Reviving the Classical Wisdom of Islam in the Cherokee Tradition

Reviving the Classical Wisdom of Islam in the Cherokee Tradition

by Dr. Robert Dickson Crane

The Greatest Event in Five Hundred Years

On September 21, 2004, the National Museum of the American Indian opened on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., after a highly successful fund-raising drive, largely among Native American tribal leaders.  This culminates a history of false starts and false pretenses.

When asked in January, 2004, what the purpose of the new Museum of the American Indian is, its director, Dr. Richard West, Jr., affirmed that every display and every project and every part of the museum is to affirm the constitutional sovereignty of Native American nations and to preserve their spiritual heritage for future generations.

The grand parade of 25,000 Native Americans representing more than two hundred nations, tribes, and bands in all their traditional finery proceeded for two hours eastward down the mall toward the Capitol building to the adjacent museum which had been off-limits and now was to be opened to the public.  Maria Cuch, a Ute from Utah, exclaimed, “Life and culture is not about an object or even a building.  It is about the people.  You can stand here and look at the movement of people and it is like blood, the blood coming into it and bringing it alive.”  This introduced a celebration with story-telling and dances through the day and all through the night. 

The museum itself is a quarter-billion dollar masterpiece of art that fills the last open space on the mall with a breathtaking creation resembling a natural geological formation from the American Southwest.  Its interior exhibits are designed entirely by Native Americans and portray a history that has been secret for more than a century, including original copies of the official governmental decrees that were designed to eliminate Native Americans from existence and from historical memory.  Countless separate rooms were designed by individual nations and tribes to portray not merely their past but especially what they have to offer America in the future.  For the first time, the smaller tribes were given equal priority with the larger ones, because they have been the most vulnerable to extermination.

A Cherokee chiropractor from Colorado, Nate Mayfield, exclaimed that, “This is the greatest thing to happen to Indian people in 500 years.”  Daphine Strickland, a member of the Lumbee-Tuscarora (both related to the Cherokee) stated, “This represents a healing, a coming together.  We have survived a holocaust in the Americas, and the story has not been told.  This is the beginning of telling the story.”

The spiritual heritage of individual nations in the great Native American community can be preserved only by their members, because anthropologists, government bureaucrats, and even academics either consciously or unconsciously, have their own agendas.  Even within each nation, individual clans and groups differ in their own favorite origin stories and prefer their own historical spin.  This diversity must be preserved, because its wisdom is part of the visions of past, present, and future that native legends say will be passed on to enrich people from foreign lands.

The Cherokee origin story highlighted at the museum comes from the Eastern Band of Cherokees, who succeeded in eluding the government troops that in 1839 drove most of the Cherokees westward from Georgia and the Carolinas to Oklahoma in the middle of winter.  In this museum they had the freedom to ignore the official anthropological studies that imposed outsiders’ versions of their religion and history.

Perhaps someday another native history of the Cherokees will also be given prominence.  This is the tradition that the Cherokee religion came from a great fleet of ships that brought “The Book” out of the East.  This has been rejected as “heresy” by some “authorities,” both Anglo and Indian.  What is the truth?  No-one can say for sure, but this origin story deserves original research in the vast amount of materials still waiting to be mined for details.

The Tradition of the Ani Waya

One source, according to my family’s tradition, is the Ani Waya Clan.  Of the original seven Cherokee clans, three were officially disestablished by the federal government in 1905, when the Cherokee system of representative government was abolished in favor of a single chief appointed by the President of the United States and when the Cherokee religion was declared to be subversive and was officially abolished.  One of these three was the Ani Waya, which means Clan of the Wolf.  The function of this clan was to preserve the religion and the traditions.

