By Jennifer Wilson, Aniyvwiyahi Community Program Coordinator

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian would like to wish all of you a Happy Valentine’s Day! In honor of this celebration of love, let’s look at what courtship and marriage would have looked like in the traditional Cherokee world. While love is a universal feeling, the practices surrounding love and marriage can vary greatly between cultures. It is also important to note that the modern interpretation of marriage is a European concept that was not practiced before colonization. It was only after prolonged contact between the Europeans and Cherokee that we adopted the practice that still lives today. This isn’t to say that the Cherokee did not have romantic partnerships, but that partnerships and commitment within our culture were built differently.

Before delving into courtship and marriage, it is important to understand what Cherokee families looked like. Traditionally, the Cherokee held to a matrilineal clan system. This means that you traced your family line through your mother, whereas Europeans/Americans trace theirs through their father. Men would leave their clan’s household to go live in that of his partner’s. Having a partner who was a member of the same clan was taboo. It was also taboo to have a partner who was a part of your father’s clan or the clan of your maternal and paternal grandparents.

As daily interaction between men and women of different clans was limited, there were social events and dances that enable interaction, flirtation, and courtship. One well-known social dance is the “Bear dance.” A circle would be formed alternating men and women. At the signal both men and women pretend to be ferocious bears. It is a dance that is often performed in demonstrations today.

As stated earlier, the modern concept of marriage was not traditionally practiced by the Cherokee. It is a European concept that has carried on, it was not until after prolonged contact that the Cherokee adopted this process. A traditional Cherokee union was much less formal. When two consenting adults wished to live together as a couple, and had received permission from their clans, the man would move to the woman’s home and live with her and her family. Children were raised by the clan in which they were born, meaning the father would play a bigger role in the upbringing of his sister’s children or the children of his clan. The lack of formal process also meant that dissolution of the partnership was fairly easy, with either the man leaving or being made to leave. The union, or dissolution of a union, had no effect on the status of a woman’s property, as it would always remain hers.

While there was typically no formal process, there is a ceremony that was observed bearing resemblance to a wedding. It would have symbolized balance and a promise between the two of what they would provide for the other and their family. The man and woman would be wrapped in individual blankets. The man would provide meat, symbolizing his promise to provide meat, and the woman would provide corn, symbolizing her role as promise to provide food that she grew and harvested. The symbolism of these promises provides balance, just as the sun balances the moon. The symbolism is also reflective of Selu, the corn mother, and Kanati, the hunter.

Jennifer Wilson is the Aniyvwiyahi Community Program Coordinator at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. To learn more about the Museum’s community learning offerings, click here.