered reformatting some of the Speak Cherokee content for email delivery… would you be interested in something like that?
 
Responses to Speak Cherokee Questions:
 
Kim writes:
I appreciate your addressing my issue (syllabary no displaying in Mac). when will these changes take place so that I can view syllabary? Also, do you know how I record stuff on a Mac? Sorry to trouble; eager to begin but want to get my ducks in a row.
Sgi!
Kim,
Actually, when I’m finished, you won’t see syllabary on the site itself, only on PDFs and videos. Speak first, then read and write. The point of my “rainy day Russian” story was that learning a new writing system for a language you don’t really understand is a sidetrack.
Do you mean record what’s playing on the web, or record yourself?  For the first, Freecorder; for the second, Audacity. Both have Mac versions.
 
Brian
 
Click the flowers for the Mother's Day Special!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Last Chance for the 2011 Cherokee Calendar.


It's April 1, and as promised, the 2011 Cherokee Calendar will be taken off the market at the end of the day. The 2012 Calendar will be available no later than September 1.


It's packed with history, prophecy, cultural information, and content to help you learn the Cherokee language.


Everyone has been exposed to some degree of "2012 Hysteria"... the Calendar and Manual can help you understand what the prophecies really say, and what they might mean. But more importantly, I think the Calendar is a great way to introduce yourself, your children and grandchildren to the traditional stories and lessons of our ancestors.

So remember, this is no Kawoni-Fool's Joke... it's your last day to get this package.
All the best,
Brian

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Mayan Calendar According to Non-Mayans


There's a lot of chatter on the Internet today (03-09-11) about this being the start of the "Ninth Wave" or the period of "Universal Galactic Consciousness." Maybe it will be, but the Mayans said no such thing. These interpretations come from several European and American writers, NOT from fluent Mayan day-keepers, as best I can find. 

All of this is based on one of the Mayan Calendars called the Long Count, which many think ends on or about December 12, 2012.  A minority opinion is that it will end on October 28, 2011. However, some feel the alignment of the Long Count to the modern Gregorian Calendar is dicey at best, and may be off by as much as 52 to 520 years!

All of this is a lead-up to the day when the new cycle begins. All of the "Doomsday" scenarios are based on this inscription:

It says the at the end of the age - at the giant ceremonial New Year's Eve party in the city - "Bolon Yukte Kun," a minor deity, will "descend from heaven." An other interpretation is the BYK will be seen in his full regalia, descending from the heights. The image could have been a re-enactment similar to the annual descent of the Hopi Katsinas from the San Francisco Peaks into the town square. 

If this describes a Mayan religious procession, the person portraying BYK will descend from top of the pyramid ("heaven") to ground level ("earth"), in plain sight of the people. 

BYK is sometimes called "the many taloned claw" or "the many-rooted tree," which puts us in mind of the Tree of Knowledge in heaven replicated by the Tree of Peace (Harmony) here on earth. This can be a poetic way of saying that the ideal harmony of heaven will be re-established here in our world.

Still with me? Here comes Mr. Science. Some fad writers are saying that one of several galactic catastrophe scenarios will play out:  


Just as it might have been a good idea to consult genuine Mayan day-keepers about the significance of the Calendar dates, it would have been a great idea to consult with genuine scientists before speading some of these theories around and blaming them on the Mayans. 

No Planet X, no Niburu. That doesn't mean a disaster won't happen at one of these dates, but if so, it will more coincidence than prophecy.

PS: The 2011 Cherokee Calendar will only remain on sale until April 1. Until then, the price has bee reduced to $13.77. 
Brian Wilkes

 
Publish Post

Saturday, March 5, 2011

A Day to Greet the Returning Fire and the Returning Sun


Over the next week, many Cherokee communities will celebrate Nvda-igvyai, or First Moon. In some areas it is called Green Grass, New Fire, or New Beginnings.  The end (and survival) of winter and beginning of the new growth cycle was and is a cause for celebration!

It's appropriate that this year, it falls on a Firepit Day, the third day of the 20 day cycle.  Firepit is a reminder of the gentle, nourishing fire of the home and kitchen, and of the times our ancestors sought refuge in mountain caves. It is also called Abyss, House, Temple, Pyramid, Mountain. Some say all the pyramidal temples and mound sites were artificial mountains with an interior chamber containing at least a symbolic fire.

