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A note on Cherokee theological concepts.

Throughout the formidable literature on the Christianization of Native Americans, sporadic references are made to the linguistic difficulties experienced by the early missionaries attempting the spiritual conversion of the Aboriginal. Typical of these comments are those made by the Jesuit priest, Bre'beuf, assigned to the Huron Mission in New France. In 1636, the Frenchman recorded his misgivings about the Native's ability to grasp the fundamentals of Christianity. Lamenting that the Huron language lacks labial sounds, and that the Natives "open their lips so awkwardly ... we can scarcely understand them." Bre'beuf continues:

On this account, we find ourselves hindered from getting them to say properly in their Language, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Would you judge it fitting, while waiting a better expression, to substitute instead, in the name of our Father, and of his son, and of their holy ghost?" (Thwaites 1847:117,119).

The notes of Bre'beuf's private agony are, of course, illustrative of the flagrant ethnocentricism of his day. What these early missionaries were slow to appreciate is the enormous semantic chasm which existed between the two races. In order to grasp the strange Indo-European concepts being imposed on them (e.g. the "strangely worded" official language of diplomatic treaties, the special jargon used by traders, and the alien theological concepts preached by zealous missionaries), the indigenous people of the Americas not only had to produce subtle phonetic changes in their languages but also had to make profound phenomenological accommodations in their metaphysical belief systems.

To create a "literate" Native audience, much of the missionary activity in North America, from the seventeenth century onward, focused on producing written forms of liturgy which could be used to educate Indian converts about Christian terminology and doctrine. Though nothing in North America was produced which could be considered comparable to the celebrated Testerian manuscripts of sixteenth-century Mexico (the catechism books created by the Franciscan fathers in a pictographic-rebus format thought to be compatible to the ancient painted screenfold traditions of their Native converts [see Otomi' catechism m.s., 1968]); nevertheless, an enormous literature of primers, grammars, religious tracts, and versions of the scripture were printed, using an orthography thought to be comprehensible to Native Americans' spoken languages.

A number of useful historical surveys describe the extent of these early missionary efforts. Some of the more accessible of the nineteenth century volumes are McCoy's History of the Baptist Indian Missions 1840; Shea's History of the Catholic Missions, 1855; and Thwaites 1847 edition of the Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents.

Despite the enormous scholarly attention paid to the historical dialectic between the missionary and the Indian, the literature includes relatively little discussion of the complex psycholinguistic process of becoming theologically "literate" on the part of Native Americans. This article attempts to address this issue by examining the literal meanings behind the English loan words that were used to convey key Christian theological concepts to the Cherokees.

The primary liturgical sources used in my semantic analysis are nineteenth century publications: versions of the New Testament, extracts from a religious pamphlet, as well as portions of the Lord's Prayer. By conducting a close linguistic reading of this material, I hope to provide insights into how Aboriginal Cherokees cognized and conceptualized the Christian faith and to stimulate investigations of similar historical documents (cf. Parks 1988).


The Catholic priest, Father Roger, who made exploratory trips into the Carolinas in 1566, appears to have been the earliest recorded missionary to work among the Cherokee Indians. According to one nineteenth-century source, "Roger devoted himself to the language of the newfound tribe with such assiduity, that in six months he had mastered its difficulties, and was able to announce intelligibly to his nephytes the mysteries of our religion" (Shea 1855:59).

These claims may be a bit exaggerated. Few of the early white missionaries working among the Cherokees are known to have become fluent in that language (Berkhofer 1965:48-49; McLoughlin 1984:161). According to McLoughlin, even Evan Jones, an evangelical preacher and gifted linguist, who "knew Welch, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew" found Cherokee very difficult, and it took him "almost a decade to learn the language well enough to preach in Cherokee" (McLoughlin 1984:157).

The spiritual conversion of the Cherokees began in earnest in 1799 when the Moravian missionaries were granted permission to spread the gospel o:'sda kano':heda ("good news") within the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation (McLoughlin 1984:13). While these early missionaries were inflamed to "impress on the rude minds of the Cherokees that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God," much of their proselytizing energies were undermined by the formidable nature of the Cherokee lexicon which was thought to be an impoverished tool of communication "deficient in abstractions suitable for theology" (Berkhofer 1965:52,48). The same sense of frustration is echoed in the missionary John Gambold's letter, dated May 22, 1809, as he cites "the wretched Cherokee language" as the main obstacle he faces in winning over the minds of the Aboriginals (McLoughlin 1984:66).

