Growing up as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I knew little about my Cherokee roots. My biological father is Cherokee but he left when I was still a toddler, and my mother is so fanatical about Jehovah’s Witnesses that the religion was the only “culture” or lifestyle in our home.
After leaving the JW religion I began to learn about the Cherokee way of life, which explained much about me as a person while also disproving many aspects of the rigid belief system of Jehovah’s Witnesses!
Jehovah’s Witness Families Versus Cherokee Families
First, a quick crash course on the Cherokee family structure.
The Cherokee nation is comprised of seven clans; families of each clan lived near one other in what you might call their own little neighborhood.
When a couple married, the man left his clan and went to live with the wife’s clan, becoming part of her family and not the other way around.
Since children came out of the woman’s body they were seen as belonging to her, receiving their lineage through the mother’s clan, not the father’s. If a couple divorced, the children stayed with the mother while the husband typically went back to live with his mother’s clan.
Male Headship in the Religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses
Men have all authority in the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses, with women expected to be “silent” and “submissive.” While men might enjoy this power and prominence, the religion also puts a huge burden on their shoulders; JW men have primary responsibility of providing for the family, training and disciplining children, making major decisions, and the list goes on.
Responsibility of Cherokee Women
Cherokee men did have responsibilities; they often spent days if not weeks away from the home, hunting and fishing. Men also built the cabins in which Cherokee lived, made repairs to those homes, and whatever else was needed to care for the family.
Cherokee women worked hard as well, mostly tending to crops, as men and women had equal responsibility for putting food on the table. Those crops, along with baskets, blankets, and other items women made provided for her family, and were also traded, making up the backbone of the nation’s economy.
Women also had primary responsibility for raising children and overseeing care of their lands, home, and entire clan, especially while the men were off hunting.
Property was passed down through Cherokee daughters, not sons, and belonged to the woman’s clan; as women were tasked with caring for children and all other relatives, this arrangement ensured everyone had a roof over their heads.
The Cherokee family arrangement not only respected the work and abilities of women, it alleviated men from the burden of being the sole provider for families, or even giving them a home in the first place! The women they married would already have a place to live and typically provided for the clan materially more so than men.
Marriage, Divorce, and the Cherokee
Jehovah’s Witnesses have a strict view of divorce and only allow a divorced person to remarry if their mate was unfaithful. Women in violent homes are even encouraged to consider staying with an abuser in the hopes of converting him.
In Cherokee culture, husbands and wives were expected to be faithful but Cherokee marriages were also often short-lived, lasting perhaps a decade or so. While divorce was not permitted for frivolous reasons, it was allowed on the grounds of incompatibility.
If you see this attitude toward marriage as crude or unloving, step back and consider where you got the idea the marriage should be “til death do us part” in the first place. Probably the bible, which didn’t dictate Cherokee culture. To the Cherokee, divorce was not seen as sinful or even shameful.
This view of marriage made allowances for how people and, in turn, their relationships change over the years; the person who makes you happy at 20 is not always going to make you happy at 40, and the Cherokee respected that.
The Cherokee culture also ensured marriage was not a trap for husbands or wives! Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t say that wives can’t work, but JW men have the primary responsibility of providing for a family. Illustrations in their literature also depict JW women in the kitchen far too often, even just looking on while husbands interact with children in another room:
These views often keep both men and women in unhappy relationships; men feel religious obligations to stay and bring home a paycheck, and women stay because they might struggle to support themselves outside the marriage.
This wasn’t so in the Cherokee nation. Since women owned property, clans all lived together, and divorced men simply went back to another household, no one worried about how children would be provided for, where they would live, who would care for them as they got older, etc., after a separation.
In my opinion, those short-lived Cherokee relationships were probably more genuine than Jehovah’s Witness marriages. I remember many JW marriages ruled by a sense of obligation, not because spouses loved or even liked each other. How is that a real marriage? For the Cherokee, marriage was a choice you made because the relationship made you happy, not because you were contractually obligated to stay.
Equal Authority and Standing of Cherokee Women
Women hold no positions of authority in the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses; they are not allowed to teach in the congregation and are expected to defer to virtually any male present, even in matters relating to their own children.