The chamber of refuge is also the tomb of the ancestors, and reminds us of the caves where our ancestors sought refuge from the elements, cyclic disasters, and adversaries. In psychoanalysis, it is a symbol of regression. It is also a symbol of the maternal womb, to a time of innocence and complete dependence in mother’s womb and after birth.

The ancestors saw the Turtle as conception, the Tornado as quickening, and Firepit as emergence, either as a birth or rebirth. The new life emerges from the cave on the third day. As in the creation story, we leave the cave/ womb/ tomb and emerge as full adults.

In the Cave of Refuge, we depend on the fire for our very existence. Once we leave and return to the outside world, our survival depends of carrying that sacred fire with us in our daily lives.
~~~~~~~
CHEROKEE DICTIONARY:

Judging by your response a searchable Cherokee dictionary would be a great aid for you. I've already started work, and plan to have it available in a few weeks.

Nvwadohiyada,
Brian Wilkes
~~~~~~~
PRICE CUT:
I had mentioned that the 2011 Cherokee Calendar will be withdrawn after April 1, and one of you asked if the price would be reduced, since we're already two month into the year. A traditional Calendar is still used in parts of the eastern mountains, especially east Tennessee and Kentucky. It clearly derives from Olmec-Mayan-Aztec sources, and its progression provides a framework for understanding ancient Cherokee tradition and the links to Central America. http://Cherokee-Calendar.com/

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Looking forward to Spring Ceremonies! And to a new Cherokee Lexicon.

Osiyo!

This will be a brief message. Things have been really hectic here in West Kentucky with storms, tax time and March Madness. With springtime comes thawing and often flooding in our Four Rivers area (Cumberland, Ohio, Tennessee, Mississippi).

On the first Saturday of April, our local community will celebrate the coming of spring with the ceremony known various as First Green Grass, First Moon of Spring, or New Beginnings. The timing of this ceremony varies in different communities based on local weather conditions. We will also have the Blessing of the Seeds, a ceremony that precedes the planting ceremonies, usually in May.
Based on your responses, I'm working on an interactive Cherokee dictionary (actually a lexicon or word list - a true dictionary give background, origin, and other information about each word. 

Since I began working with the language in 1995, I've been compiling a lexicon. Last night I started to reorganize it... about 15,000 words and figures of speech.

I plan to release this in PDF form. Many errors and duplications have crept in over the 15 years, so I have a lot of tedious clean-up to do. 

Here's my plan at the moment:

The publication will be available at a reasonable cost - probably $10 - $15; but currently enrolled students will get it without charge.

How does that sound? Let me hear from you!

Nvwadohiyada, 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Demise of the Kutani - in Yucatan?


One of the underlying stories of Cherokee identity is that the Cherokees rose against their hereditary priestly caste, the AniKutani, and destroyed them.

In this five-part series, a US researcher looks for the cause of the sudden demise of the Mayan high civilization, and finds evidence that a long drought destroyed the agriculture, leading the priests to increase human sacrifice to appease the gods. He finds evidence of the extermination of an entire family of the priestly caste. In all details found so far, this parallels the story of the destruction of the Kutani priests.


In the Cherokee story, the AniKutani re-introduced human sacrifice in an attempt to relieve a severe drought. One warrior, enraged at the sacrifice of his wife, kills a priest. To the amazement of the community, he is not immediately struck dead by lightning. The other take this as their cue, and begin an extermination of the Kutani "in a single night."  Afterward and to this day, Cherokee reject any type of human sacrifice or ritual cannibalism as an abomination, and reject any concept of an inherited right to rule over them. 

While the story is now told as if this all happened in the Echota area (See Robert J. Conley's novel, The Dark Way), it's long been suggested this might be a relocation of something that happened in southern Mexico before the Cherokee ancestors and others came north. 
There are other nations who also claim to have come north to escape the tyranny of the human sacrifice religions, and who even give names to the main characters of the story.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Lesson 4 Complete, Test 4 Posted

Osiyo!
  
It's Unadodaquonvi, 14 Kagali 2011

Since Christmas, I've had some dental problem that made me slur my speech, making it difficult to record new content for the lessons at www.SpeakCherokee.com. I'm happy to report that Friday I completed the Lesson Four content and posted Test Four.


There's a good bit of content here, so I'll remind you of the advice of Walker Calhoun of Big Cove: "Listen to the Elders at least 21 times before repeating." 

My fluent-speaking friends tell me one thing that's being lost are the inflections that were once crucial to the language. Those who don't grow up speaking Cherokee or hearing the language spoken at home have a rough time getting this right. As a result, it now takes more uninflected words to say what could once be said with fewer inflected words.


