Cherorkee Women

Agasga's Journal

In the last few moons before she died, my grandmother told me many things. She knew that she would soon go to the Darkening Land in the West and wanted me to know all that she had not told me before. She spoke to me then about the need to pass on the ways of Ani Yunweya (the principal people) to the next generation. She said for thousands of years our people had kept the same customs and ways. But now change had come mightily with the white settlers, and the ways of our people were changing too. She said it is all right to change, to adopt new ways of doing things -- like when we started to grow sweet potatoes that the Europeans brought, their peaches, melons, apples, onions, and cabbage -- but we must not forget the old ways, the ways our ancestors kept and the stories and legends they gave us. That is why I have decided to keep this journal. I will give it to my granddaughter, and she will give it to her granddaughter for a testament to what life was like. It will describe the life we live and how we do things, so that even if our life takes on a whole new shape completely, they will know how things were before.

September 2, 1755. My grandmother told me that on the night I was born, in the moon when it first turns cold, spirits were dancing in the wind and calling, as it rushed around and howled. The spirits called, "Ah-gas-ga! Ah-gas-ga," with a singing sound that flowed around the house and whistled through the trees. And so my name was formed, Agasga. By the white man's sun calendar, I am 25 years old now.

I was married, but my husband was killed in battle only a few weeks later, and so I have no children born to me. It was a hard thing, that, and a great sadness, especially after he survived the smallpox epidemic in which so many had died -- to be downed like that, his blood to flow over the ground. The only thing that helped were the people around me. In our world, whatever happens to one person happens to everyone, and so my grief was shared. Perhaps I shall marry again some day, but for now I content myself with weaving baskets.

September 3, 1755. We live in a small community in the Blue Mountains. As far as I know, we have always lived here. I cannot imagine who I would be if I had to live someplace else. Our village has a council house for ceremonies and meetings. I was recently one of the women appointed who will choose a new War Chief. As women, we do not become leaders ourselves, but we choose the leaders (and can remove them as well if we don't like what they do). Once we decide who, the ceremony to invest him with the powers of a War Chief will take place at the village council house. We have two chiefs -- a Peace Chief who leads us during peaceful times and a War Chief who makes decisions during times of war. Because it looks like we will fight the colonists who have moved into our territory and act like it belongs to them and want to drive the people away, a decision will soon be made.

September 4, 1755. My home was built by family -- my father, brothers, cousins -- and other community members. My mother's and grandmother's clan is the clan of the Long Hair. My husband came from the clan of the Wild Potato. My father was from the clan of the Blue. But I and my sisters and brothers are all Long Hair because our mother was. If my husband and I had had children, they would have been Long Hair, too, because they would get their clan membership from me. Our property, the house and the planting field, passes from mother to daughter. Men don't own property except for personal belongings like knife, bow and arrow, and ceremonial clothing. Men hunt and fish, trade, go to war, and negotiate peace, while women control the life of the village, raise crops and children, and provide food for the people's use. Thus, we compliment each other. Our system aims to produce a sense of balance and harmony between the sexes and in all aspects of our lives. We are a people who follow rules we have set for ourselves. When we marry, for example, we have to find someone outside our own clan in another of the seven clans -- the Wolf, the Deer, the Wild Potato, the Paint, the Blue, the Long Hair, and the Bird -- for a husband. It is the law.

September 6, 1755 When I started this journal my intention was to write in it everyday. But yesterday I got so upset and angry that all I could do was slam around and make mistakes in my weaving and curse silently as I tore it out and did it over again. I went to pick river cane for the ceremonial baskets and mats I will weave this winter. The baskets are to be used in the springtime ceremony which re-enacts the story of how fire first came to the people. Kananeski Ama-I-yehi, a little water spider, wove a container to carry a coal of fire to the people. She brought light and heat to the Cherokee world. Twice a year the women carry burning coals from the new fire at the Town House to kindle fresh fires in their homes. I love the ceremony. I love the sounds, the music, the color, the sense of drama. It celebrates women as the makers of containers essential to living. And it celebrates fire as a symbol of life. But I have digressed. I went to get the last picking of river cane (a woody member of the bamboo family) which flourishes throughout this area.

A say the last picking because in the fall and winter moons we burn off the canes that are left. River cane depends on disturbance for its health and vitality. Fire gets rid of the dead vegetation and without disturbing the underground rhizomes, enriches the soil. In the spring after a winter firing, fresh cane stalks sprout, green and vibrant, from the buried rhizomes. They grow very fast, as much as an inch and a half in twenty-four hours! If we do not fire, the canes will not produce enough new growth to maintain density next year. Unfired stands will decline and be patchy with ugly dead stems. After ten years without fire, they lose their place in plant society and are pushed out by other vegetation. Firing them encourages the growth of plants for basketry; but it enhances nesting sites and food supplies for wildlife, as well. So we have to take care of our river cane stands. The Great Apportioner provided river cane generously for our use in tala-tsa (baskets) and a-yehstu-ti (woven mats). But the white settlers are using our cane stands to feed their horses and cows! The worst is when they let the pigs go at it. Pigs like to eat the roots which they consider very tasty. It kills the plant to eat the roots.

My beautiful stand of thya has been destroyed by pigs. To think how friendly we have been with these settlers in the past, treating them like honored guests, showing them how to survive! No more! They do not know how to be friends. Now I will have to go farther and look harder for materials for the ceremonial baskets. And my sisters will need river cane for their domestic baskets -- we use them for nearly everything from winnowing the meal into flour to preparing meals and serving them. We store food and medicine in baskets. We carry things in them. We give them to men for fishing gear. Young women carry small, square hand baskets to harvest wild food such as strawberries, grapes, persimmons, mulberries, greens, tubers, mushrooms, and nuts. We trade baskets for other things we need. Even the priest has special baskets in which to store his ceremonial clothing and his secret paraphernalia. Baskets are essential to our life.

September 6, 1755. I make the sacred baskets and weave the Sah-loo-stu-knee-keeh-steh-steeh (the sacred ceremonial mats), which cover all the seats in the beloved square for the yearly Ah-tawh-hung-nah (Propitiation Festival). This ceremony is a very significant and solemn ritual of purification and renewal. The priest will sit in a special chair covered with white deerskin, and a mat that I have woven with my own hands will receive his feet. Some special woods will be fastened into a basket I have woven expressly for the purpose, and the priest will submerge the sacred basket in a pot of boiling water to make a medicinal tea for all the peopleā€¦