Cherokee Indians: Weapons, War, and Warfare

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The weapons and equipment which were used for war were: shields, battleaxes, tomahawks, slings, war clubs, knives, breastplates, spears, helmets, bows and arrows.


When the chief war officers became too old to serve the warriors, they nominated someone from among their own war council to replace them. This nomination was sent to the great chief of the nation, and if he and his counselors approved of the nominee, the candidate was consecrated. This was done usually at the feast of the Green Corn in August. However, if there was danger threatening the nation, it was done within twenty days of the time he was nominated. The old war chief selected four distinguished officers to escort the candidate to the council house. One of the officers walked in front of him carrying a handful of red paint, one walked at his left with an eagle feather and the other two walked behind him in silent meditation. A special war dress was made for him of deerskin which was dyed a deep red color. Everything from his leather shirt to his belt, leggings, garter and moccasins was a deep red color. In the new war chief's acceptance speech, he said he would not stain his hands with the blood of infants, women, or old men or anyone that for some reason or another is unable to defend himself.


When war was threatened, the warriors met at the national headquarters where they came under the command of the chief for warfare. During an emergency such as a threat of war, the red flag of war was raised. The flag was a long pole painted red which had red painted deerskin fastened to the top. During a war it was carried by a special flag warrior and was set up at the war party campsites where they met together after a battle. During these encampments they sang the song and then had the war dance.


In the war dance every warrior carried his main weapon. The dance itself was lead by the right hand man of the war chief. There was no singing involved but merely the war hoop and the sound of the drum. The warriors went around the circle each one with his left hand pointing to the center of the circle where the fire and the war flag were located. It is thought this was a kind of dedication by the individual warriors to do their best in the upcoming battle. The war dance was known as a "te yo hi." The drum used in the war dance was a pottery jar that had the top covered with raccoon skin with small bells fastened around the rim.

In marching to war, the first company of warriors was led by the chief warrior. Then came the second company, headed by this right hand man, and then the third company headed by his speaker, and the fourth company headed by another officer. The last persons in a war party were the war priest, who was called the fire carrier, his assistant and two of the medicine men.


On the march, there were four spies or scouts who played an important part in the operation (during the Civil War, they were referred to as "pickets"). Their duties were similar to the enfilade movement of the modern warfare in that they were responsible for protecting the main force from ambush from the front, the rear and both flanks. The raven spy had a raven skin tied around his neck and scouted in front; another who had a piece of wolf skin tied around his neck on the right hand side; one with an owl skin scouted on the left; and one with a fox skin scouted to the rear. The course was marked by the raven spy who went ahead, breaking bushes and leaving other signs to guide the march.


The battles themselves were usually brutal hand to hand combat operations carried on in very close quarters. The Cherokees lacked the long range weaponry that is commonly associated with the Indian wars and the winning of the West simply because that type of weaponry had not yet been developed.


Following the battle and upon the war party's return home, the spoils of war were given to the warrior's wife or nearest woman relative. The warriors who had killed someone or had touched a dead body were considered unclean for a period of four days afterwards. To purify themselves, it was necessary to bathe themselves and drink only a particular potion. They bathed seven times every night and every morning. During this time the victory (scalp) dance was danced every night. Sometimes other dances were also performed, but the warriors were not allowed to dance at all with the women. All the men did not go on the war parties. Someone was needed to protect the towns. Particularly any warrior who was worried about his wife, family, or property was told to stay at home.


The weapons and equipment which were used for war were: shields, battleaxes, slings, war clubs, knives, breastplates, spears, helmets, bows and arrows. (See Cherokee Indians: Weapons and Warfare.)

Source: Smoky Mountain National Park

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