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Thought and action in Cherokee Magical Incantations

Note: In the Cherokee words that follow the “v” has an “unh” sound.

In most Cherokee rituals a healer (didahnvwisgi) performs an action called the igvnedhi (to do one), while he says, thinks or sings an  igawesdi (to say one). The action isn’t always required because the real power is in the thought, and the igawesdi (voice), which focuses and directs that thought is what is sacred. The action assists, applies or disseminates that thought.  How the action is done is entirely up to the individual performing the ritual. BUT, although the the words can be said, chanted or sung, texts that have been passed down through tradition CANNOT be altered. This is true even though in some cases the words have been passed down so long that some of the meaning is lost.  However a master healer can improvise a new incantation to accomplish something for which there is no other text available. These are normally repeated four times. Four and seven are sacred numbers. Seven is often a part of any ritual phrasing.

Between each of the four repetitions the healer will pause to focus all thought on the purpose of the ritual.

Most Cherokee incantations are for healing but there are also those for love, sex, hunting, fighting, and bringing death. While those for healing are often shared, the others are normally only passed on to certain relatives and mentored students.

The memoirs of Lt. Henry Timberlake

Timberlake’s account of his journeys to the Cherokee and their visit to London, published as his memoirs in 1765, became a primary source for later studies of their eighteenth-century culture. Here you can read the original book in digital format.  To make reading easier, note that the letter “s” looks like our modern “f”.

“The memoirs of Lieut. Henry Timberlake (who accompanied the three Cherokee Indians to England in the year 1762) ; containing whatever he observed remarkable, or worthy of public notice, during his travels to and from that nation ; wherein the country, government, genius, and customs of the inhabitants, are authentically described ; also the principal occurences during their residence in London ; illustrated with an accurate map of their Over-hill settlement, and a curious secret journal, taken by the Indians out of the pocket of a Frenchman they had killed.”

The mystical and mysterious cure-all herb

One of the most useful and mystical of Cherokee herbs is Tsaliyusti Usdiga or Indian Tobacco. It’s not really tobacco and especially not the Sacred Tobacco but rather Lobelia or “pukeweed”. Lobelia is never used alone but with mixed with Cherrywood tea, sassafras, or other other plants. It is kept as a home remedy by many Cherokee and when used by a medicine man or woman the process may include the smoke of Tsalagayunli (Sacred Tobacco or nicotiana rustica).
However, modern day healers rarely include Tsalagayunli anymore. This is because (real) Sacred Tobacco is sometimes used not only to fight an evil spirit or deliverer of the illness but is a key element in spells meant to take a life. For this reason there is a stigma associated with even possessing it. (Nicotiana rustica for sell on the web has no power and little relationship to the Sacred Tobacco used for healing. I will explain this another time.)

It’s believed that the enemy has put into the body of the sick man some tiny object such as a thorn that has there developed into a ghost to trouble him.  Before treatment the healer will say a prayer to the Black, Red, Blue, and White Ravens. The ravens are each in turn declared to have put the disease into a crevice in Whiteside Mountain. The treatment consists in sucking the part most affected, the medcine man having in his mouth during the operation Nicotiana rustica, wild parsnip and Lobelia to counteract the witchcraft.

On withdrawing his mouth from the spot and ejecting the liquid into a bowl, it is expected that there will be found “mixed” with it a small stick, a pebble, an insect, or something of the kind that originally carried he evil into the body. This the shaman then holds up to view as the cause of the disease. It is afterward buried a “hand’s length” deep in the mud. The Cherokee used lobelia for body aches, to induce therapeutic vomiting, as a relaxant in labor, for sore throats, coughs, asthma, bronchitis and other lung ailments.

Sir William Johnson, superintendent of Indian affairs in North America from 1756 to 1774 purchased samples of the great blue lobelia, known as “the Indian’s secret cure for syphilis” and marketed it in Europe. Samuel Thomson, father of holistic medicine learned of the weedand brought lobelia into widespread use as a medicinal agent. Lobelia along with steam baths was the mainstay of his patent medicine. He said “the Emetic herb . . . is the most important article I make use of in my practice. This valuable plant; which I have since found, by twenty year’s experience, (in which time I have made use of it in every disease I have met with, to great advantage), to be a discovery of the
greatest importance.
” Thomson went on to patent his form of medicine of which lobelia was the No. 1 remedy.

