Cherokee Heritage Center  -  Ancient Village






Most of my time in Tahlequah has been spent at the Cherokee Heritage Center's Ancient Village, with the museum being a close second.  Tsa-La-Gi village, as it is called, "is a recreation of a Cherokee settlement prior to European contact."  Tsa-La-Gi means Cherokee in the Cherokee language.  The three symbols above which look like a G-W-Y are actually those three sounds (syllables) as they would appear written in Cherokee.  Although,  during the time represented by the village, Cherokees did not have any way of writing our language.  That did not occur until 1821 when a man named “Sequoyah” invented the Cherokee Syllabary.  Before then, like all indigenous languages, it was simply spoken, and it became "the duty of the elders to pass down stories & myths from generation to generation to make sure they were not lost." 

A guide initially takes you around the village.  Then you have an opportunity to wander on your own.  Since there are not a lot of informational signs, the CHC was kind enough to share with me the text they use to train their interpreters.  Most of the quoted materials on this page are from there, or their website.  Much like an individual guide would do, I have changed some of the grammar and flow of the text to fit closer to my natural speech patterns.  The information, however, has not been altered, and is accurately transcribed from their originals. 

"The village you are about to enter would not have been located in Oklahoma, but in the Eastern part of the United States in the North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, parts of Alabama, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia area.  The Cherokees were very settled people.  They did not move around or live in tepees.  Their homes were made much like you will see here, though usually around rivers or lakes." 


As we enter, survey "the stockade walls which were put up all the way around the village to keep out any wild animals or intruders.  They always had a watchman on guard at the front and back entrance of the walkway, similar to the one we just came through.  At that time however, it would have been a lot longer and narrower.  That way, if there were any intruders, the watchman had time to get down and run them out, or to get help before they had time to come in." 



"Cherokees had two types of homes, the winter home and the summer home.  The winter homes were round dome shaped dwellings called O-Si’s, or hot houses, and the summer homes were made with round poles, with river cane woven in and out like a basket, then mud clay packed on top, called waddle.  The winter homes were built with a small hole at the top.  During the day, the women would build a fire in it.  At night they put the fire out, scraped out the ashes, and put a cover over the top and the doorway, and that is where they would sleep.  The summer homes were built, with small doorways, and no windows.  During the summer months the women could wet the floor down to help keep it cool and damp in the home.  Cherokees were not very large people at this time, they typically were 5’ to 5’6” for a man, with a woman around 5’ in height."


"On top of the doorway you will see a 'Peace Symbol' which is a start of a basket with 7 white feathers for the seven clans (The names of the seven clans are 'Bird - Deer - Wolf - Longhair - Wild potato - Blue and Paint'), each clan being a family.  During this time the Cherokees were 'Matrilineal' which means the women were considered head of the household.  Like today we take our fathers last name, then, the children would take their mothers clan."  When men married, they went to live with their wife's clan.


"Also wind chimes were hung inside the summer home, furthest away from the door, where their would be no air, because they believed if the wind chimes were moving without any air blowing they had evil spirits in their home.  So, they always had 7 sprigs of cedar hanging outside their house.  If this happened, they would come outside, and take one sprig of cedar into the home and light it, smoking the home to ward away any evil spirit that might be there." 



"The longhouse, was made by a man that had many daughters.  The life span of a Cherokee around this time would be 40 to 45 years of age.  They would typically marry at an early age.  A girl might be 11 or 12 and a boy around 15 or 16 years old.  Because it was a matrilineal society, the couple would move in with the girl's side of the family, and her father would knock down a portion of the wall, and add a room on.  They might stay for a year or two, until the family thought they were old enough to be on their own or have their first child." 



"Cherokees had a communal garden that all of the women and children in the village would take care of. The main crop in the garden was corn.  We grew several different types of corn.  One, for instance, was the six week corn which resembled our popcorn today. We also had beans, pumpkin, squash, and a type of wild potato.  When food was harvested it would then be stored in food storage huts. The hut would be sitting on stilts around 10 to 12 feet off the ground, and the legs would be greased so no animals could climb up the poles to get to the harvest. 