The invention of the Sequoyan syllabary greatly facilitated the spiritual transformation of the Cherokees. In 1824, just three years after the syllabary's inception, John Arch, a full-blood convert, was inspired to translate into Cherokee a section of the Gospel According to St. John (Hinkle n.d.). Later, in the same year, David Brown, a mixed-blood minister, succeeded in translating the New Testament in its entirety (ibid.).

After their forced removal to Oklahoma in 1838, newly converted Cherokees continued to publish, in their own language, hymnals, prayer books, and portions of the Old and New Testament. Between 1844 and 1848, almost three quarters of a million pages of religious doctrine were printed in Oklahoma by the local presses of the Baptist Mission and the Methodist outpost at Park Hill (McLoughlin 1990:229).

The Bible was replete with foreign names, exotic places, and revelatory acts. In order to translate and publish this liturgy in the Cherokee language, a terminology had to be created that would be easily understandable. Finding equivalent Cherokee terms for such stalwart theological concepts as sin, damnation, and salvation proved to be a formidable task.

Despite these obstacles, the influx of Christian loan words and theological ideas quickly gained coinage among nineteenth-century Cherokees. The early translators of the Holy Scripture were successful in their efforts because they were inventive and imaginative enough to overcome certain representational and conceptual problems. Using some of the most salient Christian terms, I wish to explore a few of these linguistic transpositions:


To forge a link between English and Cherokee and to establish a mutual semantic correlation between the two languages, it was imperative that the words of the Apostles be transposed into the phonic range of Cherokee speakers. Certain religious personages and place names could be closely approximated in Cherokee because of their phonetic similarities. Thus, the Lord of the Old Testament, Jehovah, gained a new audience as Yehowa, as did Satan, the fallen angel, who became cognate with Sedani.

The Messiah of the New Testament was represented as Tsi:sa ("Jesus"). His coterie of disciples, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, became known as Maga, Ma'du, Luga, and Tsani, respectively. Those archetypes of human fraility, Adam and Eve, could be rendered phonetically into such recognizible forms as Adawi and I(h)wi. And the place of Christ's cruxifiction was recorded as Goligada.

However, Cherokee and other Iroquoian languages exhibit certain phonetic limitations.(1) The most overt and problematic factors are the absence of bilabial stops /p/ and /b/ and the noticeable lack of labio-dental fricatives /f/ and /v/. Thus, the names of a number of Biblical luminaries could only be roughly pronunciated: Paul (Quoia) and Peter (Quida).

Occasionally, a phonological description of foreign lands would suffer in translation. Babylon could only be weakly approximated in the Sequoyan script as Dadiloni, just as Nazareth could only be faintly represented as Naselidi (Scancarelli 1987:49).

Indeed, the translators of the Bible were faced with far greater tasks than dealing with the orthographic difficulties inherent in transposing Cherokee into English. From a review of the nineteenth-century liturgy, it is clear that many of these theological terms had to be modified or re-created to fit the Cherokee epistemological framework and would resonate with their established phenomenological understanding of the world. I examine some of the most provocative metaphysical changes in the next section.



Underlying many of the Cherokee words chosen by nineteenth-century translators to represent enduring theological states is a metaphysical sense of impermanence and transcendence. One such example is the human soul, ada:n(v)do?, whose deconstructed root, ada?nv'a, indicates that someone or something is in transit, moving from place to place (cf. Feeling and Pulte 1976:6).

According to Fogelson, the Aboriginal Cherokees believed in four primal animate life forces that emanated from the human body. The first of these quadripartite souls, which Fogelson terms "the soul of consciousness," is centered "in the head or throat and is associated with saliva" (Fogelson 1979:90). Fogelson identifies the remaining three "vital essences" as the "hepatic soul" located "in the liver"; the "visceral soul" "located in the flesh" and "associated with blood"; and finally the "osseous soul" which "resides in the bones and is associated with sperm" (ibid.).(2)

The belief in the multiplicity of souls was, of course, a widespread phenomenon among the indigenous peoples of the Americas. According to Le Jeune's Relation of 1639, the Hurons of the St. Lawrence believed in the existence of "several souls" (reprinted in Thwaites 1847:376). The Narragansett Indians of the Northeastern United States apparently believed in two distinct spiritual components (Simmons 1978:192 citing Williams 1936:130,137).