One reason I took longer than I wanted getting Lesson Four together was that I really listened to a number of fluent speakers to improve my own inflections. A fluent speaker will either laugh or wince at my pronunciation, but it will be understood. So will yours!


New Projects


Only a handful responded to the the inquiry about future publications. Among these were:

1. A Manual on Cherokee Medicine Plants and Gardening.
2. A Cherokee Hymnal
3. An illustrated Cherokee-English Gospel or full New Testament



These would be very time-intensive projects, so there's no point to proceed if people aren't interested.


A portion of the 'Swimmer Manuscript" collected by Smithsonian anthropologist James Mooney
There is another project I'm collaborating on, which will bring out a book with various accounts of the origin of the Cherokee people... or perhaps, how the various peoples who are now known as "Cherokee" came together. This involves going back to much of the original source material, including documents and accounts from the early 18th and even 17th centuries.

One thing we're doing is transcribing these old, handwritten documents into a text version to allow easier printing and to preserve them digitally for future generations. One would think that the three federally-funded - oops, I meant federally-recognized tribes - would be interested in doing that, but one would be wrong. There are individuals cooperating, but perhaps the nations have their hands full taking care of the present day needs of their members.


VAELNTINE'S DAY SPECIAL: 
Until midnight Monday night, when you buy a copy of The 2011 Cherokee Calender, you get a $4.00 rebate to celebrate the Four Winds and your four-chambered heart. 

Until next time, 
Witsatologi nigadv, blessings to you all!


Brian Wilkes



Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Restoring the Ancestor Ceremony, Part 2

Suggested Ancestor Ceremony

Not everything works for every situation. What’s more important than following some “cookbook” ceremony recipe is to develop genuine connection with you departed ancestors. Now, here’s where it gets tricky. Our traditions and those of other cultures forbid “calling” the departed to return. For many, calling a departed person to return is one step away from binding them to do your bidding on the other side, and therefore sorcery. I was taught that when someone passed, it’s not proper for us to bother them. However, we can certainly let them know that they’re welcome, that a place is set for them at the table.

Ancestor Worship?

Anthropologists have suggested that all religion originates from the urge to honor or placate or communicate with departed ancestors. In the Bible, God is the father of Adam, and therefore a common ancestor of all humanity. In the Cherokee story, Skywoman or Starwoman is the child of the Lord of Heaven before she falls to earth and gives birth to humankind. Even the English word “God” comes from the proper name “Gotha,” the original ancestress of the Goths. 

Those who have been deployed to Asia know what great risks rural people will take to tend the graves of their ancestors, even crossing war zones to do it. The list of examples is almost endless.

How well do you know your ancestors? How many can you name? Can you draw a quick chart of your ancestors for the past four or five generations? What do you know of their lives, their struggles, their joys? I know that my great-grandfather Sterling was a little boy when the Civil War broke out. I know that my grandmother Josephine was a farmgirl who had her only child at 17, and didn’t learn to read until years later. I know that one line of my family picked the losing side against a powerful feudal family, and was exiled to the countryside. I know who was poor, and who was dirt poor. I know that my ancestors fought both for and against the United States.

Family Shrine

In some cultures there is a formal family shrine. In America, we tend to be less formal, but the idea is still good. I know Native mixed-blood people who can trace their ancestry to Constantine and Tiberius, and to migrants who came up from the Yucatan centuries and millennia ago. Yes, genealogy is time-consuming and can be expensive, but it’s the only way to really know your ancestors. A family shrine can be as simple as a set of photos or a wall, or a few heirlooms on a shelf on in a box. Does your family have a motto or favorite saying?

Ideally, an ancestor ceremony is within the family or extended family or community. Prepare a good dinner (whether that means lunch or supper in your region!) and call the family together. If a particular dish was a favorite of an ancestor, tell people! So much is lost because of “I thought everybody knew that” or “I didn’t think anyone else cared.”
 

Honoring

It may be good prior to eating to honor specific ancestors, especially those who have passed in the last year. Those who are honoring an individual should come prepared with stories, photos, and mementos.

•    Gather before the meal. Set up photos, albums, heirlooms, especially of common ancestors.

•    Set an extra seat and place setting for any of the ancestors who might “arrive.” This isn’t an episode of “Ghost Hunters” – don’t expect voices and visitations. The important part isn’t that they “eat the food” or “smell the flowers,” but that you make the offer.