We also gathered nuts and berries when they were in season. One particular nut that was used was the hickory nut.  It was used to make a food called 'kanuche' which is still used today. Kanuche was used in famine time when food was short, like during winter months.  It is almost 100% protein.  You could live off of it alone for weeks.  The way to make kanuche is by cracking the nut and separating the larger shell from the meat.  The meat will go into the mortar along with the small shell which is ok.  The meat is pounded with a stick until it becomes sticky like cookie dough, and with the natural oil it is rolled into a ball, around the size of a softball.  To prepare it, drop one ball down into a pot of boiling water, and it quickly dissolves.  The small shell can be taken out with a tightly woven basket.  It makes into a soup or broth.  Hardly anyone makes it anymore.  Today, rice or hominy is added, and it is sweetened with sugar.  Now treated more like a dessert,  it is primarily made for special occasions.  If you can find it, it is usually with an elder. 

The men would also hunt for meat, usually bear, deer, rabbits, and squirrels.  The bear would be taunted and killed with a long sharpened pole that would be wedged up against a tree for it to impale itself on; deer would be killed with a bow and arrow, and small game with a blowgun to slow it down enough to be caught.  Meat at this time would be smoked and hung up to dry in a smokehouse.  We also made fish traps out of river cane with a large opening at one end, and a small hole on the other to sit in the water as fish came down the river.  The fish could go in the large opening but not be able to swim back out.  Only fish needed for the day would be taken out.  The rest would be released.  Cherokees do not believe in taking more than they need.  For if they did, they believed a famine would come over the village." 


"River cane grows naturally in the southeastern U.S.  So, it was an obvious choice for making a blowgun.  Blowguns were made from stalks 6 to 9 foot long gathered by the river, and were the first hunting weapons given to young boys.  River cane is never straight when it is gathered.  In order to straighten it, you place it over an open fire and roll it over your knee.  This is done several times while it is still green.  It is not just a one time process.  Another  problem with the cane is that it is a jointed plant, and the joints that connect each section are solid.  You must take a small ember from the fire and drop it down one end of the cane and let it burn away through the notches.  You have to be careful not to let it burn too long or it will burn out the side of the cane. After just the right amount of time, take a smaller river cane to push the ember through the joint. Continue this process all the way down.  Next use a small arrowhead attached to the end of a smaller cane to scrape the joints and shave it smooth inside.  Finally, take a small green river cane and rub the inside of the blowgun, so the natural oils provide a slick surface. 

Darts were usually made out of bois d’arc 18 to 20 inches long and the size of a pencil.  The down of a Scottish thistle tied on one end with sinew made the dart fly straight.  Also, poison was never put on the tip of the dart to kill small game, because everything that was killed was eaten.  A blowgun has a range of 50 to 60 feet, so even if you did not kill your prey, you slowed it down enough to be caught. 

Bows are traditionally made out of bois d‘arc, black locust, yellow locust, Osage orange and hickory (as well as other hardwoods).  Bois d‘arc, being the hardest wood, makes the very strongest bow.  Besides hunting, bows were also used in times of war.    Bows are made from splits from the trunk of the tree.  It is shaved down to one grain on the outside; which will be the back of the bow.  Grain must be intact or the bow will be easily broken.  When you start working on the bellies of the bow you have to get an even, equal bend on each side.  The strength must be equal on each side, since this is what gives you a straight shot.  Then you have to taper the ends to shape the bow by following the linear patterns in the grain, carve the bow string nocks, and attach the string.  Bowstrings were made from gut, sinew, and hide.  Arrow shafts were made from river cane or straight wooden sticks, such as dogwood shoots.  A two feather fletching tied to the back of the shaft would usually be done with turkey feathers, to insure a stabilized flight.  Glue, sinew, gut of twine would be used to attach the arrowheads.  Glue was made by boiling hooves, hide scrapes, and tree saps. 

Two types of arrowheads were used.  One had a notch on the end.  It would be used for hunting. This type of arrowhead would be tied on.  That way, after you have killed your prey, you were able to retrieve your arrow.  The other arrowhead was one that you loosely tuck between a split river cane and also tie very loosely.  Used in war time, once it was shot into an enemy, the only way to retrieve your arrow was to push the arrow all the way through, because if you tried to pull it out, the arrowhead would stay inside.  Hammer stones, Billets, and antlers are used in making arrowheads.  A stone known as flint is used for the arrowheads.  You begin by using the hammer stone or antler, hammering out the edges in order to make thin flakes for points.  This is called percussion flaking.  Once the stone is thinned, you can go into pressure flaking.  This is done with the sharp end of the antler.  Large spear points are also made the same way and were used during the Palo time when they were hunting the wooly mammoth.  That period was the time of using the addle-addle, a throwing devise designed to thrust a spear through the air."