In the Plains region, the Lakota Sioux have long maintained a traditional belief that the human spirit is composed of certain vital integral elements: the nagi, niya, sicun, and perhaps the taku skan skan as well (DeMallie and Jahner 1980:72 citing James Walker). More recent ethnographic research conducted among the Alaskan Tlingit also reveals a longstanding metaphysical belief in two or more spiritual essences (Kan 1989:52-53). Finally, one can trace a similar belief system to ancient Mexico. There is considerable ethnohistorical evidence that the Nahua speaking people of Tenochtitlan believed in a triad of vital forces, the tonalli, teyolia, and ihiyotl, which kept the human body in balance (Lopez Austin 1988: Vol 1, 313-316; Ortiz de Montellano 1990: 55-67).

This indigenous metaphysical understanding of multiple life forces clearly wars against the Augustian vision of the soul as unus ego animus, the transcendant logocentric object of inner experience, the self-conscious spiritual mass. From the Native viewpoint, one can imagine the endless confusion and philosophical debates over the true configuration of this immaterial essence.


The scriptural admonishment, "what profit a Man to gain the world but lose his soul" must have struck a curious chord in the Cherokee psyche of the last century. The Cherokees, like many other Native American societies, were well attuned to the metaphysical affliction of soul-loss. (For an ethnohistorical description of soul-loss among the Huron, see Le Jeune 1636 cited in Thwaites 1847:376, 378; for a more anthropological discussion of the phenomenon among the Menominee, see respectively Spindler 1978:715; Maliseat-Passaquoddy, Erickson 1978:133; the Creek, Swanton 1928:654-655; and the Paviotso, Parker 1938:37,41).(3)

To the Cherokee mind, the involuntary loss of one's vital life forces could usually be attributed to the supernatural machinations of a tsi:sgili("a witch," literally "owl") or a dida:hnese:sgi ("a sorcerer," literally a "putter-in and drawer-out, he/she"). To recapture a lost or displaced soul was the daunting task reserved only for a qualified dida:hnvwi:sgi("medicine man," literally "curer of them, he/she").

To avoid further confusion with this mystical process, and to capture the redemptive act of "saving one's soul," the translators of the Bible chose a different form of the usual infinitive, "to save," (sghwanigod- "to keep, to preserve"). The verb root chosen was -sdel- from which Christ's honorific title of "Savior" (uni:sdeli:sgi) was constructed.


The Cherokees were well acquainted with the mystical exhaltation associated with the worship of a Supreme Being. Even though J. T. Alexander, editor of Levi Gritt's 1951 Cherokee dictionary, renders the term, une:hlanv:hi, as "Lord" (1971:95), the word which most aptly describes this supernatural force derives its power from the verb root -ane:hl-"to provide" (Kilpatrick and Kilpatrick 1965:72-73). Thus, the Creator is most often referred to, in religious tracts as well as in the magico-medical spells, as une:hlanv':hi "the one who provides" (Kilpatrick and Kilpatrick 1964:27; Kilpatrick and Kilpatrick 1965b:34; Kilpatrick and Kilpatrick 1968:33; and Kilpatrick and Kilpatrick 1970: 102-105, 116, and 118).(4)

During the early part of the nineteenth century, the Cherokees used several other complimentary terms to denote the "Creator." One of these, utajah (translated by James Carey in 1798 as "The Great Man who dwells above"), defies modern exegesis (McLoughlin 1984:37). It may either be a dialectic corruption of utana ("big") or it may be an archaic Iroquoian term.(5)

Thwaites, citing T. Say's "Vocabularies of Indian Languages," records another problematic phrase, ka-long-la-te-e geth-te-ra, which he translates as "the Great Spirit above" (Thwaites 1905:292). Transposed into a modern idiom, the first word becomes recognizable as galv':la?di' ("above"). However, geth-te-ra remains something of an anamoly.

Another synonymous term, which seems to have gained ascendency with the Cherokee translators of the Bible, is ugv ' wiyu:hi which means "king, ruler, or chief of the people" (cf. Gallatin 1836:398). This word, which according to Fogelson (personal communication) is a Native invention, seems to have gained coinage during the eighteenth century, a period of enlivened diplomatic activity and treaty making for the eastern Cherokees. In 1730 the Englishman, Sir Alexander Cuming, engineered the conveyance of the honorific title of "emperor" upon the Cherokee warrior, Moytoy of Tellico. It is not recorded which Cherokee word was selected to celebrate Moytoy's exalted status. However, it is likely to have been the word under discussion.(6)


According to Mooney, the ancient religion of the Cherokees acknowledged a tripartite cosmography where a pantheon of spirits resided "in the heaven above, on the earth beneath, and in the waters under the earth" (Mooney 1891:340). However, in the enactment of some of their most sacred healing ceremonies, the Cherokees often paid homage to the ancient spirits residing in the four cardinal directions, with particular attention given to the life-sustaining realm of the East (Kilpatrick and Kilpatrick 1964a:25-27; Kilpatrick and Kilpatrick 1964c:1386-1391; and Kilpatrick and Kilpatrick 1967:10).

