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Church in the Woods

Updated on January 11, 2011

I was going about my typically morning, collecting language data for my research.  At times I was busy filing things in the computer while my Cherokee language assistant just sat there waiting for me to finish.  He asked if I had been able to go to the festival from the previous weekend.  I excitedly said yes and had even gone out that night to see the stompdance.  He smiled and said "that one is just for show.  You should go see a real one."  I was kind of taken back but pursued it.  "You should go my church.  We meet out in the woods and have a ceremony just like the old days."  Knowing that this could be a golden opportunity I asked if that would be possible.  "Sure" he said "all are welcome.  Just no pictures, and no recordings."  I agreed.

All Are Welcome?

Turns out my friend belonged to the Red Bird Society for Keetoowah Indians (a branch of Cherokee).  They only hold service once a month.  Since I was only there for a month and a half, I realized that this would be my only opportunity to attend an authentic native american ceremony.  They met after sunset.  I sat around waiting for my friend to call, which he finally did.  "I'm too sick to go tonight", he informed me "we'll have to do it another time."  I knew this was my chance. "Tell me how to get there" I said.

It was 11:00 PM and I was driving down a dirt road in the woods looking for this meeting.  Finally a turn on the right.  Could this be where I was supposed to go?  It wasn't so much a road as it was a break in the fence allowing me to drive into the woods.  Or was it a path?  I wasn't sure but took the chance.  I'm driving through the woods and finally see some cars.  No lights.  There are a few people milling about that I can see with my headlights.  None seemed to happy to see this strange car shining his headlights in their pristine darkness.  I parked my car and got out.  In the darkness a large man jumped out of nowhere and in a gruff voice said "Osiyo."

Osiyo is Cherokee for hello.  I believe he was using it as a kind of code.  In other words he wanted to see if I spoke Cherokee to see if I was really welcome or not.  I took a big gulp.  Here goes nothing I thought.  "Osiyo tohiju?"  (Hello how are you) I asked.  A very different sounding voice from the mean gruff voice who had first confronted me replied "ost nehinuhuh?" (Good how are you?) He replied.  Sweet.  I was in.

The Setup

I breathed a sigh of relief for having made it past "security".  Everyone was now speaking in English.  No one asked me who I was or where I was from or why I was here.  "There's some food over there.  Help yourself."  I walked into this wooden canopy like thing where there was bbq cooking over an open fire.  The smoke filled the structure.  I grabbed a plate and sat down at a table there.  There were men sitting at the table but none paid me any attention.  Now, I thought, to take mental note of my surroundings.

I was in a structure that was apparently functioning as a kitchen.  It had only a back wall with 3 open sides.  It kind of look like a short barn with three sides knocked out and only posts holding everything else.  Just a dirt floor.  Inside this structure were two fires.  One was open with a grate over it cooking the bbq.  The other fire had a sort of earthen oven built around it.  There was a lantern inside this to see.  As I looked to either side of this structure I noticed small little cabin/buildings.  People were coming out of them.  I came to realize that people were sleeping in them.  There were beds inside and there were about 12 buildings.  I found out that people stayed out here all weekend when they had service.

About 150 feet from where I was enjoying my delicious meal was a fire.  Around this fire were seven arbors.  I had researched beforehand that the seven arbors represent the seven clans of the Cherokee.  Few people sat inside the arbors.  Most just sat in lawn chairs and benches and blankets.  But one thing remained the same: everyone faced the fire.

The Service

The service took awhile to start.  I kept glancing at my watch.  About 1 AM the call to start came.  The ceremony that transpired happened the same way that I described in my hub on the stompdance.  The difference with this service was the amount of people.  A couple hundred people encircled the fire.  I estimate half to be teenagers.

When the dance began few people took part.  But as the night wore on more and more people, especially the younger, began to take part.  The ground thundered under their synchronized stomps.  These people were intent on restoring the balance to the world, and it showed in the sincerity of their ancient dance.  I felt like a cowboy in the 1800s witnessing something few have ever been privileged enough to experience.

I glanced at my watch again.  3:30 AM.  These people were dedicated.  They would continue dancing until they could see the sun.  As much as I tried to will myself to watch the entire dance I decided I had seen enough.  Time to go home and get a little rest and revel in what I had just seen.  Against all odds a piece of Cherokee culture has survived the onslaught of modernity. 


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