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The Ancestor Honoring Ceremony

Showing Gratitude Across Generations.


Joyce Rheal & Brian Wilkes

Copyright 2013 Tuscany Global Corporation All rights reserved.

ISBN-10: 1482318768 ISBN-13: 978-1482318760


DEDICATION To our Ancestors;

To the Bonkyl, Bruce, Butler, Cooper, Davis, FitzWalter, Grayson, Hoadley, MacAlpin, MacDonald, Nunley, ONiall, Pilson, Presley, Rheal, Rice, Ross, Smith, Stewart, Van Tassel, Wyandanch; To the Arundel, Barclay, Bennett, Benton, Brown, Carleton, Cawthon, Conyers, Cooper, Crider, Dabney, Foster, Guadagnoli, Hair, Hamer, Howard, Jackson, Justice, Kebble, Luckie, Martin, Miller, Niccolini, ONeal, Ponder, Randolph, Reynolds, Rucker, Sainte-Claire, Soldani, Stodgill, Strickland, Stringer, Thomas, Tinsley, Tucker, Wilkes, Wofford, Zachry, and other whose names we have yet to learn.


1 Walking Through Bones 2 Mid-Winter Ceremonies

7 8

3 Debts of Gratitude Across Generations 13 4 Feeding the Ancestors 5 Suggested Ancestor Ceremony 6 Notes 7 About the Authors 22 25 30 33

Ancestor Ceremony For several years now, both online and in the annual Cherokee Calendar, Ive mentioned the Ancestor Ceremony observed in February as a common memorial for all who have crossed over in the winter months. Ive gotten a lot of questions from people who would like to revive this ceremony in their family. This book is for them.
Brian Wilkes

Walking Through Bones

The month of February is called Kagali in Cherokee, bony. The crunchy snow crust makes a sound like walking through a field of bones at least in the minds of shivering Cherokees. Those mountains get cold! Its also a time when a few months of preserved foods, combined with occasional game meats left many people undernourished, with a bony look. It was also the time of year when it was (and still is) easy to die from accident, exposure, or the combined effects of a life of hardship combined with a weakened state.

Joyce Rheal & Brian Wilkes

Those who survived until the Green Grass counted themselves a year older. Its not clear just when Cherokees and other mountain people began this mid-winter observance. It may go back to the days when the Cherokee people lived farther north, and were part of that later became the Iroquois Confederacy or Haudenosaunee.

Midwinter Ceremonies
Among the most ancient ceremonies, the most important and longest of the Seneca ceremonies is the Midwinter ceremony, actually a series of ceremonies at least ten days in length. The ceremony dates are determined by when the Pleiades star cluster is directly overhead. As described the by prophet and reformer Handsome Lake (1735-1815), the ceremony strengthened the people when they were at their weakest, reminding them of their relationships with the sky, the earth, the plants, the animals, the community, and the spirit world. Lake was a religious reformer among the Seneca and the rest of the Haudenosaunee. His Gaiwiio or Good Message simplified the spiritual practices of the Iroquois, preaching temperance, a strict moral code, and self-determination.


The Midwinter Ceremony is a time when the people ceremonially review the past year, give thanks for all that happened in the previous year and remind the people of their spiritual responsibilities in the coming year. This is also known as the New Year's Ceremony because it marks the beginning of a new ritual year. The Big Heads, masked messengers who visit the longhouses, invite everyone to participate. The Seneca and other Haudenosaunee are known for their elaborate masks.

Joyce Rheal & Brian Wilkes

The Stirring of the Ashes on coals from the fire is a symbolic gesture of showing gratitude for all the blessings bestowed during the previous year. Tobacco offering is a way of communicating to the Creator, both a message of thanksgiving, as well as a plea for a successful growing season for the new year. There is a public naming event where all the children born during the previous year are now given their public names, their connections with their ancestors listed. The central rite of the Midwinter Ceremony involved sacrificing a white dog, which represented both purity and winter hardships. To have one of their pets killed as a sacrifice was a sign of how seriously they actually took this ritual. Since the white dog symbolized purity, sacrificing the dog was a way of purifying the entire community. The dog was killed by strangulation so there would be no marks or blood on it. It was decorated with red paint, feathers, beads, wampum and ribbons. It was then laid on the fire, and a basket of tobacco was thrown on the flames. It was the belief that the smoke would carry their gratitude and prayers to heaven. Today, instead of a dog, a white basket is used.



Cherokee Masked (Booger) Dance

Perhaps by the time the Cherokees had migrated from the upper Ohio headwaters southward to milder winters, the ceremony was less about repelling the deadly demonic influence of winter and more about dealing with the new neighbors. Just my opinion.

In that ceremony, the group is invaded by masked characters originally representing malevolent disease-carrying spirit creatures, and later representing intrusive non-Cherokees. Since they

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are too numerous to defeat outright, the intruders are placated by the Cherokee hosts, and tricked into leaving. This is called in Cherokee They Wear Masks, or more commonly in English the Booger (boogeyman) Dance. By the 1930s, it was no longer a medicine ceremony, but done for fun, in the words of one Big Cove Elder. Its a vestige of an older practice of disempowering an adversary through satire and progressive verbal diminishment.