To convey the concept of Heaven, as an eternal state of spiritual repose, Cherokee translators used the simple, vertical direction of "above" (galv'la?di). Occasionally, one encounters in the liturgy a manufactured word for "heaven" such as tso:sv'i. A ready exegesis of this word is difficult, but it may be a corruption of tsulv:sado:i ("bright rays place") (cf. Kilpatrick 1966:35).(7)


The Messiah was recognized in the Cherokee versions of the Bible under the revered title, Jesus (Tsi:sa) Christ (Galonedv). Galonedv pays homage to his prophesied role as "the annointed one," the term being derived from the verb root, -lone- which means "to annoint." The Seneca designation for Christ, tsaka'age:tas, is perhaps more descriptive of the Nazarene's spiritual mission since it transliterates: "he brings them back to life"(Chafe 1967:77).

The Cherokee word adopted to mean "Christian," tsu: nane':l(o)di ("to strive to attain, they"), is noteworthy since it retains a sense of the convert's intense struggle to achieve spiritual conversion. However, it is perhaps more striking that the term chosen to denote "Christmas," dani: dani:sdayohihv':i ("they are shooting them"), has no religious overtones. Rather, it connotes a festive occasion when one feasts on fowl.

While most Biblical names, places, or events could find some serviceable analogy to the Cherokee experience, one amusing anomaly should be noted. The phrase, "Behold the Lamb of God," cited in John 1:29, must have caused some vexation to the minds of the nineteenth-century translators. While the Cherokees were familiar with this form of livestock, (first introduced during the colonial period; the Cherokee Nation owned 2,917 sheep by 1828, the period when the first printings of the scripture were circulated, Fradkin 1990:279-280), there exists no single word in the Native language to describe this woolly, domestic creature. Rather than invent some outlandish new term, the translators, instead, employed the servicable compound, ahwi agina ("deer, young"), to convey Christ's sacrificial incarnation.


One of the curious changes wrought by the introduction of Christianity has been the dual identity assumed by many Cherokee medicine men. A cursory survey of Oklahoma church records reveals that a surprising number of these traditional folk healers became ordained ministers, while others served as elders or deacons. Cherokee traditionalists, then as now, seem to make little distinction between their involvement with esoteric forms of magic and their dutiful participation in the worship of the Christian faith.

As a result, a number of nineteenth-century Cherokee magical formulae are infused with a blend of Christian terms intermixed with elements of ritualistic language. An example of this telling syncretism is a Cherokee burn conjuration, written in the Sequoyah syllabary, which dates from 1885-86. Here, the medicine man petitions a coterie of dighahna:wadido:hi ani:da:we':hi ("angel wizards") to come down and relieve the searing pain his patient feels. This incantation is further empowered by invoking "the Ancient One, His Son, and the Holy Spirit!" (an English translation appears in Kilpatrick 1965b:35)

In the New Testament, there appear to be two manifestations of the term, "Holy Spirit." The appellation which appears most often, in the Gospels of John 1:33 and Matthew 1:20, is: ada:n(v)do?("soul")galvquodi:yi("holy, very"). In the liturgy, there appears an alternate form of "Holy Spirit," a curious designation that seems to be clearly borrowed from Cherokee shamanistic texts.

In translating the divinatory prayers of a particular Cherokee medicine man, I was struck by the frequent appearance of the cryptic i:gagadi. Puzzled by the meaning of this curious ritualism (which often appeared in the invocatory section of these texts), I suspected that the word might be a deliberate corruption of i:gadi ("all of it").

Uncertain of my own interpretation, I inquired among my informants. A sixty-two year old minister (whose great uncle happened to be a medicine man) assured me that it meant "the light that comes with the dawn." Moreover, he insisted that the Biblical translators had co-opted this word, the Cherokee equivalent for Morgenrote, to describe the "Holy Spirit" since it connotes the divine radiance which dispells the spiritual darkness of humankind.

Returning to my notes, I realized that the author of these esoteric texts, Tse:gi Ahwi:gadoga, had served during the 1930s as minister of the Sycamore Tree Baptist Church for the Indian community of Gwagwo':hi near Barber, Oklahoma. Thus, Tse:gi surreptitiously continued to practice the magical traditions of his forefathers. In examining his magico-medico writings, which are filled with pleas for supernatural guidance, one wonders whether Tse:gi was addressing some ethereal spirit of an ancient dawn or the incarnation of his Christian faith.


