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Iroquoian Language Group

Cherokee Tribe

Language Group and Location

The Cherokees belonged to the Iroquioan (eer' uh kwoi yen) language group. The Iroquoian language was spoken in southwestern Virginia near what is today North Carolina. It was also spoken in a small area near the North Carolina border in parts of the Coastal Plain (Tidewater) region and the Piedmont region.

Some Iroquoian Words/Phrases the Cherokee Indians used:

happiness ... a-li-he-li-tsi-da-s-di
He/she will think ... e-`li-s-ge-s-`ti
He/she is working ... du-`lvw-sta-ne-`i

I'm hungry ... a-gi-`yo-s


The Cherokees were hunters, farmers, and gatherers. The men hunted, and the women farmed and gathered. The men hunted only what was needed to feed their families, but the women farmed enough food to last for at least two years. That was in case they had a bad year.

They hunted bear. The bear was used for meat and tools. Sometimes they used it for trading. They also hunted deer and elk. They ate the meat, used the skins, and made tools from the antlers and bones. The hunters could hit a fly (if it was still) from 30 thirty feet away! They hunted turtles, too. They made the shells into rattles and ate the rest of the meat. They made nets and other traps to catch many types of fish. They also hunted rabbits and ate them.

The Cherokee gathered nuts and berries when they were in season. They planted beans, squash, corn, sunflowers and tobacco. They made "soup" with meat, roots, and farm crops. They made corn into corn mush and cornbread. They put the corn into storage homes for the next winter, spring and summer. They did not eat the tobacco. They smoked the tobacco in pipes.


Every village had about 350-600 people. Many Cherokee villages were along the banks of rivers. Each Cherokee village had people from different clans. Most of the time, grandparents, parents and children lived together.

In the middle of every village was a council house made of saplings (young trees) and mud. The Cherokee would gather at the council house for parties, political assemblies and religious ceremonies. Bunched around the council house was a collection of homes.

Cherokee houses were in the shape of a square or rectangle. Upright poles formed the framework. The outside was covered with bark, wood or woven siding coated with earth and clay. A clan’s summer house was a large rectangular structure. There was a small, cylindrical, winter home called an asi. Some Cherokee houses were like upside-down baskets.

Pictured at left: Cherokee summer house; Pictured on right: Cherokee winter home


The Cherokee women wore skirts woven from plants. The women would sew feathers into light capes made of netting. The men wore breechcloths or leggings. The men would paint their skin and decorate it with tattoos. The early European explorers were amazed at the complex tattoo designs covering not only the men's bodies but the women as well. They used turtle and fish bone needles and natural dyes.

The picture above left is part of a Cherokee armband tattoo


Click on this link to see what Cherokees look like - past and present

Both men and women of the Cherokee tribe were treated as equals. The women and girls made baskets with many very colorful designs and patterns. In the fall, the girls would take the baskets they had made and go into the forests to gather nuts. The Cherokee women harvested and planted the plants the village ate. Girls pounded corn into flour. Women used the skins of animals that had been eaten, and would sew them into clothes for themselves and their clan. They did not sew too much, because in the summer, children did not wear much because it was so warm. Clothes were made using needles made of bone. The Cherokee women made clothing, yet the men fixed their moccasins. Women made crafts with colorful beads. They also made jars and bowls out of pottery to carry water in, and to eat out of. Some pots were stamped with designs carved into wood. Pipes were sometimes made of soapstone. Some of these pipes were used in ceremonies. They also made pipes for everyday use, which were more common.

Men cut down trees to clear land for planting. They used those trees to make canoes. The soil was very rich, which made the crops good. Cherokee used a type of agriculture called slash-and-burn. Cherokee men would make carved masks, then paint them. Sometimes they would add animal fur decorations. They made traps to catch fish. Men hollowed out their canoes by using burning coals.

Cherokee Baskets: The left one is made from honeysuckle and the right one is made from river cane


The Cherokees had many ceremonies. One was called the Booger ceremony. The Booger Ceremony was held when warriors wanted to ridicule (make fun of) enemies. During this ceremony, Cherokee men who were going to battle would wear the Booger masks they had made (see picture below).

Cherokee Indian holding a Booger Mask

Even though the Cherokee was one tribe, they fought among themselves. They used some of their slaves and captives in battles. Their technique was to hit and run. They engaged in hand-to-hand combat. They did not have any armies. Instead, the Cherokee had war parties ranging anywhere from five warriors to one hundred warriors. When the Indian tribes retreated, they spread out in many different groups to confuse their enemy tribe. Then, later, they joined together and attacked again. Most of the captives the Cherokee took were burned at the stake. They even sold enemy captives as slaves.

Cherokee Folktale: How the universe was made
The Wolf and the Milky Way

Some people say it was a dog that made the Milky Way but he was told it was the wolf. He said only the wolf could be so crafty as to make the stars...

There were people in the southern part of the world that made corn meal. The women would pound the dried corn in a pounder with a large stick till it was a fine powder. They would work all day to make the powder and then store it in large kettles in a storehouse for the winter.

After a few days of pounding the corn, they began to notice that some of the kettles were not as full as they were supposed to be. It was being taken. They examined the ground around the storehouse and noticed tracks. They decided to hide and watch the next night to see who was stealing the corn meal.

Seven women decided to hide inside the storehouse. They crouched behind the large pottery kettles and waited. Well after midnight all the women had gone to sleep except one. She watched and waited in the darkness. Suddenly she heard a noise outside and then noticed a bluish glow like a bright moonlight. The light came closer to the storehouse. The woman crouched even further behind the kettles, afraid of what was coming toward her. She picked up a stick laying beside her. The door to the storehouse opened.

In walked a wolf with a strange glow around it. The wolf walked over to one of the kettles that was brimming with freshly made corn meal and began to eat. Suddenly the woman began to scream, waking the other women. They opened their eyes and noticed the wolf inside. They all jumped up and ran towards it. The woman with the stick began hitting it till it ran out of the storehouse.

The wolf became so frightened that he jumped into the air and began flying in a wide circle back toward the north. As he flew drops of corn meal fell from his mouth. They glowed as the wolf did and so he left a trail today we call the Milky Way.

This Cherokee pottery depicts the corn meal becoming the stars in the sky

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Works Cited

"A Small Lexicon of Tsalagi Words"
(3 February 2004)

"Cherokee Images"
(3 February 2004)

"Cherokee Indians"
(3 February 2004)

"Eastern Woodland Indians"
(3 February 2004)

"What Cherokees look like - past and present"
(3 February 2004)