Examining the Cherokee culture through the lens of the Catholic Social Teachings provides new perspectives and insights that might not be gained otherwise. I decided to use the following six principles. First, the dignity of human person, which says that human life is sacred and the foundation of society’s moral vision is in respect for person’s dignity. Second is sustainability of family, which says that the family is the building block of society which should be supported, not undermined, and participation in society and its organization should be for the common good. Third, justice and economy, refers to a right to those things which ensure human decency not just for ourselves but for our families and society. Fourth is care of ecology, or stewardship of all creation, protecting both the people and planet. Fifth is promotion of peace, in understanding we are all one human family in a shrinking world. Last is the right to work, or that the economy should serve the people and not vice versa.
Dignity of human life was very important to the Cherokee; this may at first seem counterintuitive with the retribution. “By far the most important role that the matrilineal clan played was as the arbiter of justice. Cherokee jurisprudence was simple, and enforcement was swift and certain. An anonymous observer explained, ‘Retaliation is the principle of their criminal code. Whenever an individual is killed, a relative of the deceased kills the murderer.’” (Perdue, 49) In fact, because human life was so valued, murder was the worst crime you could commit and the only way to balance that according to Cherokee beliefs was to kill the murderer. Even as they moved past the point of retaliation killing, their profound respect for life continues to be reflected within societal interactions, customs and legends.
The matrilineal aspect of the Cherokee is something that supported the sustainability of the family as a block of society. Although the seven clans were divided and organized along matrilineal lines, patriarchal ideas started to seep its way in through things like property ownership, legislation, monogamy, etc. Yet, “Missionaries had considerable evidence for the persistence of matrilineal kinship. Mothers often brought children to schools and checked on their welfare.” (Perdue, pg. 174) Although the pressures of the world and economic change told the Cherokee to change the ways of their tradition, it was clear that the shift to a patriarchal society would be more challenging than the missionaries or the Americans had thought. “In other words, the ‘mass and common’ women refused to abandon their own ways of doing things and adopt the values and lifestyle that missionaries advocated. Selu had met Eve, but she had not surrendered.” (Perdue, 184)
It is clearer that the family is still somewhat fortified in tradition, and that the dignity of human life remained relatively intact, but what of justice and economy? Did Cherokee families and societies as a whole experience human decency? This is a mixed bag; with great injustices and atrocities being perpetuated against the Cherokee people by a world economy and the American people and government in particular, the only respect for human decency being shown to the society was from the inside, and even that was betrayed by the signers of the Treaty which sent most Cherokee West on the Trail of Tears. While the Cherokee themselves respected life, very few respected the lives of the Cherokee, which just a few examples being where markets were fixed with regards to deerskins regardless of the poor quality of goods being traded, land was being stolen without protection from the government and alcohol being sold to Cherokee in barracks for what little they had left on the walk westward.
The fourth Catholic Social Teaching, care of ecology, was something that traditionally was accurate for the Cherokee. An example of this would be hunting. Prior to contact, they would purify before and after the hunt and they would kill only what was needed and could be used. After contact, when skins became a trade, they began to hunt with a ferocity, and would leave carcasses for animals to deal with after skinning the kills. Rituals of purification after things like hunting and war fell to the wayside due to the frequency with which they were engaging in both activities. On the flipside, they continued to have greater respect for the land than the “land grabbers” heading West did, who wanted to clear all the indigenous growth and wildlife to make room for cities, cultivation, cattle, hogs, and other farm animals.
Next is the promotion of peace. Although the Cherokee were never exactly peaceful people, one might not describe what they did pre-contact as war. “Native Americans had gone to war long before the European invasion. Nevertheless, the intensity, scale and duration of warfare increased dramatically, and Europeans added new participants, methods and motivations. Incessant warfare brought men to center stage in Cherokee society because war was the occupation of men, and political decision making came to focus on military and diplomatic matters, the business of men.” (Perdue, pg. 86) This mindset and attitude continued from the time of contact up to, in many cases, removal. While peace was something often pursued by the Cherokee and other natives, no sooner was a Treaty signed than it was broken by America in many instances.
Finally, we have the right to work. Unfortunately, the Cherokee were needlessly harassed by the Americans regarding the ways in which the labored and lived out every manner of their lives; from conducting business to managing the home. This included an assault on the original division of labor: women doing most of the agricultural work and raising children while men make war, hunt and assist on an as needed basis. The Americans and missionaries found this entirely unacceptable and so they tried to force change to men working the fields and doing animal husbandry while women tended the home and children, models of piety. “Contrary to this idealized republican woman, Native women farmed.” (Perdue, 186) The longer this went on, and the more white people who wanted this land, the bigger of an issue this became. It was one of the was Georgia Governor Wilson Lumpkin justified removal. “Lumpkin’s gendered language should not be ignored. Cultivation of the soil by men constituted legitimate ownership of land-minimal farming b mere women did not entitle one to possession.” (Perdue, 189) Therefore, it appears that eventually it was determined that the Cherokee do not have the right to work in an economy where people are served but rather, they existed in a world where if women live on land, it is acceptable to take it from them. Removal and dispossession became the order of the day, and their ability to work freely in this world was hindered by discrimination, some might argue, until the last couple decades.