Cherokee symbols and what they mean

Written by sharon l. cohen
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Cherokee symbols and what they mean
The seven sacred directions

Every culture has developed symbols to make life more structured and organised and society more cohesive. Language is one of the most complex yet commonly used symbols. The Cherokee Native Americans, similarly, developed their own set of symbols as part of their general belief system. They also designed a language that uses syllabary symbols instead of separate letters.

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Cherokee Syllabary

The English alphabet contains separate consonants and vowels put together to form words. The Cherokee written language is called a syllabary, not an alphabet, because each sound has a representative symbol. Sequoyah, who was raised by the Cherokee, developed this system by devising a new symbol for each different syllable sound he could hear in his language. By about 1820, he had identified 86 separate sounds and created a symbol, or character, to represent each one. Thousands of Cherokees learnt to read and write within a few years of Sequoyah's innovation.

Sacred Numbers

Most cultures have certain numbers they believe are lucky or unlucky. This is true for the Cherokee as well. The numbers 4 and 7 are often found to be important elements in stories and religious ceremonies. The number 4, for example, stands for the four primary directions, and the number 7 represents these plus "up," or "Upper World," "down" or "Lower World," and "centre," where we all live. The number 7 is also important because of the same number of separate Cherokee clans. It also means the most pure and sacred, which is a difficult level to reach.

Sacred Animals

The Cherokee Native Americans believed that the owl and cougar reached this high level of purity and sacredness and are considered special. They were the only ones that did not fall asleep during the seven days of Creation, which is why they are nocturnal animals. Both animals are considered sacred also because they have human characteristics. The owl looks different from other birds with its large eyes in front of the face--like a human's--not on the sides. It also can close one at a time. The cougar's screams resemble those of a woman.

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Colour Symbols

Colour has an important symbolic role in the Cherokee religion. Each of the four main directions corresponds to a colour, and each colour is a symbol. Therefore, every spirit that is called has a specific location and colour. The same spirit living in different locations have very different characteristics.

The Red Man, who stands for the power and success spirit, lives in the East. The Black Man, who stands for the spirit of death, lives in the West. The shaman, or religious leader, calls on the Red Man to help his people and on the Black Man to take care of the enemy. The symbolic colour system of the Cherokees is as follows: East, triumph, red; North, defeat, blue; West, death, black; and South, peace, white.

Cherokee symbols and what they mean
The seven sacred directions

Spiritual Trees

Trees, such as the pine, spruce and laurel, are also at the most sacred and pure level and are important symbols in Cherokee spiritual ceremonies. These trees do not lose their leaves and also were able to stay awake during Creation. As a result, they have a special power and are key to Cherokee medicine and ceremonies. The most sacred of these is the cedar, which is symbolised by red and white, and once carried the honoured dead.

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