Historically, the Cherokees, like many tribal societies, enjoyed a strong sense of moral obligation and a well-defined ethical system (Gilbert 1943). While the Cherokees of the last century might agree that "sin" was a highly woeful and atoneable state, they did not share the Christian tenet, preached in the white evangelical churches, that being "wicked" unegv:tsidv (literally "white hell") led an individual into the eternal pit of damnation.

"To the Cherokee mind, 'depravity' and 'transgression' were evanescent states of human behavior" (Kilpatrick 1991:52). Thus, to accommodate this more transitory view of sin, the translators of the 1828 version of the Lord's Prayer (Kilpatrick and Kilpatrick 1968:27) as well as those of Psalms 1:1, adopted a more temperate term to describe the spiritually destitute: a?sganv:tsv':hi, ("sinner," literally "one who has strayed, i.e. done wrong").

In comparing the various versions of the Lord's Prayer that were published during the nineteenth century, one can observe similar subtle shifts in word usage. As an example, that simple but cardinal expression of human reciprocity, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors" undergoes several curious transformations of tone. The Rev. Samuel Worchester's original 1828 version (reproduced in Kilpatrick and Kilpatrick 1968:32) is perhaps the most humane: "Pity us in regard to having sinned against Thee as we pity those who sin against us." Worchester's translation gains its eloquence from his use of the Cherokee word for "pity," which is derived from the verb root, -doli- and his reliance on the Cherokee word for "sin," -sganv'- ("to stray").

The same phrase assumes a more distant and businesslike tone in the translation that appears in Albert Gallatin's 1836 compilation, Synopsis of the Indian Tribes. Here, the translator replaces the word for "sin" with the term, tsa:tsi: dhu:gv' ("to be owed, he/she"). Thus, the phrase reads: "Remit to us what we owe Thee as we forgive those who owe us" (Gallatin 1836:421).

An 1860 translation, published by the American Bible Society, offers a more traditional reading: "Forgive us our debts, the same as, we forgive our debtors." These permutations continue into the twentieth century. In a modern version, the translator has substituted a different word for "our debts," inserting the term sgi:yago:li:gi ("that which is loaned to us") in the attempt to renovate this timeless message.(8)


In Cherokee, the verb root, -e:l-, implies that an individual believes something to be true after considering the matter for awhile. "To believe," in the Christian sense, however, means to have intuitive "faith." To convey this idea of overwhelming spiritual conviction, the translators of the New Testament used a different verb root, -o:hiyu:-, from which not only the word for "faith," go:hi:dhi, but also the term for "confession," go:hiyu:todi', is derived (cf. Feeling and Pulte 1975:120). Thus, paradoxically, in the Cherokee language at least, the act of confessing one's sins becomes the expression of one's faith.

Delving more into semantics, it might be observed that this Christianized verb form, -o:hiyu:- (which might be roughly translated as: "to believe in something without evidence"), bears some resemblance to the verb root, -yo:hi-, ("to free"). It is conjecture, of course, but the confession of one's sins is known to be a highly emotional and cathartic act. In choosing this word, perhaps the translators of the New Testament were mindful of its liberating connotations.


For many Christians, the consummate act of being accepted into the congregation centered on the act of baptism. To the Cherokee, this symbolic rite of immersion was almost synonymous with their own ancient purification ceremony known as amo':hi atsv':sdi ("water, to go and return to, one").(9) In ordinary Cherokee discourse, the verb root, -gv-, would be adequate to describe the act of something (alive) either falling or being put into water or some form of liquid. However, the nineteenth century translators of the Gospel chose to use the root, -awo-, which means "to wash, or bathe an animate creature" as the most appropriate term for baptism (e.g. agawo':da "baptised, he/she") (Kilpatrick and Kilpatrick 1966:41; Pulte 1975:192; and Scancarelli 1994: 150-158).


An enduring component of the Christian faith has been the acceptance of apostolic testimony. The Apostle's claim about bearing witness to revelatory truths, described in John 5:31-33, must have troubled Cherokee converts of the nineteenth century. It has been observed that "Cherokee verbs make a prayerful distinction between what the speaker knows to be true from having witnessed an act, and what is merely reputed to be true" (Kilpatrick 1965a:373). In Cherokee, then, one cannot vouchsafe for the authenticity of any act, without personal knowledge of the event. As a result, one often encounters variants of verb forms that embody this curious metaphysical qualification that the speaker lacks personal experience of the event he or she is describing.(10)

In written Cherokee this verificatory problem is encoded by two telling suffixes. The first, -v'i-, indicates an action was directly experienced or witnessed by the speaker. In contrast, the suffix, se'i, indicates that the speaker did not directly experience or witness the action he/she described. Compare: u-wo-ni-sv'i ("He spoke" [and was witnessed doing so]), with u-wo-ni-se'i("He spoke" [reputedly]).

