The Cherokee did not live their best time as a tribe in the early nineteenth century. The pressure of white populations on the reserve located in Arkansas was getting increasingly strong, affecting the ancient way of life of the Indians. So complicated was the situation that the United States Government ended up relocating them in the “Indian Territory”, located in what is now Oklahoma.
That forced march in the 1830s is known as the “Trail of Tears,” a road to exile that divided this Iroquois people in half. Some left, others stayed, but the Cherokee were never the same again. What few know is that, in the midst of this tumultuous process, their culture flourished as never before thanks to the invention of their own alphabet.
This advance is due to the great scholar Sequoyah, who devised a syllabary that allowed his people to communicate in their own language through writing and which, in addition to being formally adopted after 1825, was widely used. This remarkable advance took place within a community called Willstown, which lived in what is now Fort Payne (Alabama).
Nearby, in a 1.67-kilometer-long cavern and an underground stream known as Manitou Cave, an extensive number of inscriptions made by several Cherokee ceremonial leaders have been discovered, including two by Richard Guess, one of the children of Sequoyah. These texts have just been translated for the first time.
A group of archaeologists and experts in the Cherokee tribe have published a study in the Antiquity magazine explaining that these engravings reveal evidence of isolated ceremonial activities at a time of crisis. Researchers have concentrated on two main groups of inscriptions, although there are other individual or missing syllables.
“These are the first Cherokee texts found in the context of a cave, and the first ones to be translated,” Jan F. Simek, one of the authors of the study. “The notes tell us what the Native Americans were doing in that place, providing a direct testimony of how they saw and used the caves as sacred places,” he adds.
Simek indicates that from these inscriptions of Manitou Cave, the team of experts – formed by Euro-American archaeologists and specialists of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees and the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma – has identified “several other caves with similar writings “.
The cave has been very popular with tourists since it was opened in 1888 to be visited (and later it was artificially conditioned to make it more accessible). That used eliminated typical archaeological evidences like artifacts or deposits, which made it difficult for the experts to detect the indigenous ceremonies in the place.
The investigators explain that all these inscriptions refer to ceremonial and/or spiritual matters and that they were made expressly taking advantage of the isolation of the place, since they were not intended for everyone. The first text, for example, records an important ritual that took place on April 30, 1828.
“The leaders of the stickball team on the 30th of April, 1828,” reads the text. Experts.
The stickball was (and still is today) the Cherokee version of lacrosse, which is much more than a simple game for this tribe. American Indians consider it a ceremonial event that often lasts for days and focuses on competition between two communities that, together, “embody the spirit and power of the people and their ancestors.”
Each team undergoes a ritual preparation in private before the game in which it is necessary to access the purification through the sacred waters. Registered in the walls of Manitou Cave was that ritual that the players underwent to prepare spiritually for the game, cleaning themselves in the isolated underground waters.
A second series of texts is found on the roof closest to the entrance to the cave and refers to “a delicate religious theme”. These inscriptions are written backwards, as if they were addressing readers located within the rock itself. This is how the Cherokees tried to formally connect with the “Elders” or ancestors.
One of the engravings reads, for example, “I am your grandson”. “While Elders may include deceased ancestors, they may also include other supernatural beings who inhabited the world before the Cherokee appeared,” the researchers write in the study published in the Antiquity magazine.
The experts interpret that the Manitou Cave was seen as a portal to the spiritual world and that’s why the words had to be written upside down, to be legible for spiritual beings. The cave was seen as a “spiritually powerful place, where the adornment of the wall was appropriate in the context of ceremonial action.”