After the loss of the written tradition, the oral history of the Cherokee religion passed down through the Ani Waya to what are called the traditionalists, including the present author’s great uncle Joseph Franklin Bever (who had another name in Oklahoma).  He was one of the last formally trained Cherokee imams.  He called the athan every morning, but when challenged he replied simply that he was calling the hogs.  Like all Cherokees, he started every prayer with “Ya Allah.”  All the prophets, starting with Abraham, are honored in the tradition.  Until 1895, the Cherokees held the hajj, with tawaf, on the land of Uncle Henry Bever (spelled Beaver among the Oklahoma Ani Waya) three miles southwest of Hillsboro, Indiana.  The remnants of this hajj, including the sai, can still be seen on a large flat meadow surrounded by swamp on three sides and by a steep hill to the East.  The last custodian of this sacred land lived along the stream immediately to the north when I lived a mile away until shortly after Pearl Harbor. 

Until the last hajj in 1895, Cherokees came all the way from Oklahoma to attend, but only those with native fluency in Cherokee were permitted to participate, including my great-grandmother, who was born seven years after the forced migration in 1839, known as the Trail of Tears, from North Carolina and Georgia to Oklahoma.  She moved in 1855 to Indiana and in her old age helped raise me.  The last of those who were trained by my great uncle was Ben Mitman, my second cousin, who died in April, 2004, at the age of 95, but left a written account of his life for his descendents.  My father, John Bever Crane, died in 2001 at the age of 98, but left no written history.  My great grandmother, who spoke only Cherokee after she announced that it was time to die, had coal black hair down to her waist when she was in her nineties.  We have a home video of another of my great grandmothers dancing at the age of ninety-six at one of the last great Bever-Crane clan reunions.  As a boy, I carefully listened to the stories of the “old timers” at the great clan reunions, but now I may be the last to remember. 

The “Indian way” is not to build museums and, in fact, not to divulge the past publicly with its spiritual messages, because this would make it vulnerable to destruction. 

Kitcheyan of the San Carlos Apaches in Arizona commented at the Grand Opening of the museum, “Old things were never show-cased.  In our teachings those things are supposed to be passed on to someone else to be taken care of.”  This is similar to the custom of the Sufis in Islam, because those who would see the externals would fail to see the essence and would corrupt the truth.  There is a time, however, for unveiling the truth in its various expressions, and the success of the museum is testimony that this time has come.

For the Cherokees, the Trail of Tears was the last of the great acts of ethnic cleansing that began with the American Revolution.  The first period of genocide came when the younger generation sided with the British against the encroaching American settlers.  The older traditionalists opposed war in principle and refused to be pawns in foreign wars.  Although the wisdom of the traditionalists eventually triumphed in a feeble cultural renaissance after the American Revolution, this strategy of what Gandhi called satyagraha failed in the end.  In 1839, despite the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshal that the Removal Act of 1830 was illegal and that Cherokee sovereignty was higher than that of the State of Georgia, the president of the United States ordered the U.S. Army to drive the Cherokees in the middle of winter a thousand miles all the way to Oklahoma.

Although reportedly a third of them died en route while the federal troops watched, not all of this third actually died.  Three groups broke off from the Trail of Tears, one going to Ohio and two to Indiana, because they feared extermination once they would arrive in Oklahoma.  The Cherokee religion was best preserved for more than a century in an isolated Indiana group, because the Christian and U.S. governmental drive to stamp out the Cherokee religion in Oklahoma had significant success.  My great uncle went from the other group near Hillsboro, Indiana, in 1903 at the age of 22 down to Oklahoma, where the formal religious training was headquartered.

The traditions were also maintained by the Eastern Band in North Carolina, but contact among the various groups of Cherokees gradually was lost during the century after the great removal.  The tradition of the Ani Waya is that the almost nomadic history of the Cherokees should teach that the religion and culture are independent of both place and time because they are gifts to all humankind.