The emphasis on this meta-linguistic caveat must have resulted in some curious historical consequences. For the zealous missionary it meant engaging in troubling debates to overcome the stubborn resistance of his converts about the validity of Mark, Matthew, and Luke's reportage on the Messiah, since not one Cherokee was present to witness the unfolding of Biblical events.

Among the Eastern Cherokees, this tentative acceptance of Biblical history survives most vividly in the "Inoli" letters, which are housed in the Bureau of American Ethnology files at the Smithsonian Institution. I:no:li was a nineteenth century Cherokee jack-of-all-trades whom the ethnographer James Mooney once described as "counciler, keeper of the townhouse records, Sunday School leader, conjurer, officer in the Confederate service, and Methodist Preacher." (Mooney 1891:315).

One finds in the letters an odd assortment of church memoranda (e.g. sermon notes, funeral notices, attendance records, etc.) relating to the affairs of the Echota Methodist Mission which flourished on the Qualla Boundary in North Carolina during the middle of the nineteenth century. One document of particular note enumerates, in rather gruesome detail, the tragic fate of the Apostles. Since I:no:li spoke no English, one wonders where he acquired his information. Some of the wording appears suspiciously similar to that found in Fox's Book of Martyrs, an illustrated treatise on religious history popular during the period of the Civil War.

What is interesting about this litany of martyrdom is that I:no:li was quick to add the qualifying verb suffix, e'i, after each of his historical declarations. Thus, while we are informed that the Apostle Matthew (Ma'du), was slain by a long knife in Ethiopia (Idiohu), I:no:li inserts: ani'isdane'i ("they killed him" [reportedly]).

I:no:li records that the disciple, Mark (Maga), suffered an equally tragic fate in Egypt (Itsiqui). Evidentally, the Apostle, Luke, fared little better in Greece (Lisi). However, again, I:no:li denotes that his facts are speculative: oliwa ("olive") tlugv ("tree") agadune:i ("he was hanged" [reportedly]).

According to I:no:li, John (Tsani), the chronicler of the Book of Revelations, proved more resilient than his counterparts: goi:hi ("oil, in") atlutsasgi ("kettle") agau ("fire, on) agune:i ("he was put into"[reportedly]). However, John appears to have survived this ordeal since I:no:li adds: udugude:quo ("he became alive again, just"). Evidentally, the Apostle succumbed to some unnamed disease. Again, I:no:li uses the telling suffix, e'i, to caution his readers about the veracity of his statements: hni ("later") kila ("on") uyohuse:i ("he died" [reportedly]) uhyvgiquo ("disease, just") lisi:yi ("at Greece").

It seems that, even in his role as religious historian, I:no:li could not grapple with the uncertainties of a past he was not present to witness. For in Cherokee epistemology, go:hiy(u)di':sgi ("the one who witnesses") is the concretizing agent of reality. Watching an event or an entity (derived from the root, -gh(a)dhi-(to watch [it],) is the paramount expression of human verification. Mooney and Olbrechts (1932) theorize that this meta-visual emphasis on "seeing is believing" can be traced (as it has been in Indo-European languages) to the close relationship between the verb stem -unhta - ("to know") and its derivative verb root -'kta- ("to see").(11)

Thus, it can be no historical accident that a celestial entity like an angel is conceptualized in nineteenth century syncretistic Cherokee as dighahna:wadido:hi ("watcher of them [habitually], he/she")(Kilpatrick 1965b:35). The Apostles are also referred to in one 1854 account as tsunada kana:wadi:dolu:hi("those who had watched over [them]") (Inoli letters, n.d.). Nor can it be an accident that a minister in the 1856 parlance of the Eastern Cherokee is described as: digh(a)dhi':ya ("he watches them") (Kilpatrick and Kilpatrick 1966:33,35).(12)

In this context, the act of habitually watching someone does not appear to celebrate the fact that the sensory organs actualize and privilege reality. What is implied here is the idea that both supernatural as well as human agents of the Lord "watch over" (in a protective attitude but from some distance) their earthly charges.


