29 March 2012

Cherokee clans

The Cherokee clans are traditional social organizations of Cherokee society.  They are hereditary and matrilineal.

Customs and functions

The Cherokee society was historically a matrilineal society; meaning children belong to the mother's clan, and hereditary leadership and property were passed through the maternal line.  Traditionally, women were considered the head of household among the Cherokee, with the home and children belonging to her should she separate from a husband, and maternal uncles were considered more important than fathers.   Property was inherited and bequeathed through the clan and held in common by it. In addition, Cherokee society tended to be matrilocal, meaning that once married a couple moved in with or near the bride's family.

Cherokee clans held the only coercive power within traditional Cherokee society.  It was forbidden to marry within one's clan or to someone in the clan of one's father.  Such marriage was considered incest and punishable by death at the hands of the offender's own clan and by no other. 

The clan was also responsible for balancing the death of one of its members at the hands of the member of another clan, whether deliberate, impulsive, or accidental.  The one to pay the penalty did not have to be the person responsible; it could be any member of his or her clan.  Indeed, if the intentional or unintentional killer escaped or found sanctuary in one of the towns so designated, such as Chota, Kituwa, or Tugaloo, the fugitive's clan was expected to deliver up another of its members. The purpose of this was not retaliation but equalization.

Cherokee born outside of a clan or outsiders who were taken into the tribe in ancient times had to be adopted into a clan by a clan mother. If the person was a woman who had borne a Cherokee child and was married to a Cherokee man, she could be taken into a new clan.  Her husband was required to leave his clan and live with her in her new clan. Men who were not Cherokee and married into a Cherokee household had to be adopted into a clan by a clan mother; he could not take his wife’s clan.

In The Cherokee Editor on 18 February 1829, Elias Boudinot wrote the following regarding Cherokee Clan marriage customs:  “This simple division of the Cherokees formed the grand work by which marriages were regulated, and murder punished. A Cherokee could marry into any of the clans except two, that to which his father belongs, for all of that clan are his fathers and aunts and that to which his mother belongs, for all of that clan are his brothers and sisters, a child invariably inheriting the clan of his mother.”

The seven clans

According to James Mooney, the seven clans of the Cherokee are the result of consolidation of as many as fourteen separate clans originally.  The “missing” clans became subdivisions of the clans they were merged into.


Ani-gatagewi is known as the Wild Potato Clan.  The Ani-gatagewi’s only subdivision was Blind Savannah.  Members of this clan were ‘keepers of the land’, and gatherers.


This is the Long Hair Clan.  The Ani-gilahi’s subdivisions were Twister, Wind, and Strangers. Members of this clan were peacemakers. 

Prisoners of war, orphans of other tribes, and others with no Cherokee clan were often adopted into the Ani-gilahi.


This is the Deer Clan. The Ani-kawi were runners and hunters.


This is the Blue Paint Clan. The Ani-sahoni’s subdivisions were Panther and Bear.  Members of his clan produced special medicines for the children.


This is the Bird Clan.  The Ani-tsiskwa’s subdivisions were Raven, Turtledove, and Eagle.  Members of the Ani-tsiskwa were messengers.


This is the Wolf Clan. The Ani-waya was always the largest clan. Members of this clan were mostly warriors.


This is the Red Paint Clan. The Ani-wodi were shamans and healers.

Historical evolution of the clan system in the 19th century

Although traditionalists still observe clan customs regarding marriage and certain social event, the customs and mores of the Cherokee regarding clans and the clan system have evolved considerably since ancient times, especially beginning with the 19th century. 

A large reason for this was the turmoil of the Cherokee-American wars (1776-1794) and the resulting displacement of vast numbers of Cherokee removed westward, both voluntarily and involuntarily, from their more easterly ancient homes.  Also, European traders in the Southeast—mostly Scottish, but also English, Irish, German, even French—had married Cherokee women (as well as those of other tribes) for several decades.  Their children belonged to the mother and her clan and were considered Cherokee. 

The first change legislated by the National Council actually took place a few years before the beginning of the 19th century, when in 1797 it ruled 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 person so culpable could not be obtained. The Ridge, who had joined the Council as the representative from Pine Log town, the previous year, initiated these changes.

The Ridge also helped bring about the second major revision change to the Cherokee Blood Law, which was provoked largely by the assassination of Doublehead at Hiwassee Garrison near the Cherokee Agency (Calhoun, Tennessee) in August 1807.  The stated reason was Doublehead's involvement in making private deals to sell off Cherokee land.  The killers were he and Alexander Sanders, the two of them having to stand in for James Vann, who was too drunk to accomplish the task.

Much more wide-sweeping changes came with the first printed law in the Cherokee Nation, passed by the National Council 11 September 1808.  A major reform designed and pushed forward by the young chiefs’ “Cherokee Triumvirate” (James Vann, Charles R. Hicks, and The Ridge), its primary prescriptive feature was setting up a Light Horse Guard of several teams over the whole Nation to act as regulating parties, and also provided for a system of patrilineal inheritance alongside the matrilineal inheritance system of the clans. The Ridge served as the first commander of the Light Horse Guard. Proscriptively, it further restricted clan retaliation.

In the Act of Oblivion on 18 April 1810, the National Council completely eradicated clan retaliation from Cherokee law, repudiated matrilineal inheritance, and referred to husbands and fathers in the Nation as the heads of household.

In 1825 the Cherokee Council passed a law admitting to the tribe children of mixed marriages in which the father was Cherokee and the mother white on the same basis as if their mother were Cherokee.

Today, few Cherokee even know their clan and none of the clan system’s “official” functions remain.  Traditionalists are, however, striving to revive the clan system as a means of bolstering Cherokee identity.

See also:

The Power of Cherokee Women


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