In 1905, after Franklin Joseph Bever had studied for two years at the seminary in Oklahoma, the U.S. government abolished the Cherokee religion and imprisoned everyone who performed the salah publically.  The Katoowa Society was formed to fight back, but they were crushed.  It still exists today but its origins are now lost in legend.  My great uncle then spent two years trying to organize all the Native American tribes to fight for religious freedom, but despite some interest among the Navajo, Hopi, Crow, and Blackfeet, he failed miserably and so went back to Indiana where I knew him as a boy.  I was impressed because he knew the names of 269 plants.

Pre-Columbian History

The true knowers of the Cherokee religion have kept it secret.  The traditionalists who live isolated in the woods of western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma told me when I was last there in 1970 as a personal emissary of President Nixon that when anthropologists come to study the religion, the traditionalists entertain them with a bunch of nonsense and then whoop with laughter when they see this nonsense printed in scholarly books. 

According to the traditionalists, the Cherokee religion came in the form of a book that was brought in a great fleet of ships out of the east when the Cherokees lived on an island where it was never cold.  After three generations, the bad people from the south killed almost everyone on all the islands and destroyed the book.  The remainder of the Cherokees immigrated west to the Great Land. 

Their mass migration from a tropical island in the Caribbean to the Yucatan Peninsula in the late 1300s was verified by the leading Meso-American archeologist, T. B. Irving (Al Hajji Ta’alim Ali).  He was the only person who had recorded the relevant inscriptions.  Twenty years ago, he said he would write up this history, but he died last year without ever doing so.  I have visited the Yucatan and asked other Mesoamerican archeologists about this history, but they know nothing about it.

After some more generations, the number of which I have forgotten, the bad people attacked again.  This time the Cherokees all migrated north and eastwards to find the lost book, because they knew that it came out of the east.  This is the origin story according to the Ani Waya clan.

What this all means is open to modern research and interpretation.  There is now thorough documentation of a great expedition of da’wa that the Emir of Mali, Abu Bakr, sent across the Atlantic in 1310 A.C. after he met Chinese Muslims in the hajj.  Scholars do not seem to be clear on whether he was hoping to bring Islam to China or to America, because there is evidence that at least two earlier Muslim expeditions had visited America, one in 1100 going westward from Africa and the other in 1178 eastward from China.  When the first expedition did not return, Emir Abu Bakr sent a second expedition two years later in 1312, reportedly including Mandinga members from what is now Liberia.  The detailed manifests of each of the Emir’s ships are now of historical record.

In recent years hidden libraries have been found in Timbuktu on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert in Mali.  I attended a conference in Mali’s capital Bamako in 1999 but could not get permission to travel the 200 miles north to Timbuktu, because, I was told, the French-influenced government in Bamako wants to hide its great Islamic past.  These libraries should be micro-filmed while they still exist in order to compare the practices of popular Islam with those of the Cherokees.

Although the customs of several tribes, some archeological evidence, and ethno-linguistic analysis give circumstantial evidence of this early presence of Islam in America, the only oral tradition, as far as I know, comes from my own ancestors in the Ani Waya tribe of the Cherokee.  We are not supposed to interpret tradition, because this can introduce distortions, but the ancient Cherokee traditions of what is called simply the “people” (Ani Yunwiya) coincide with the devastating attacks by the Caribs from what is now Venezuela at the end of the 1300s.  And Mayan inscriptions of the next century record the arrival of a great people from the east.  The details about this people may be buried in the personal papers of the Muslim translator of the Qur’an, T. B. Irving.  Early evidence of Islam may be found only by scholars who are specifically looking for it.

The Modern Period

The history of the Cherokees after they arrived in the Carolinas is part of modern America, but it is not much clearer than their history in the earlier period, despite a wealth of documentary material and shelves of books on the subject.

Historians acknowledge that the Cherokees when first encountered by Europeans lived in large towns of several thousand people with two story brick buildings and an advanced system of legislative, executive, and judicial government.  They also acknowledge that within two hundred years from 1600 to 1800 their population had been reduced to only a fraction of what it had been.  This was part of the universal history of European colonialism, which managed to reduce the total native population in America from at least ten million to as little as a few hundred thousand.  With this catastrophic disruption came a similar loss of their religious and cultural heritage, including, in the case of the Cherokees, the dilution of authentic Islam. 