"Cherokee baskets are made out of several types of materials, like buckbrush, honeysuckle, and grapevine.  The baskets are very unique in style.  To start making one, you first cut 12 strands almost the same length, then place them in a cross six over six with another half strand and one long strand, which is called the runner, added to make an uneven number of strands.  The long strand is wrapped around 3 times just to hold it all together.  Then you go between every two strands over and under until you have made a flat bottom.  You work your way up, until you reach your desired height, bend your spokes back down one overlapping the other all the way around, then start down, weaving just as you did going up.  These are the two unique ways of a Cherokee basket, the six over six cross at the bottom and the double wall.  The double walls were to make it stronger and last a lot longer.  Colors were accomplished with various types of nuts, roots, barks, and berries for dyes.  Later on, when tools were introduced, they also used split white oak, or split river cane for baskets.  Baskets were used for storage and often as large as our laundry baskets are today." 



I visited the CHC during the off-season, so many of the usual demonstrations were not being done.  The photos above are of a dugout canoe, albeit a smaller version than would have actually been made.  The inset photo is cropped from a picture I took at Oconoluftee Village in Cherokee, North Carolina demonstrating the process you are about to read.  "Prior to European contact, there were two ways for a Cherokee to get from point A to point B.  He could walk, or he could take a canoe.  The dugout canoe was a mammoth undertaking.  Made from hardwood trees, the boat typically needed to be about forty feet in length . . . big enough to hold eight to twenty men.  This required a massive log that weighed several tons.  Since such a huge log could not be transported on land, it was always cut down as close to the river as possible.  But how to cut it down? 

Stone tools were not effective for huge tree girths, and the Cherokees lacked steel-bladed axes. The tool selected for felling the tree was fire.  Before building a fire at the base of the tree, a coating of mud and straw was applied to the trunk at about head-height.  It was shaped out into a thick girdle that encircled the tree and protected it from burning down, allowing the Cherokees to focus on burning only the lower part of the trunk.  The wattle-and-daub method was also the way that Cherokees built their homes.  Once the fire was kindled at the base of the tree, sticks with stone points were used to chip away the charred trunk, accelerating the process. When the fire and scraping had chewed far enough through the trunk, the weight of the tree caused it to fall.  As soon as the tree was down, the canoe makers went to work removing the bark. Waiting even a day would cause the sap to rise and fuse the bark to the inner skin of the trunk.  Removing it then would be time-consuming and laborious.  Instead, by immediately cutting into the bark, it could be removed entirely with relative ease, and if done correctly, in one piece.  This complete skin was sometimes used to roof the Cherokee houses.  The ends of the canoe were cut and fashioned into a point so that the canoe could move in either direction.  Next, a series of fires were started on the top of the stripped log.  The fires had to be tended - neither too big nor too little - and as they burned out the surface of the log, the Cherokees used hand tools to scrape and hollow out the log.  The procedure was repeated on the bottom of the canoe to make it flat. Finally, the canoe was coated in bear grease to waterproof the wood.  Given the incredible amount of effort required to make a canoe, it was important to preserve it and take care of it, so this had to be done periodically to prevent the wood from drying out and cracking.  The men did not sit in the canoes, but would be on their knees, since the canoes were not usually very wide." 



"Our Cherokee tribe was the largest east of the Mississippi River.  There was a council house in every Cherokee village.  The council house was always the center of social and political activity in the village, and was always built upon a mound.  They were always seven-sided (for the seven clans) and their one entrance always faced the east.  This way, if they had a meeting that lasted more than a day, they knew when the new day came up.  Inside would be bleacher type seats, with a small one at the very front of each section for the elderly to sit.  Their size varied depending on the population of the village.  Seating within the council house was dictated by each of the seven clans.  The clan was the most important social unit in Cherokee society.  Mentioned previously, clan is inherited through the mother’s line, making the Cherokee a matrilineal society.  Marriage within one's own clan was strictly forbidden." 