Jehovah’s Witnesses say this is for the “orderly arrangement of things,” as if life would be chaotic without men in charge, but the Cherokee culture disproves this notion. Within the Cherokee, every member of the clan had full involvement in decision making; women could also be chiefs, healers, and any other position in the nation, equal to men in all respects.
How was this arrangement chaotic and disorderly? The Cherokee built an entire nation that thrived for centuries around the belief that men and women are equal in intelligence, abilities, and responsibilities, without question.
As with the family, Jehovah’s Witness men are saddled with sometimes crushing burdens of responsibilities in the religion; the elder’s handbook, “Shepherd the Flock of God,” is over 270 pages, for example. Elders also get a myriad of instructional letters and attend separate meetings and schooling; the men are solely responsible for overseeing the upkeep of properties, handling the finances, delivering public sermons and the vast majority of other presentations, investigating supposed sins, and the list goes on.
As with the family, JW men often relish being the boss in the religion, but this authority comes with a heavy price. When there are two adults anywhere, be that at home or a religious setting, the work and responsibilities of those adults should be halved, as they were with the Cherokee. Instead, Jehovah’s Witness men are given a laundry list of work in the Kingdom Hall, while women do very little for the religion but preach and help clean the buildings.
Violence Against Women Among Jehovah’s Witnesses Versus the Cherokee
In older Cherokee culture, rape and domestic violence no doubt happened but they were rare, especially considering that women had full voice in all clan decisions including criminal matters, and full rights to divorce a man. Entire clans living together also gave women more protection against domestic abuse than someone isolated from her family and under the control of her husband alone.
In the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses, domestic violence was not uncommon in the congregations where I grew up, with men physically slapping, shoving, and even hitting their wives. Elders blamed women for this abuse and told them to ask their husbands for forgiveness for having “provoked” them into hitting them.
Elders are even outright instructed to discern for themselves if they feel an [alleged] rape victim “consented” or is telling the truth over their attack, rather than respecting or even assisting a victim. Treating even alleged victims this way is, in my opinion, a form of violence in of itself. Lack of women’s voices and authority in the religion is, no doubt, a huge contributing factor to these horrific situations.
Cherokee Women Versus the Weaker Vessel
According to the bible, women are a “weaker vessel” (1 Peter 3:7). In fairness, some commentators have suggested this refers to women being physically weaker or more emotional, not mentally inferior. Growing up as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, I heard that phrase applied anytime men wanted to subjugate or even humiliate and mock women.
Cherokee women were not considered “weaker” in any sense of the word. The women even joined men on the battlefield if they desired; Nanyehi (aka Nancy Ward) infamously fought with her husband in a battle against the Creek, chewing his bullets so that the ragged edges would inflict greater damage.
When her husband was killed, Nanyehi picked up his rifle and led the Cherokee into victory. For her bravery, Nanyehi was bestowed the title of Ghigau:
Ghigau or Agigaue is a Cherokee prestigious title meaning “beloved woman” or “war woman”. The title was a recognition of great honor for women who made a significant impact within their community or exhibited great heroism on the battlefield.
Ghigau were so respected that it was believed the Great Spirit spoke through them, giving them wisdom. Nanyehi reportedly had several visions showing a “great line of our people marching on foot. Mothers with babies in their arms. Fathers with small children on their back. Grandmothers and Grandfathers with large bundles on their backs. They were marching West and the ‘Unaka’ (White Soldiers) were behind them. They left a trail of corpses the weak, the sick who could not survive the journey.”
The Trail of Tears occurred not many years after Nanyehi’s death.
Certainly there was never a suggestion that Cherokee women had no rights to teach, exercise authority over others, share in decision making, or that they should otherwise be silent and submissive to anyone in their nation, especially not because they were “weaker.”
Cherokee Women Protecting Children
Speaking of women’s strength, one interesting aspect of Cherokee society is that women could spare someone condemned to death but also took the lead in executing prisoners of war and criminals; this was their “right and responsibility as mothers.”