Some Western anthropologists have speculated that the Cherokee religion with its emphasis on a sophisticated divine law and system of government may derive from a lost Jewish tribe, but this may be merely an attempt by Christian missionaries to hide the Cherokees’ true Islamic identity.

Perhaps the best, recent research may be found in the book by Thomas E. Mails, The Cherokee People: the Story of the Cherokees from Earliest Origins to Contemporary Times, published by Marlow and Company.  Mails leads the others in his conclusion that the remarkable similarities between the Abrahamic religions and the traditional Cherokee religion precede any possibility of adoption from European influences.

Like the others, however, he concludes that such similarities must come from the ancient Hebrews.  This probably stems from his ignorance of Islam and his familiarity with the commonalities with the Jews in the Cherokee origin stories, including Adam and Eve, the flood, the Tower of Babel, Abraham, the crossing of the Red Sea, Moses, the wandering in the wilderness, and the ark.  It is difficult to understand how he can ignore the fact that the traditionalist Cherokees started every prayer with Ya Allah and prayed five times a day and fasted during Ramadhan, though it is understandable that Mails does not know the Cherokee rituals of the Hajj, since these have been kept highly secret. 

Unfortunately, only a knowledgeable Muslim would be able to mine the wealth of very difficult source material to compare this with Islam.  The major original source, since the Cherokees had lost their written language long before they moved to what is now the United States, is the fourteen volume collection known as the John Howard Payne Papers, Ayer MS 689, in the Ayer Collection of Americana, Newberry Library of the University of Chicago.  These are in miniscule handwriting and in script that is very difficult to decipher.  The Payne papers are by Payne and by a couple of others who authored individual chapters, especially Daniel Sabin Butrick, who was a Christian missionary to the Cherokees from 1817 to 1847.

In another file on the Cherokees that probably is in my sister’s historic stone barn in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, I have reference to a typewritten copy of the Payne originals prepared by his great granddaughter.  She spent an entire year turning the almost illegible manuscript into readable copy.  Payne, who lived from 1791 to 1852, unlike Butrick, was sympathetic to the Cherokees.  His informants among the Cherokees were born as early as 1735 at a time when contact with outsiders had barely begun.  Payne was a poet by trade and lived with the Cherokees during the period of their successful effort to gain U.S. Supreme Court acceptance of their sovereignty and their unsuccessful effort thereafter to stop their removal to Oklahoma.  One would have to examine the so-called Payne papers to determine what may be authentic scholarship on the Cherokees and what was propaganda and spin to demean them.  My impression is that the unexpurgated Payne writings are available to whoever can find them or at least were until forty years ago.  In all research on the wisdom of Islam in the Cherokee religion, one must beware of a long history of cultural genocide.

The earliest account of the Cherokees was James Adair’s The History of the American Indians.  He was a trader with the Cherokees in 1736 and first pointed out the identity of the Cherokee religion with Abrahamic sources.  In 1888, James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees does not discuss these origins but does treat in detail Cherokee astronomy, which he learned about from Cherokees who were born as early as 1800.  Other books, such as Haywood’s of 1823 and Washburn’s of 1869 should be compared with the more recent books, such as The Eastern Cherokees by William Harlen Gilbert, Jr. and others, which are stored, together with my most valuable books, in my sister’s barn.

The more recent books in some ways are more objective, but the definitive history of the Cherokees, and especially analysis of the relation of Islam to the founding of America has yet to be written.  This is the task of young American-born Muslims, because they know that other Americans fear what they do not know and that this history would show that Islam is not foreign to America.