"Cherokee political organizations were divided into two branches: civil and military.  The military, or red organization, governed only during times of warfare.  The great warrior headed it.  The raven, or Ko-La-Na, was second in command.  Warriors with the military ranks of man killer and slave catcher counseled these two leaders.  Civil and military chiefs each had a right hand man and a principal speaker.  During time of council, they were the ones who occupied the three seats. Each had seven council members, one from each of the seven clans.  A white robe, made from the tail feathers of a white heron (which is a coastal bird - our people had to trade to get these feathers) was worn by the principal or civil chief during time of council, as a symbol of peace.  A red outfit, weapons, and cape belonged to the war chief.  The cape would be made from the tail and wing feathers of the wild turkey; and trimmed in red as a symbol of war.  The principal chief wore yellow once every seven years at a special ceremony we call the Thanksgiving Ceremony.  At this time he would participate in the dancing on the square grounds.   The yellow apparel was also worn during the initiation of a new chief.  When a chief died, the position did not go from father to son.  Instead, because of the matrilineal society, the chief’s oldest sister’s son became the next chief.  This was done to keep the chief within the same clan as long as possible.  If the sister did not have a son, the counselors chose the chief. 

The Cherokees also had a position called the 'beloved woman.' She would be a very highly intelligent elder of the village.  She would be the last to make a final decision.  The Beloved woman wore a skirt made from wild turkey breast feathers that would be trimmed with the down of a white heron.  This woman could have been the widow of one of the chiefs or she could have been an older person, very wise, who was highly respected within the village.  Other women were also chosen, one from each clan, to help the war chief make his decisions.  During wartime women had a very prominent role.  They had a vote in deciding whether to go to war and how captives should be treated.  The women decided whether the captives would be killed or adopted." 



The four pictures (above these two) show the east entrance and inside.  The left two were taken in 2004 and the right two in 2001.  If you look closely you will see low openings behind each section.  I am not sure what the purpose of these are, perhaps just for ventilation, but they are large enough to pass items through.  Both the above photos were taken in 2004.  the one on the right looks up through the roof.  "In the center of the council house would be an altar where the Cherokee built the sacred fire using seven types of wood to feed it (each clan providing their own type of wood).  The arrangement of the wood around the fire had seven points (We also have seven strands or beads, all of which represent the seven clans).  This was rekindled once a year, in late October or early November.  At this time, everyone in the village would put out their fires and clean out the old ashes.  The women of each home were given fire from the sacred fire to restart their fires. 

Gourd dippers and a white vessel were used during purification ceremonies. Our people believed that by drinking fresh spring water from the white vessel that their minds would be purified.  Each clan would have their own dipper to drink from.  They were never allowed to drink from another clan dipper.  The white paint on the walls would be crushed seashell that would be mixed with the clay to form a whitewash.  Different types of ceremonial masks were also used in various dances, like the Snake dance and the Bear dance." 


Just outside of the Council House is the "square grounds or ceremonial grounds.  The size of the ceremonial grounds depended on the size of the village, with some covering up to an acre of land. The corners of the square pointed in the four directions, north, east, west, and south.  The square was level, always kept clean, and always located in front of the council house.  Seven arbors were built around the square ground, one for each clan, particularly for elders to sit under.  Each member used their own clan arbor.  The number seven has always been a sacred number for the Cherokee people.  There are seven clans, seven counselors to the chiefs, and many other things in daily life. There were also seven ceremonies that were important to the Cherokee.  Six of these were celebrated each year between March and November.  The seventh was celebrated only once every seven years.  This was a Thanksgiving ceremony conducted by the chief. 


The Cherokee never danced for pleasure.  Our dances always had a purpose.  They were done in dedication to the Supreme Being, in giving thanks, before going on hunts, or to war.  The dances were always done in a counter-clockwise motion.  Our people did not use drums or rattles for any type of pastime or recreation.  These musical instruments were only used during ceremonies. There were two different types of rattles: the gourd rattle and the woodland terrapin rattle.  Everyone would take part in the ceremonial dances.  When they danced, the women would wear the terrapin turtle shells with pebbles in them for sound.  They would be strapped on with leather below the knees.  The women did not sing the songs, but kept the beat to the songs with the turtle shells, as the men sung.  As far down the line as they could go, it would be man, woman, man, woman.  The kids were allowed to participate, but out of respect for the elders they had to dance at the end of the line. 



