Cave Markings Tell of Cherokee Life

April 11, 2019

Written in the language formalized by Sequoyah, these newly translated inscriptions describe religious practices, including the sport of stickball.

On April 30, 1828, a Cherokee stickball team stepped into the underworld to ask for help.

Carrying river-cane torches, the men walked into the mouth of Manitou Cave in Willstown, Alabama, and continued nearly a mile into the cave’s dark zone, past impressive flowstone formations in the wide limestone passageway. They stopped inside a damp, remote chamber where a spring emerged from the ground.

They were far from the white settlers and Christian missionaries who had recently arrived in northeastern Alabama, putting increasing pressure on Native Americans to assimilate to a Euro-American way of life. (In just a few years President Andrew Jackson would sign the Indian Removal Act that would force the Cherokee off their land and onto the Trail of Tears.)

Here, in private, the stickball team could perform important rituals—meditating, cleansing and appealing to supernatural forces that might give their team the right magic to win a game of stickball, a contest nicknamed “the little brother of war.”

This spiritual event, perhaps ordinary for the time but revelatory now, only recently became known because of a set of inscriptions found on the walls of the cave. A group of scholars have now translated the messages, left by the spiritual leader of the stickball team, and describe them in an article published today in the journal Antiquity. Prehistoric ancestors of the Cherokee left figurative paintings inside caves for centuries, but scholars didn’t know that Cherokee people also left written records—documents, really—on cave walls. The inscriptions described in the journal article offer a window into life among the Cherokee in the years immediately before they would be forcibly removed from the American southeast.

“I never thought I would be looking at documents in caves,” says study co-author Julie Reed, a historian of Native American history at Penn State and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

The inscriptions were written in the Cherokee syllabary, a writing system that was formally adopted by the Cherokee just three years prior in 1825. It quickly allowed a majority of the tribe to become literate in their own language, and the Manitou Cave inscriptions are among a few rare examples of historic Cherokee writing recently found on the walls of caves.

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