The Original Founders of Modern America

The Cherokee were Grandfathers of the Great American Experiment in the holistic symbiosis of order, justice, and liberty.  Jefferson said that he borrowed the American system of government from the Iroquois confederation.  If the Cherokee religion and political culture were introduced into America by Muslim settlers from North Africa two hundred years before Columbus “discovered ” America, then it remains to be researched whether the Iroquois system of representative government comes from the Cherokee nation.

Jefferson was familiar with the Iroquois and maintained contact with the leaders of a great religious revival among the Iroquois from about 1800 to 1810.  He spent some time with their greatest religious leader, known as Handsome Lake of the Seneca, and not only corresponded with him but invited him twice to the White House.  The details are in The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca by Anthony F C Wallace, Vintage, 1972, 395 pages. 

The origin of this religious rebirth, like that of the coeval rebirth among the Cherokee further south, lay in their response to the destruction of the native way of life by the white settlers, especially by the introduction of alcohol and gambling, and by the destruction of the nuclear family and of moral community.  It was also a reaction against the missionary efforts of the Christians who wanted the Iroquois to assimilate into Western society and disappear.  Handsome Lake was convinced that his people could not adopt Christianity without adopting everything bad about Western society along with it.

Part of the spiritual quest by young American Muslims today should be to explore whether the religion that he revived was Islam as borrowed from the Cherokee, who had been adopted under the tribal name of Tuscarora into the Iroquois confederacy.  By the year 1500, the Cherokee had established a vast trading empire in eastern North America, and a portion of them, known as the Tuscarora, moved from North Carolina to Iroquois country before the arrival of the first European settlers.  The Tuscarora who lived with the Iroquois were the first to adopt Christianity as their religion, but the original religion of the Tuscarora was not the ancient Iroquois religion but Islam.  This origin of the Seneca rebirth was not known to Wallace, but he recounts in detail the revival of this religion and Jefferson’s admiration of it.

According to an article in The Message, published by the Islamic Society of North America, in July, 1996, the last Cherokee chief with a Muslim name was Ramadhan ibn Wati, who lived from 1806 to 1871 and governed during the time of the great split between the Union Cherokee and the Confederate Cherokee in the American Civil War.  Chief (Emir) Ramadhan was a Confederate brigadier general who shared the South’s opposition to the encroaching power of the industrialized North.  He surrendered his command to President Lincoln on June 23, 1865, and his young son, Saladin Watie, named after the famous liberator of Jerusalem in 1187, Salah al Din, served in the Southern Cherokee delegation to sign a treaty of surrender in Washington, D.C.

The traditionalist Cherokee political system was based on governance from the bottom up, rather than from the top down as was common in Europe.  The ultimate sovereign was Allah and he governed through the individual members of the Cherokee nation, each of whom carried the amana to be a representative of the divine on earth.  The nation was composed of autonomous bands or clans, such as the Ani Waya.  The members of each band chose their leaders through a system of indirect election of at least four communities.  One community represented the warriors, one the religious leaders, and one the merchants.  The fourth I believe may have been the judicial community.  These four elected leaders in turn elected the head of the band, and the heads of the bands elected the leader of the nation.

This system today is known as constitutional or republican federalism.  It contrasts with the system of absolutist democracy bound by popular majority rule, which all of America’s founders condemned as inherently unjust and dangerous.

In times of trouble, women rose to prominence, especially to arbitrate between the young warriors who wanted to risk the lives of their sons and the elders who preached non-violence in all except the greatest threats to group survival.  This matriarchal custom still existed at the time of the American Revolutionary War, according to Theda Perdue’s “Cherokee Women and the Trail of Tears,” published in Journal of Women’s History, vol 1, 1989, pp. 14-17.  But, the butchering of the Cherokees by the American settlers and their abandonment by the British undercut the traditionalists and nearly destroyed the entire set of cultural traditions that had survived for centuries since the time of the origins in the Caribbean.  This period of Cherokee history, which exceeds in its tragedy even that of the Trail of Tears, and the role of the Cherokee women is described in Tom Hatley’s book, The Dividing Paths: Cherokees and South Carolinians through the Era of the Revolution, Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 220 ff.

