The Origins of the Clan System
Traditionally, since ancient times, the Cherokee people have divided themselves into clans. 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. 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 in life. They existed in balance with that purpose, unlike humans, who are often in conflict. In time, it is believed that some of the animal meanings were lost or replaced by words that were interpreted to mean other, non-animal, things.
Until the late 1700’s the clan system was the predominant way Cherokee social and legal life was structured. Certain clans were known for certain roles. For example, from the Wolf Clan came warriors and the War Chief of a village was often from the Wolf Clan. Conversely, the Long Hair Clan was known as the Peace clan and often the Peace Chief of a village would come from this clan. The Paint Clan was known for its healers.
The Dismantling of the Clan System
In the late 1700’s, under the guidance of Pathkiller, Little Turkey and Blackfox, the Cherokees began to form a national government to replace the village Chief system that had resulted in significant losses of Cherokee land. This eventually became the National Council. One of the earliest rulings of the new national Cherokee government stated that clans no longer had to redress deaths that were judged to be accidental, and also abolished the practice of substituting one clan member for another to answer for the death of a person from another clan if the guilty person could not be obtained. This began the gradual replacement of clan law by legislative law. In 1808, a law was passed that repudiated traditional matrilineal inheritance, and inferred husbands & fathers in the Nation were the heads of household by giving “protection as heirs to their fathers’ property.” Traditionally property belonged to the female and tribal membership, through clan affiliation, was passed down through the mother. Finally, in the Act of Oblivion on April 10, 1810, the National Council completely eradicated clan retaliation from Cherokee law, eliminating the traditional social system for addressing grievances and shifting power from the clan leaders and spiritual leaders, to the central government. This action set the stage for the future conflicts between the traditionalists of the tribe and those advocating for assimilation.
In 1827 the Cherokee Nation drafted a new constitution with a three-branch government, two house legislature and eight legislative districts. This action was designed to solidify the tribe’s sovereignty and resist white encroachment and removal. But, it also further disrupted the traditional clan system, replacing traditional roles and rules with laws. Clan rules became second tier customs. Gradually over time, fewer and fewer people found the relevance of the clan system and by the 1960’s, many, if not most, Cherokees could no longer tell you their clan.
The Clan System Today
But, in some communities however, like the full-blood community I grew up in called Oakhill, knowing your clan has remained a critical piece of Cherokee life. I knew from the time I was old enough to know what a clan was, that my clan was the Wolf Clan. We were often reminded how important it was to know your clan. By knowing, you knew who your relatives were, you knew who you could ask out on a date and, if you saw a traditional healer, as we often did, you knew what to answer when the healer asked, “What is your clan?” The political body of the Cherokee Nation continues to honor to the old clan system. All three federally recognized Cherokee tribes prominently feature a seven pointed star on their flags and seals.