This article has briefly examined the historical process of Cherokee Indians becoming "literate" in Christian terminology by conducting a semantic analysis of selected English loanwords (particularly verb and noun forms). While this methodology may have its critics, its inspiration can be traced back to the writings of such early ethnographers as John Wesley Powell (1881) and Frans Boaz (1911) who argued that a sound investigation of Native American culture must be firmly based on a working knowledge of indigenous languages.

What I have endeavored to demonstrate here is that an enormous amount of information about Native thought patterns can be gleaned from a careful reconstruction of indigenous responses to foreign loanwords. Cloaked behind the rectitude of these theological concepts are some extraordinary metaphysical notions about the articulation of spiritual power. It should be further emphasized that the Cherokee example is far from unique.

For the nineteenth century alone, there exists a sizeable corpus of grammars, hymnals, tracts, and translations of the Bible written by missionaries working among the Mohawk (H. A. Hill 1835); Tlingit (Donski 1895); Osage (Montgomery and Requa 1834); Oto (Merrill 1834); Dakota Sioux (Stevens 1836); Pawnee (Dunbar 1836); and the Algonquin (Bishop Baraga 1832), to mention but a few possible sources of investigation. Serious scholarly attention given to such ethnohistorical materials would, no doubt, yield a wealth of insights into the conceptual difficulties that the indigenous peoples of the Americas experienced, historically, in attempting to incorporate alien Christian beliefs into their own epistemological systems.


1. For a discussion of Cherokee phonetics see Willard Walker 1975, "Cherokee," in Studies in Southeastern Indian Languages, James M. Crawford (ed.), University of Georgia Press, Athens. The resultant problems of orthographic representation in the Sequoyan syllabary are treated in Wallace L. Chafe and Jack Frederick Kilpatrick, 1962, "Inconsistencies in Cherokee Spelling," Symposium on Language and Culture: Proceedings of the 1962 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society: 60-63.

Janine Scancarelli has analyzed the problems of phonologically representing aspirated consonants in the Cherokee syllabary. See Scancarelli 1992, "Aspiration and Cherokee orthographies," in: The Linguistics of Literacy, Pamela Downing, Susan D. Lima, and Michael Noonan (eds.), Typological Studies in Language, 21, John Benjamins, Amsterdam.

2. During the early 1960s, my late father interviewed a number of Cherokee medicine men who lived in northeastern Oklahoma. One of these individuals, an elderly traditionalist who was much revered by the community for his healing abilities, said he believed the human soul to be "half as large as the thumb" and to be located "inside the heart" (Kilpatrick anthropological fieldnotes, unpublished m.s. in private library of the author).

3. For a more extensive cross-cultural survey of this widely documented phenomenon of "soul loss" see Forrest Clements' Primitive Concepts of Disease, University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, 1932; Henry E. Sigerist's A History of Medicine: Primitive and Archaic Medicine, Vol. I, pps. 131-132, 194-196; as well as I. M. Lewis' more recent discussion in Ecstatic Religion, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1971, pps. 46-48.

For a comprehensive bibliography on the related psychological malady, "susto," among Mexican-American populations as well as in Latin America, see Arthur J. Rubel et. al's Susto: A Folk Illness, University of California Press, 1991, pps. 6 and 8. Janis Alcorn provides some additional commentary on "soul loss" among the Huastec Maya in her volume, Huastec Ethnobotany, University of Texas Press, 1984.

4. James Mooney was the first ethnographer to investigate the etymology of the word, une':hlanv':hi, which he thought should be translated as "apportioner." Mooney assumed that the supreme deity of the Cherokees, like the mound-building Natchez, was the sun, and that this was an equivalent term for that primordial force. Interestingly, he observed how une':hlanv':hi has been misinterpreted by the missionaries who "incorrectly assumed this apportioner of all things to be the suppositional 'Great Spirit' of the Cherokees and hence the word is used in the Bible translation as synonymous with God" (1891:340).

Mooney's translation of the word as "apportioner" was perpetuated by his posthumous collaborator, the Belgian linguist, Frans Olbrechts (Mooney and Olbrechts 1932:20). Even though my late parents were insistent that "provider" was the correct interpretation, they would occasionally lapse into using Mooney's older term in some of their translations (see Kilpatrick and Kilpatrick, "Folk Formulas of the Oklahoma Cherokee" 1964:217).

Hi? gayv:lige':i ("Ancient One, you") and its variants also serve as occasional surrogates for the word, "Creator" in certain Cherokee ritualistic texts (See Kilpatrick and Kilpatrick 1964:218; and Kilpatrick and Kilpatrick 1970: 121). Less frequently encountered in the same context is the phrase, galv':la?di'he': hi ("above, resider, you") (Kilpatrick and Kilpatrick 1970:114).