For a more in depth history of the plant click here.

A glimpse of the ancient secrets of Cherokee health

In 1776 William Bartram wrote “The Cherokee are tall, erect and moderately robust; their limbs well shaped, so as generally to form a perfect human figure; their features regular, and countenance open, dignified, and placid, yet the forehead and brow are so formed as to strike you instantly with heroism and bravery; the eye, though rather small, yet active and full of fire, the iris always black, and the nose commonly inclining to the aquiline. Their countenance and actions exhibit an air of magnanimity, superiority, and independence. Their complexion is a reddish brown or copper colour; their hair, long, lank, coarse, and black as a raven, and reflecting the like lustre at different exposures to the light. The women of the Cherokees are tall, slender, erect and of a delicate frame; their features formed with perfect symmetry; the countenance cheerful and friendly; and they move with a becoming grace and dignity“.

Are there hidden secrets to health we can still learn from the Cherokee people? Perhaps the key delicacy of the Cherokee diet even today is Wishi, a type of fried mushrooms. It is full of antioxidants and rich in minerals (such as potassium, calcium, and magnesium), various vitamins (B2, D2 and niacin), fibers and amino acids. It has also been used in healing since ancient times by medicine men and grandmothers for everything from stomach pain to cancer.

New research shows this mushroom can stimulate immune system cells, induce apoptosis (death) in cancer cells as well as inhibit the growth of others. It may be beneficial for the management of diabetes and pain. This is the Hen-of-the-Woods mushroom or Grifola frondosa. The name comes from the perceived “chicken breast” taste and texture when eaten. 

Grifola frondosa is better known by it’s Japanese name Maitake. The Chinese have also used this mushroom for similar purposes as the Cherokee since 200 BC for everything from cancer treatment to remedies for palsy, nerve pain, and arthritis. Ancient Chinese writings state it “has been used frequently for improving spleen and stomach ailments, calming nerves and mind, and treating hemorrhoids” as well as for immune stimulation.

Only in the last few years have serious controlled in vitro tests begun on Grifola frondosa with very promising results. There are other secrets of Cherokee medicine hidden in hundreds of documents held by the family members to whom they were passed down. This may be only a hint of the wealth of knowledge still to be learned from them.

The “other” Cherokee rolls

The Dawes roll is the key roll on which Cherokee tribal enrollment is based. However, some people are so focused on finding their ancestors on the Dawes rolls that they miss the fact that there are other important rolls. In some cases this is where the original Cherokee name and clan can be found. Anyone on the Dawes should also have other family members on various other rolls. Links to these rolls are provided on the left column of this link: This will open in a new window.

In this example, the name on the Dawes is Mary J. Cloud. However, on this other roll the last name is a phonetic spelling (Oo-lon-gi-la) of the Cherokee name Cloud (Ulogilv).

Cherokee registration help

The Cherokee are the best documented Natives in history.  So why do so many people have difficulty tracing their Cherokee genealogy? First you should know that there are really to key rolls and three Federally recognized tribes. Two are in Oklahoma (Cherokee Nation and the Keetoowah) and the Eastern band is in North Carolina. The Oklahoma Cherokee both use the Dawes rolls for citizenship while the Eastern Band uses the 1924 Baker roll. To make things more confusing, the Cherokee Nation requires no blood quantum, while the Keetoowah and Eastern band do.

Some people search the Dawes rolls and simply give up if they do not see the name of  the relative they are searching for. It is important to realize that names on the Dawes may not be what you are familiar with. You need to search for all relatives and keep in mind that names are often misspelled and that not all ancestors spelled their own family names the same. Many Cherokee names are listed as they sounded. Others are written in the original Cherokee name rather than the English equivalent. In addition, there are many previous rolls that can give you important information that will help trace and locate your genealogy.