This is unlike Jehovah’s Witnesses; for example, when there is an allegation of child sex abuse in the religion:
- Elders need an eyewitness to “verify the act” before they remove an abuser from the congregation
- “Repentant” abusers are allowed to stay in the congregation
- Only in rare cases are parents warned of an abuser in their congregation
- Elders only alert authorities when legally obligated and, even then, try to hide behind clergy-penitent privilege or other legal loopholes
While Jehovah’s Witness men create and carry out these directives, it’s not unusual for JW women to defend them vehemently. JW women often say they’re showing faith in god, waiting for him to work things out “in his own due time,” or are “humbly” submissive to men, trusting them to handle things. Whatever the reasons, their inaction is at the expense of children!
Even outside agencies, such as the Child Abuse Royal Commission in Australia, noted the damage done to JW child sex abuse victims, especially young females, because of this lack of women’s involvement in investigating abuse claims in the religion:
Having only men investigate such accusations, questioning victims with no adult women present, also means no checks or deterrents as to the nature of their questions. Victims have testified that JW elders have been downright pornographic in their questioning, traumatizing them all over again:
“I never felt as though any of the Elders believed me. In fact, they seemed incensed by what I was saying and took the allegations personally. They asked me questions like, ‘Did you enjoy it?’ and, ‘How did you react to that?’ At times, it felt as though they were getting off on what I was telling them.”
– child sex abuse victim “BCG”
Consider, too, that while Jehovah’s Witness women might think they’re being humble by letting men run the show, far too often it’s men who molest children. A child’s best protector and first line of defense against abuse is often their mother, and Cherokee women accepted this responsibility to the point of even executing someone posing a threat to any of the clan’s children.
Why Explore Other Cultures Outside of Jehovah’s Witnesses
Certainly the Cherokee were not perfect, even owning slaves at one point. However, exploring aspects of their daily life, as I would recommend people do with various cultures throughout history and around the world, versus the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses helps drive home the ridiculousness of that religion and their claim of living “the best life ever.”
As a few other quick examples, there were sexual taboos in the Cherokee society but not a long list of rules to follow, and certainly few prohibitions against sex outside of marriage. Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, have prohibited even oral and anal sex between married couples:
Jehovah’s Witnesses are so stifling and controlling when it comes to sex that they’ve said masturbation ruins marriages and makes you gay! How can anyone, even a married couple, truly enjoy sexual expression in such a repressive, shame-filled culture?
The Cherokee people also had regular festivals and celebrations, especially during harvesttime. These festivals were often marked with dancing and feasting and were spiritual in nature while also just celebrating life, family, and the earth.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, celebrate virtually nothing, not even birthdays. This lack of festivities makes for a very dull, joyless existence for adults but especially children in the religion!
Jehovah’s Witnesses say they “work to build up families, both our own and those of our neighbors,” per their website. However, that certainly wasn’t my experience; the men were happy to have absolute authority over women and felt very self-important, but were also burdened down with a myriad of responsibilities at home and in the congregation.
I’m sure some JW women are happy but I remember that most were outright miserable, trying to stifle their genuine feelings and accept the religion’s claims that their family arrangement was “loving” and for their benefit. How can a woman be happy when she’s counseled to consider staying in an abusive marriage or with an unfaithful husband, rather than being empowered to stand up for herself and demand better?
Empowering women to speak for the nation was also beneficial for all Cherokee; women could and did vote for war as they saw fit, but Nanyehi and other Ghigau were often ambassadors, and Nanyehi especially was known for trying to negotiate peace between the Cherokee and the Europeans. No doubt women’s wisdom saved the Cherokee from otherwise unnecessary battles.
Cherokee children were also obviously safer than children in the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Rather than abused children having to seek help from self-important, snarling men who might be abusers themselves, Cherokee mothers stopped at nothing to protect their children and entire clan. They didn’t look the other way, blindly trust the abusers to police themselves, or shirk their responsibilities as fighters and protectors.
Cherokee women were tough and fierce as well as wise, and proved themselves deserving of respect and equality while at the same time disproving the outright lunacy and abusive structure of the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Let’s just say, I was born in the wrong century.