There were several festivals on the ancient Cherokee calendar which had religious or spiritual significance. Some have been studied to great extent by colonial writers such as Adair and Timberlake, others less so. Indeed, some are still practiced by traditional Cherokees today in some communities.
One of the most significant was the Time of Forgiveness. Unfortunately, it is today one of the lesser known. Not too many native studies professors spend any time or effort studying this particular festival. It is worth spending a little time on, not only because of what it teaches us about ancient Cherokee culture but also the lessons we can take for our own time.
It is important to understand that the Cherokee religion of ancient times was of a less dogmatic nature then that brought to us by the colonials. The religion and spirituality of the Cherokee of that time depended on an understanding of balance in the order of creation and was therefore more pragmatic in its practice and more realistic in its theory than some others.
As anyone today who lives in a small town knows, it is very easy to, over the course of a year, develop hurt feelings, small irritations, and in some cases, deadly feuds and vendettas.
The Cherokee Nation of ancient times was the ultimate small-town society. Even the largest “Mother Towns” of the time would not have numbered more then a few thousand souls. Furthermore, the survival of the town, as well as the society itself, depended on a very close cooperation between every individual offering their efforts toward the common good. One can easily see how the nursing of petty grudges and hatreds between individuals would have destroyed the nation within a relatively short period of time. One could not just “shut down the government” because the people as a whole would suffer.
The great Cherokee lawgivers and prophets of old, whose names are lost to the mists of legend, but whose wisdom still remains for those with the vision to seek it, bequeathed to their posterity a theological doctrine designed to prevent this sort of societal corrosion. It was called the “Time of Forgiveness”
Sadly, we do not know as much about this festival as we should, but we do know enough that we can learn a little something.
We know that once every year, every Cherokee town would have their own version of this festival. We know that the headmen, elders, priests, and beloved women of the town would all participate in speaking to the people and reminding them that they were all children of the same Creator and bore a responsibility to one another. Also during this festival, all sins and debts, except murder, were forgiven. It was believed that hatred weighed down the soul, and could therefore be a source of spiritual sickness. The people would celebrate during this time, they would share food and drink and fellowship, and also pray for forgiveness from the Creator for the community as a whole.
The country singer Randy Travis once said “hindsight’s twenty-twenty”, if that is the case, the hindsight of history can teach us something about living with our fellow humans today.
Many traditions handed down to us by our ancestors are considered to be cute or quaint in the self-absorbed arrogance of modern life. It is worth noting however, that these traditions allowed our ancestors to live together in peace and relative harmony for several thousand years.
Ancient Cherokee people were no less human then are modern people, but they did have one advantage. That advantage was a very clear understanding of the interdependency of the society in which they lived, and of their own responsibility to the common good of that society. This understanding was taught from the cradle. Every Cherokee received this teaching with their mother’s milk. (And no one would have been so up-tight as to object to a mother nursing her child). As a result, there were no school shooters or mass murderers in that society. But they said that society was “savage”
What are we to take from this, in this modern and advanced (non-savage) society? We pursue wealth at the expense of our future. We condemn mothers for nursing their children. We put people out of the church because we don’t like who they voted for. Our morals are artificial, ordered by corrupt priests who serve gods made of gold. I don’t know, I think maybe I will be content to be a savage. I will forgive my brother today and try to do a little good tomorrow.