The Cherokee Heritage Documentation Center has created a very nice package to help people track their Cherokee genealogy.  It takes you through a step by step process designed to help you locate the documentation you will need to become a tribal member. Even if you find that you are ineligible for citizenship status, you should enjoy learning more about your ancestors and heritage.

Here is a link to get you started.


Journal of John Lowery Brown of the Cherokee Nation En Route to California in 1850

NEXT PAGE: “Joined our company which now consists of 53 persons—Dr. Barker attended Messers Meigs, Russell and Tuff during their sickness—


Charles McDaniel—July 25

R. J. Meigs—August 6

Runaway Tough & Russell—Aug 7

Henry Street & Davis—Aug 17

G. M. Martin—Aug 17

Tolbert Bean—Sept 6th

(Aug. 8 at this place we enter the desert) it is 70 miles across it without Grass or water and persons crossing it will have to travel day and night to get across. Many persons have perished with their animals while crossing. perhaps we may find water sooner than we expect, as we have had several showers of rain for the last two or three days…..

Sulphur Spring the company started this morning. we cut grass and filled our canteens with good water, which is said to be all the good water we would get until we crossed the desert. We traveled until Noon 15 miles when we came to Sulphur Spring, where we stopped. We found no grass here. Jack Hilldebrand was taken very sick with the cholera. The company were detained waiting on him, and in consequence of the sickness pervading in the company. Apprehending more the company deemed it properto engage the medical services of Dr. Barker though it was therefore agreed and stipulated that each member of the Company should pay the said Doct. on their arrival in the diggins or as soon after as possible the sum of Five Dollars. The said Doct. is to attend to all cases of sickness that may occur in the Company.  Camp 80—

Native American Prisoners of War

On June 5, 1873, the first Native American prisoner arrived at Alcatraz Island. Two days later a guard shot him dead. Later the same year four Modoc Indians were hung there and their heads sent to the Army Medical Museum.  On November 25, 1894 nineteen Hopi who wouldn’t farm the land allotment the government had given them and who opposed forced education in government boarding schools were also sent to Alcatraz. “Until they shall evince, in an unmistakable manner, a desire to cease interference with the plans of the government for the civilization and education of its indian wards.”  They were released August 7, 1895.

The Lakota are one of many tribes that were moved off their land to prisoner of war camps now called reservations. The Pine Ridge Reservation, the subject of today’s slide show, is located about 75 miles southeast of the Black Hills of South Dakota. It is sometimes referred to as Prisoner of War Camp Number 334, and it is where the Lakota now live.

To learn more take a look at this video lecture.  This white man sure has done a good job of smacking people in the face with reality. Check it out here!



Cherokee Magic – Manuscripts

‎”Both magic and medicine are almost certain to be found commingled in a manuscript that the Cherokees refer to by the general term nvwodhi digohwe:li (“medicine book or [papers]”), but also to be seen there are such typical oddments as family demography, scriptural references and extracts, drafts of letters, addresses, grocery lists in Sequoyan and phonetic English, and a considerable amount of m…athematical doodling, for which the Cherokees have a passion that long ago ought to have attracted competent psychological investigation. Side by side with an incantation to discomfit a demon may be a set of figures that attest to the comforting fact that the Lord’s work is prospering in the Baptist church nearby.

Any layman may decide to preserve in writing that magic for which he has use and which is readily available to his social class: fishing charms, a little something to protect him in an emergency, and the like. The medicine man, whom the Cherokees call didahnvwisgi (“curer of them”), may possess a small library of manuscripts. Even the didahnesesgi (“putter in and drawer out of them”)- a sorcerer, a “witch”- may risk writing down his criminal arcana. The literary motivation of them all is the same: magical sayings abound in archaisms, ritualisms, and tricky wording, and they are hard to remember.” ~ Jack Frederick

Genealogy: Two resources for Oklahoma

GENEALOGY: If you have ancestors from Oklahoma, whether they are Cherokee or not, you may want to check out these two digitized searchable volumes. They are loaded with helpful information on an incredible number of family trees.

A history of the state of Oklahoma, Volume 1


A history of the state of Oklahoma, Volume 2