5. In the Iroquoian language family, most definitions for the Supreme Being have some sort of functional aspect to their meaning. Thus, in Seneca, the Creator is known variously as hotye:no':kta?ah ("he has fashioned it") (Chafe 1961:153) or haweni:yo?("he whose voice or word is good") (Chafe 1967:85).

David Boyle, in his monograph "The Pagan Iroquois," cites some interesting Mohawk examples. Here, the Creator is referred to as songwayadihsonh ("maker of our bodies") and Raweyennowanenh ("He, the Master-Idea") (Boyle 1891:131 reprinted in Iroquois Source Book, Vol. II, Elizabeth Tooker (ed.), Garland Publication Inc., N.Y., 1985).

6. For a lively account of Sir Alexander Cuming and his bid to rule over the Kingdom of the Cherokee see William O. Steele, The Cherokee Crown of Tannassy, John F. Blair, Winston-Salem, 1977.

Among the Cherokee, both terms for the Lord have remained interchangeable for well more than a hundred years, particularly in northeastern Oklahoma. In this region, whether one peruses the unpublished Sycamore Tree Church records of 1936 (which are written in the Sequoyan script) or whether one examines A. Smith and H. L. Meredith's 1981 bilingual Episcopal prayer book, the terms remain synonymous, regardless of denomination.

7. This aberrant Cherokee term for heaven, tso:sv'i; appears in Bernard Hoffman's 1959 etymological survey of Iroquoian terms, as tsasr. See "Iroquois Linguistic Classification from Historical Material," Ethnohistory; 6 (2):172.

8. The concept of repaying a debt was curiously articulated in the nineteenth century parlance of the eastern Cherokee: tsu'di ("to put them [hard] down, one') e:ts(a)dhu.;gv ("been owed by you, it") See Kilpatrick and Kilpatrick, 1966, "The Chronicles of Wolftown: Social Documents of the North Carolina Cherokees, 1850-1862," Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 196, Anthropological Papers No. 75:17, 27, Smithsonian Insitution.

9. For a discussion of the "Going to the Water" rites see James Mooney 1900, "The Cherokee River Cult," Journal of American Folklore, 13,(48):1-10; and Alan Kilpatrick 1991, "Going to the Water: A Structural Analysis of Cherokee Purification Rituals," American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 15(4): 49-58.

10. This verificatory feature is, of course, not unique to the Cherokee language. Chafe (n.d.) has observed the same phenomenon in the Seneca morphological structure. Here, the addition of the qualifier, gyq'oh ("reportedly") fulfills essentially the same function (e.g. ne'["long ago"] na'e ["went, he"] gyq'oh ["reportedly"]).

Chafe (personal communication) also reports that similar morphological categories exist in the Caddoan language which distinguish between real and imagined things (e.g., experiences that cannot be verified). The California Wintu language also appears to make a similar distinction (see Dorothy Lee's "Linguistic Reflection of Wintu Thought" in: Teachings from the American Earth, Dennis and Barbara Tedlock (eds.), Liveright, N.Y., 1975:133-134). Finally, Wiget in his study of Hopi folklore, records a similar "reportative feature" in that language. He cites the phrases, puu yaw and yaw ("it is said") which signify to the listener "that the events being narrated were not personally witnessed by the narrator but were reported to him by someone else" (Andrew Wiget, "Telling the Tale," In: Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature, Brain Swann and Arthur Krupat (eds.), University of California Press, 1987:329).

11. Mooney and Olbrechts 1932:145. They also point out the close resemblance of akt'a ("eye") to the same verb root. For a discussion of the phenomenological implications of this hegemony of the visual for Indo-European languages see Stephen A. Tyler, 1984, "The Vision Quest in the West; or What the Mind's Eye Sees," Journal of Anthropological Research, 40(1):23-40.

12. See J.F. Kilpatrick, 1965, "Christian Motifs in Cherokee Healing Rituals," The Perkins School of Theology Journal, Vol. 18(2) 35. The term cited for the Apostles can be found in the I:no:li Letters, Bureau of American Ethnology File 2241-A, Washington D.C. For the term, "watcher" applied to a minister see Kilpatrick and Kilpatrick, 1966, "Chronicles of Wolftown: Social Documents of the North Carolina Cherokees, 1850-1862, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 196, Anthropological Papers No. 75:33,35, Smithsonian Institution. In this document, the term, agh(a)dhi':ya, ("he watches it") is also applied to the role of a treasurer since he "watches over" the money (12-13).


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Author:Kilpatrick, Alan
Publication:The American Indian Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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