•    Recall events, preferences, stories of the ancestors. Recall their names. Some believe it’s wrong to speak the name of a deceased person, because it suggests calling them back. But in English we add “the late” to the name, so you can think of that as a way of changing the name. Obey your own local customs in this.
 
•    Sing some of their favorite songs. Most importantly, let them know that you are grateful for everything they passed on to you, including your DNA codes, and that they are welcome to drop in if they feel like it. They are still your family, and always will be.
 
•    After the meal and before the group breaks up, take the food from their plate outside as a spirit plate. This way, gifts are still being made for them, from them, in their name.

•    We tend to close out with our all-purpose funeral and closing song, the Cherokee version of “Amazing Grace.” Since it was probably played at their funeral, it keeps continuity. If nobody knows this song, perhaps sing another funeral song, or a song that was a favorite of an ancestor. 

Conclusion

As we look at the circle of life from a Native viewpoint, there’s seldom a definite line between the living and the deceased. The other side is just “over yonder” or “toward the darkening sunset,” not “the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns” as Shakespeare calls it.

We believe that your departed family still watches. As you look around to the mementos of the departed, look again to what lessons and practices and principles you leave for your descendants. 


Brian Wilkes

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Restoring the Ancestor Ceremony, Part 1

Ancestor Ceremony

For several years now, both online and in the annual Cherokee Calendar, I’ve mentioned the Ancestor Ceremony observed in February Midwinter as a common memorial for all who have crossed over in the winter months.  This year, I’m getting a lot of questions from people who would like to revive this ceremony in their family.

Walking Through Bones

The month of February is called Kagali in Cherokee, “bony.” The crunchy snow crust makes a sound like walking through a field of bones – at least in the minds of shivering Cherokees. Those mountains get cold! It’s also a time when a few months of preserved foods, combined with occasional game meats left many people undernourished, with a “bony” look. It was also the time of year when it was (and still is) easy to die from accident, exposure, or the combined effects of a life of hardship combined with a weakened state. Those who survived until the Green Grass counted themselves a year older.

It’s not clear just when Cherokees and other mountain people began this observance. It may have been linked to the ceremony to repel harmful outside spiritual influences. In that ceremony, the group is “invaded” by masked characters originally representing malevolent disease-carrying spirit creatures, and later representing intrusive non-Cherokees. They are placated by the Cherokee hosts, and tricked into leaving. This is called in Cherokee “They Wear Masks”, or more commonly in English the “Booger (boogeyman) Dance.”

Feeding the Ancestors

Gifting or feeding departed ancestors is a common theme worldwide. Some cultures do it through fire, others place offerings in the rivers.

Among some nations, the gravesite resembles a miniature house, and food and water are left for those times when the spirit of the deceased chooses to visit. In one famous exchange, a missionary insensitively asked a Creek elder just when he thought his ancestors would return to eat the food he was always leaving for them. “The same day YOUR ancestors come back to smell those flowers YOU keep leaving for them,” was the reply. 

Recent Example

A Cherokee mixed-blood woman with whom I work described her family’s tradition from about 1970:
 
On a day in February determined by her grandmother, the family would gather and take tables and chairs out to the family cemetery, which was on the property. They would set up for a typical covered dish – typical, except that they were sitting in a cemetery in the cold. A meal was eaten, an empty chair would be added to the table to which full  portions of food were added and left at each grave. Many are familiar with the “spirit plate” practice; this is just a little more individualized.  
 
The grandmother was also a calendar-keeper, and had her calendar stones in a small leather bag that nobody else was allowed to touch. She went to each of the headstones, and set out certain of the calendar stones and crystals atop each headstone.  A first glance, this would be similar to the European custom of leaving a pebble atop a headstone when visiting.  But there was some significance to the stones, and she remembers that the most senior ancestor in the graveyard received decoration of the greatest number of stones. One possibility is that the calendar keeper, the eldest elder present, was spelling out an important date on the headstone of each of the deceased, perhaps their birth date.
 
My source was rather young at the time, and understood all of this as her family being “weird,” doing something to humor grandma, and wanting it to be over so she and her young cousins could go inside, get warm, play and watch cartoons.  The deeper meanings were never explained to her. Today, of course, she wishes she had listened and observed more closely, as her grandmother is embraced within her mother.
 
Don’t we all wish we had listened more?
 
NEXT TIME:
Suggested procedure to restore the Ancestor Ceremony within your family.