Leadership in Public Arenas

In Cherokee society, the clan traditionally fulfilled the responsibilities of government through retribution and retaliation. Those of proven ability provided the leadership and men and women participated in decision-making.

Cherokee women held power within their families and within the village. In council, Cherokee women freely voiced their opinions as well as men. There was no shame attached to men who listened and severe public tongue-lashings to anyone who did not (Sattler, 1995). Issues were debated until a consensus was reached. A chief or national council did not rule the Cherokee until the 18 th century. Men held these positions. At this time, each village had two chiefs, the White Chief or Most Beloved Man who helped make decisions concerning farming, lawmaking and disputes, and the Red Chief (who attained his rank through many victories) who gave advice about warfare (Waldman, 1999). It was a common language (three or four dialects), kinship system, and shared beliefs, not government, that unified the Cherokees of approximately 100 villages (Perdue, 1989).

One of the most serious issues a town council debated was whether or not to go to war. The reason for war was to avenge deaths of Cherokees who had been killed by an enemy, and the decision to participate in war was up to the individual. The council determined responsibility for fatalities and rallied support for a war party. War parties were made up of men, often with War Women to accompany them to cook and to carry water and firewood. Some of these War Women (Beloved Woman) distinguished themselves in battle and were responsible for captives. Children and female captives were often adopted, but warriors were usually killed (Perdue, 1989). It was importance to the Cherokee to seek vengeance for the death of a fellow tribal person to keep the world in balance. Families held the responsibilities associated with police and courts in today's society, and crime and punishment were understood in terms of kin and clan vengeance only. The matrilineal clan was the arbiter of justice (Perdue, 1998).

At the end of the 20th century, Cherokee women re-emerged onto the public stage. In 1985 Wilma Mankiller became the first Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, and in 1995 Joyce Dugan became Principal Chief of the East Band of Cherokees in North Carolina. These women succeeded a series of men and were acclaimed for their service to community. They became chiefs because they embodied the values of generations for Cherokee women still honored and respected by men and women (Perdue, 1998).

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