The story I heard as child, about the migration of the Cherokees from the south and up the Mississippi River, explained that the clans were derived from the seven groups of people who survived the migration. Originally there were 12 groups that left the “old place” but 5 groups did not survive. The Cherokee elders say the names of the clans came from animals that demonstrated certain attributes and characteristics given by the Creator. These animals behaved and conducted themselves in a manner that suited their purpose and habitat. They existed in balance with that purpose and thrived in the habitat. This is unlike humans, who are often in conflict with both. The Cherokee language, just like all languages, changes over time. Pronunciations and meanings morph. It is believed that some of the animal meanings were forgotten or lost meaning and were replaced by words that were interpreted to mean other, non-animal, things.
The Clans and How They Got Their Names
Ani-godigewi- Wild potato
This clan name’s specific meaning has been lost. It resembles several other Cherokee words such as A-go-di (prairie), Oo-s-ge-wi (wild potato plant), a-ge-wi (no hair). Some have suggested the name originally referred to prairie animals with no hair, like a turtle or lizard. An elder Cherokee, who belonged to this clan and who’s father was a respected traditional healer, told me it meant “from the North” in ancient Cherokee, a language long gone.
Like the wild potato clan name, this clan name’s specific meaning has been lost to time. The Cherokee word for blue is sa-ko-ni-ge. Over time it has come to be associated with this clan. It is quite possible that sa-ho-ni is taken from an old descriptive term of how the back of a large animal, like a bear, moves; swaying, steady and slow. It sounds like other Cherokee words such as a-ni-so-hi (their backs), a-ni-so-ho-i-do (swaying motion) and ga-so-hi (his back). The symbol we have chosen here at Cherokee Images to represent this clan, is a blade of grass.
The Cherokee word of deer is a-wi. V-wi (pronounced uh-wee) is an old Cherokee term meaning the lower part of the leg with the hoof attached. This may be the origins of the word for deer, describing the slender structure of a deer’s leg that gives it agility and speed.
Ani-gilohi- Twister or Long Hair
Like the Wild potato and Blue clans, this clan’s name has been lost to time. A Cherokee elder once said a-ni-ge-lo-hi was a descriptor for the characteristics of panthers (ani-tlv-da-tse). It sounds similar to the Cherokee word Oo-n-gi-lo meaning “perched” or “up on”. Oo-n-gi-lo-wa-de-go means “they are often up on something.” It remains unclear how something perched, over time, came to be called twister or long hair. Its possible these were other clans that became incorporated into the Ani-gilohi clan and took over its name. At Cherokee Images, the symbol we have chosen to represent this clan is a circular spiral pattern found on Cherokee pottery.
The Cherokee word for wolf is wa-ya. Wa-ha-ya is also a Cherokee word for wolf not often used. Wa-ya-ni means “he is calling”. Wa-ya may be derived from this word based on the wolf’s howl. This clan is traditionally the largest clan by far. Its unknown why the Wolf Clan became so large. Perhaps it is because the warriors traditionally came from this clan. As the Cherokee Nation began to expand into other tribes’ territories, eventually controlling all or parts of 7 states, the clan membership grew, either by incorporating conquered villages, adoption or birth.
The Cherokee word for bird is tsi-s-qua. It is likely derived from the word S-qui-s-da (many or in abundance). In the Cherokee language things are often named based on their characteristics and habits.
Like the Wild potato, Blue and Long Hair clans, this clan’s name has been lost over time. There are several Cherokee words with a similar sound that may suggest its orginal meaning such as ta-wo-di (hawk), oo-wo-du-hi (pretty), oo-wo-di (red powder used in medicine) and oo-da-wo-di (the soft deer skin bag used to hold the red powder medicine). At Cherokee Images, the symbol we have chosen to represent this clan is a red, stylized drop that could be a drop of blood or paint.