Our people never used a lot of feathers in their dances or in their dress.  The Eagle dance was the only dance in which feathers were used.  Only men of the greatest social standing were permitted to wear eagle feathers or carry them at a dance.  These men carried an eagle wand, which held up to thirteen tail feathers.  The shaft was made from sacred sourwood.  The Eagle dance was done in the late fall or winter, and only during times of peace, because the eagle was sacred and the symbol of peace.  The dance was done in three parts.  The first was for peace, the second for victory, and the third to thank the eagle for the use of his feathers." 

"A-ne-jo-di:  Little Brother of War"

I am assuming Anejodi is the same game referred to as Anetsa at New Echota, in the east.  "Stickball began in prehistoric times as a way for tribes to settle disputes without going to war.  It was used as a last effort before going all out to war.  Although incredibly violent and fraught with danger, the death or severe injury of a few men was preferable to the more significant deaths and injuries sure to occur in full-fledged warfare.  It could also be the next step when a problem could not be resolved in the council house. 

Stickball is similar in some ways to the historic game of lacrosse, except that the ball is carried and thrown with two sticks that grasp the ball rather than with a single stick as in lacrosse.  The game was played on a large field, and teams scored by throwing the ball through a goal.  Lacking referees or rules, other than the fact that women couldn't participate (stickball was a war game, so women were not allowed to play), players could move the ball with their sticks in any way they were able, and, more importantly, to interfere with the opposing team's control of the ball.  It was the equivalent of hockey where the stick was a legitimate implement for hitting the other team members.  There were no time outs, and no substitutions.  Games could last for days and were filled with injuries, as the players battered each other with their modified clubs.  Only the strongest men in the tribe got to play.  Purification and fasting were were part of a water ritual and other rituals players had to go through  to show their strength. Medicine men played a prominent role, invoking the proper blessings, and also invoking counter-blessings against the opposing team.  Medicine men would try to find the opposing team's village trail to the playing field and hex the trail. 


The ball is made of a rock covered with hair, and then it is covered again with hide, which is sewn on with sinew, making a cover akin to that of a baseball.  The sticks that were used would be made out of hickory wood, most of the time, but any hardwood will work.  Hickory is common in the eastern woodlands of North America, where the game originated. One end of the stick would be thinner than the other end, so by boiling it for several hours it could be bent into the shape of a bowl (not unlike that of a tennis racket, only much smaller)and be tied down and woven inside with sinew, although leather can be used as well.   Each man would have a pair of sticks.  The sticks had to be used to pick up the ball and for throwing the ball, and there could be anywhere from 50 to 100 men or more playing.  The field was the size of our modern day football field. 

Later on, in the 1800’s, women decided they wanted to play, but only for recreation.  They also decided they were going to make some rules.  The 'new' rules are the men have to use the sticks, but the women use their hands to pick up the ball.  The men are not allowed to touch the women with the sticks but the women can do what ever they want to the man in order to get the ball.  The game is still played throughout the Cherokee Nation, only now there is a pole in the middle of the playing grounds that is 25 feet tall, with a wooden fish on top of it instead of a goal.  Players try to hit the fish, and get three points for each hit.  Hitting the pole one foot below the fish scores a single point.  Since the women can tackle, hit, push, or do anything necessary to get the ball, in most games of stickball, the women almost always win.  In the East, stickball is still only for men, and it is still an 'anything goes' sport.  Today it is played at the Cherokee Heritage Center during special events like Cherokee National Holiday, and against other tribes in the region." 


That pretty much wraps up our tour of Ancient Village.  There was some text, in that provided by the CHC, about pottery and beads, but I did not take any photographs of these items.  I suspect they were not being demonstrated at the times I was there.  "The Ancient Village has been and remains the oldest and most enduring attraction at the Cherokee Heritage Center.  It opened in 1967 as the first part of a four phase project.  The site was selected because it was the original location of the Cherokee Female Seminary.  At the time, it was an all but forgotten piece of land five miles outside of Tahlequah."  There is so much to see, and learn, it is difficult to take it all in with only a one day visit.  But, even if one day is all you get, it is worth the trip.  If you cannot get there, check out the website.  Actually, you should check out the website either way, since it has visitor info as well.  Here are a few more photos I took during my visits:

home page

Text shown in quotation marks throughout these pages comes from various brochures, pamphlets, information sheets, other items picked up on our visit, Cherokee Heritage Center assistance, and Internet searches.  Find many sources in the links pages.