The Cherokee leaders often were known by Anglo names.  The most famous was Nancy Ward, who was known as the principal Ghigau of the Cherokee Nation, a term translated by the colonialists as “war-leader.”  In fact, she was the principal peace leader, as described in Norma Tucker’s article, “Nancy Ward: Ghigau of the Cherokees,” in Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 53, 1969. 

She persuaded the Raven of Chota, who was the war leader of the principal Cherokee town, to seek peace.  As the official emissary of the entire nation, she persuaded Jefferson’s emissary, Arthur Campbell, to declare an armistice or truce prior to the signing of a peace treaty.  Unfortunately, according to Campbell’s own diary, “I wished first to visit the vindictive part of the nation … and to destroy the whole as much as possible by destroying their habitations and provisions.”  Although he had spared Chota in the past out of respect for Nancy Ward, he attacked in the middle of winter and commenced to destroy a thousand houses, fifty thousand bushels of corn, and all but a few small towns.  The Raven of Chota reported later, as recorded in O’Donnell, Southern Indians in the American Revolution, pp. 118-119, the Virginians “dyed their hands in the blood of many of our women and children, burnt 17 towns, and destroyed all our provisions by which we and our families were almost destroyed by famine this Spring.”

Jefferson was a Virginia politician so he did what was politically correct.  But, at the same time, he was impressed by the Cherokee traditionalists, including the women leaders at the time of their maximum tragedy, who tried to practice what Mahatma Gandhi called satyagraha or peaceful defense based on spiritual power.  This is a well established practice in Islamic history (see the section on heroes in [url=],[/url] but needs much further research.

The Iroquois adopted the best of the Cherokee religion, and this is what most impressed Jefferson in later years.  The religion as revived by Handsome Lake opposed both cultural assimilation, which is suicide, and cultural nativism, which is the continuation of a culture based on worship of one’s own ethnic group rather than on the enlightened understanding of divine revelation and natural law.  According to Wallace’s book, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, Handsome Lake’s primary message consisted of four basic principles:

1) All people came from the same source, a transcendent God, and thus are equal in dignity.

2) All religions are legitimate paths to God.  Therefore one should not blame the Christians for not accepting the divine revelation that he was reviving.  They should follow their religion until they understand that the religion that he was reviving teaches a truer knowledge of God.

3) Violence results from ignorance of true religion.  Therefore knowledge is the most powerful weapon against war, and war is almost never the best solution to conflict. And

4) More important than knowledge is love of the transcendent God, because love is the path to knowledge.

Much research remains to be done to connect Jefferson’s then unique concept of federalism with Islamic concepts of religious and political pluralism.  The efforts of both the Cherokees and Iroquois to conduct interfaith meetings with the Europeans as equals impressed the Christian missionaries, since such interfaith outreach without any effort to convert others was almost unknown in the Christian world. 

    Jefferson tried to keep his personal relationship with God secret and largely succeeded, though recent research in his twenty volumes of hitherto secret personal correspondence should shed much light on this, including the influence of Islam. 

Perhaps his major message was the same as that taught by the Cherokee and Iroquois.  No people, he said, can remain free unless they are educated; education consists above all in knowledge of virtue; and no people can remain virtuous except within a religious framework, whether it be Christian or of some other faith tradition, and unless this framework of respect for the divine legitimacy of cultural and religious pluralism and for the power of interfaith cooperation pervades all public life. 

This is the profound wisdom of the Great American Experiment, but we have just begun to explore its ancient roots.

1.  Chairman, Global Justice Institute, 2121 K Street, N.W., Suite 700, Washington, D.C. 20037.  Cell phone: 407 733-8678. E-mail: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) Web: Cherokee, Indiana.  Co-founder and former Executive Vice-President, American Indian National Bank, 1974; President, Native American Economic Development Corporation, 1975-77.