Survey of Cherokee Literature
completed for workshop for the Museum of the Cherokee Indian's Certificate in Cherokee Studies program, 2009
by Barbara R. Duncan, Ph.D.
Cherokee Oral Literature includes:
Myths, legends, stories, jokes, family stories, oral history.
Cherokee people, recordings, books.
What to look for:
Is the source a Cherokee person from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, or United Keetoowah Band?
Is the story retold in their own words, or rewritten by someone else?
Does the story fit Cherokee cultural patterns or does it seem to come from somewhere else?
Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin, Through Indian Eyes.
Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin. The Broken Flute.
Selected recommended sources on Cherokee oral literature:
Duncan, Barbara, ed. Living Stories of the Cherokee. (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1998)
Duncan, Barbara, ed. Origins of the Milky Way (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2008)
Duvall, Deborah, with illustrations by Murv Jacobs. How Medicine Came to the People (and other books in this series.)
Galloway, Regina ed. Aunt Mary Tell Me A Story
Mooney, James. Cherokee Myths, Legends, and Sacred Formulas. (Washington: Gov’t Printing Office 1900. Various reprints)
Ross, Gayle. How Rabbit Tricked Otter.
CDs and DVDs:
Lloyd Arneach Can You Hear the Smoke
Freeman Owle, Creation Stories from the Cherokee Homeland
Sequoyah Guess, Gramma’s Stories
Tales of Wonder, Rich-Heape Productions
White’s Historical Collections of Georgia
Anything with Cherokee princesses or feather warbonnets.
Cherokee written literature includes:
tracts, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, newspaper articles, letters, diaries, plays
It is important to distinguish among the following:
Literature BY Cherokee authors.
Are they are enrolled members of the three federally-recognized tribes (Eastern Band, Cherokee Nation, United Keetoowah Band) or not? This does make a difference.
Literature BY others ABOUT Cherokee people.
Some of this literature is very good i.e. true to the spirit, language, personality, and motivation of actual Cherokee people.
Some of this literature is full of negative stereotypes, romantic stereotypes, “vanishing Indian” stereotypes and more.
Early ethnographic accounts by Timberlake, Bartram, Adair, and others can provide valuable information if you can filter through their perspectives.
Literature by people PRETENDING to be Cherokee.
The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter is the most notable example. Carter writes as if he were Cherokee growing up in the Great Smoky Mountains in the 1930s—1950s. In fact he was a prominent member of the Ku Klux Klan who wrote many of George Wallace’s racist speeches.
Cherokee Literary Firsts:
The first American Indian novel was written by a Cherokee man, John Rollins Ridge. The Life and Times of Joaquin Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit, 1854. This work was the basis for the legend of Zorro.
The first American Indian newspaper was the Cherokee Phoenix, published 1828-1834 at the Cherokee Capitol of New Echota (now New Echota State Historic Site, Calhoun County, Georgia).
Sequoyah was not the first American Indian to invent a writing system, as is sometimes claimed. By 250 A.D., the Mayan people had created a complete system of writing using pictographs and symbols for syllables. Before European contact, the Nahuatl (Aztec) people had an extensive writing system and wrote books on paper; today more Nahuatl texts survive than ancient Greek texts. (Michael Mann, 1491.) In the 1800s the Cree people (1846) and Sac and Fox people (1884) independently invented their own writing systems, and the Cree syllabary was also the basis for Inuit writing.
Barbara Duncan’s recommended reading and personal favorites:
(because literary criticism is always somewhat subjective)
Literature BY Cherokee people:
Robert Conley (Cherokee Nation), The Cherokee Dragon, Sequoyah, War Woman, Peace Chief, Mountain Windsong—or any of his Cherokee historical fiction.
Wilma Mankiller (Cherokee Nation), Every Day is a Good Day. Non-fiction accounts of their lives by American Indian women today, with an introduction by Gloria Steinem.
Shifting Winds (Eastern Band Cherokee)—literary magazine from Cherokee High School. Poetry, prose, artwork.
Appalachian Heritage; A Literary Journal of The Southern Appalachians, Fall 2009. Includes poetry, fiction, non-fiction and artwork by 23 EBCI members.
Literature BY others ABOUT Cherokee people: (or with Cherokee characters)
Vicki Lane, Old Wounds. A murder mystery set in Madison County with Cherokee characters who seem like real people.
Barbara Kingsolver, Pigs in Heaven. Kingsolver writes insightfully about all people and writes very knowledgeably about nature. She is very sensitive to cultural differences in all her books but especially in this novel which ends up in the Cherokee Nation.
Charles Frazier, Thirteen Moons. This novel by the author of Cold Mountain was nspired by the real lives of Will Thomas and Yonaguska and it is absolutely haunting. However it happened, it probably wasn’t like this, Frazier says in a delightful disclaimer.
Barbara’s favorite writers from other tribes:
Sherman Alexie (Coeur D’Alene) . All of his work, including articles and essays, but especially his most recent: The Real True Diary of A Part Time Indian. It just won the National Book Award for Young Adult Fiction.
Louise Erdrich (Anishinabe). Every book, from Love Medicine to A Plague of Doves, including her series for ten year olds, the Birchbark House and others.
All of the staff at Indian Country Today. Go to www.indiancountry.com
Barbara’s LEAST favorite novel supposed to portray the Cherokees:
Diane Glancy, Pushing the Bear. Despite the author’s historical research and sprinkling of Cherokee phrases, none of her characters act like any Cherokee people I have ever known or read about.
Further Reading List in Cherokee Written Literature (includes all genres)
Carney, Virginia. Eastern Band Cherokee Women. She looks at letters, diaries, and other materials.
Cherokee Phoenix 1828-1834. The first American Indian newspaper, now online through Western Carolina University Hunter Library Special Collections at www.wcu.edu
Conley, Robert (UKB). Cherokee Dragon, Sequoyah, Peace Chief, War Woman, Mountain Windsong, Ned Christie’s War, and others. His recent non-fiction includes the very readable and useful encyclopedia and history: Cherokee Nation; A History and Cherokee Encyclopedia.
King, Thomas (Cherokee descent). Medicine River and Green Grass, Running Water. Two novels.
Letts, Billie (Cherokee Nation) Shoot the Moon, Where the Heart Is, and others. Where the Heart Is, about an unwed mother who secretlylives in a Walmart store, became a major motion picture.
Mankiller, Wilma. (Cherokee Nation) Every Day is a Good Day (non-fiction) and Mankiller (autobiography.)
Oskison, John Milton (Cherokee Nation). The Singing Bird; A Cherokee Novel. Written about 1940, this novel about a missionary’s wife is set in post-Removal Cherokee Nation.
Owens, Louis. (Choctaw-Cherokee descent) Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Literary criticism about American Indian writing.
Ridge, John Rollins (Cherokee Nation). The Life and Times of Joaquin Murieta, the Celebrated Califormia Bandit (1854—the first American Indian novel.)
Rogers, Will. (Cherokee Nation) The Papers of Will Rogers Vols. 1-5, 1879-1935. Letters of a Self-made Diplomat to His President. Radio Broadcasts of Will Rogers. Will Rogers’ Weekly Articles Vol. 1-6. The famous humorist described himself as an “Indian cowboy.”
Shifting Winds; A Literary and Arts Publication of Cherokee High School. (Eastern Cherokee).