Debts of Gratitude Across Generations

Joyce Rheal: A Cherokee descendant and mixed-blood, I was rather young at the time, and understood all of this as my family being weird, doing something to humor grandma, and wanting it to be over so I and my young cousins could go inside, get warm, play and watch cartoons. The deeper meanings were never explained to me until after I spoke with Grandmother Lora Bell prior to her departure from

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this word. Today, of course, I wish I had listened, observed more closely, and asked questions, as grandmother is now embraced within her mother the Earth, as we say. Once the elders leave this world it's too late. Or is it? I grew up in the Tennessee and West Virginia mountains. Every February, my grandmother, the late Lora Bell Stewart Rheal, and her sister the late Shirley Stewart Brewer (right) took the whole family to the graves of our ancestors, which were in a private family cemetery high in the Tennessee hill. Amongst the graves of the ancestors, the family placed tables and chairs. The tables were loaded with food and drinks for ALL to partake. The food and drinks were those favorite dishes of the ancestors and family members. One chair was left empty with a plate full of food and a cup of drink for unseen guests to join us. As well, grandmother always placed food and drinks on the graves of the ancestors. Grandmother took her


bundle of ceremonial stones and placed them on top the graves of the oldest ancestors in certain positions, she laid other stones on other graves and did ceremonies. She always honored them regardless of their social status during life by telling stories using the word late in front of the names, as she was always careful not to use the exact name they used in life, since this could be considered an attempt to summon them back. We would be there for hours, regardless of the weather conditions. When grandmother was satisfied with the results, she would perform a closing ceremony and food would be left for the ancestors and little people as we went to warm up and continue our day. I have revived my familys ancestor ceremony, and agreed to share the importance of remembering our ancestors through ceremonies. We are the whole of our ancestors regardless of their race, circumstances and life styles. It is a good thing to remember those who paved the way and sacrificed for us to be here today. The Ancestor Ceremony usually took place within the grave sites of those family members who had been embraced by Mother Earth. If grave sites were not available due to travel restrictions, the ceremonies could be conducted at a designated family members home.

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At the Cemetery

Calendar stones were contained within a small leather bag that nobody else was allowed to touch, per grandmothers instructions. Her reasoning was that people can accidentally lose or break things, and she believed the loss of even one stone could put her ceremonies at risk. She placed upon certain headstones various crystals and stones she held as sacred.

These crystals and stones would be gathered up at the end of the ceremony. The stones she used spelled out the birth date of each ancestor, which was often the basis for their ceremonial name [2]. A family shrine would be erected at the cemetery, and the genealogical records, heirlooms, and photos placed upon it. This shrine would have an empty chair placed beside it. Tables and chairs would be set up at the cemetery and place settings would be set upon each grave, and an empty seat and place setting will be left open at the table, a welcome seat for any Ancestor who arrived.



Calendar Stones from a set recently unearthed in Caldwell County, KY.

(In this photo, the crystals are shown pointing away from the center fire; in ceremony, they point inward. Oral tradition recalls crystals the length of a mans forearm being kept for this purpose. When suitable stones were not available, limbs of wood were double-terminated as substitutes).

Within a host family home: A family shrine would be created and the calendar stones, crystals, genealogical records, heirlooms, and photos would be placed upon the

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shrine. This shrine would have an empty chair placed beside it. Tables and chairs will be set up within the home. A seat and place setting would be left open for the ancestors at the table. The ceremony would be opened through a fire ceremony, either using a fire pit or a smudge bowl. Grandmother used fire ceremonies for setting her intentions and for purifying those who came to the ceremonies. Her fires were small and she used seasoned cedar wood as her main fuel for the fire. She considered cedar sacred and a good repellant of bad intentions. She also would place four large crystals in the fire pit around the four cardinal points. The points of the crystals faced the fire and she believed that these crystals would amplify prayers and healings. Honoring the Ancestors The Ancestors would be invited to participate; they would be acknowledged, welcomed and seats would be provided for them. We would verbally recall events, preferences, and stories of the ancestors. When speaking their names, we added the word late to the name (tsigesv who was) to avoid the even the appearance of calling back the Ancestors. Some of their favorite songs would be sung or played.


We would let the Ancestors know how grateful we are for everything they passed on, including DNA codes, and we expressed our gratitude for their teachings and welcomed their continued interest and involvement in our lives. Meal Provided A meal was provided for all attendees including the Ancestors. Food is life! A Food offering was left outside for the Ancestors and local spirits in the form of spirit plate, a small sample of each of the foods being eaten. It is placed in a bio-degradable item or just left on the ground for the little people, the Ancestors, and the animals to partake of as a sign of respect and thankfulness. Full portions of food would be added to the ancestors' place settings and/or gravesites (if applicable). The meal would be eaten. Grandmother called this eating for the dead, which sounds a little morbid. I prefer to think of it as letting them share their favorite foods with us, as they did while still alive. When the table was set, Grandmother would announce Dinner's on the ground, a phrase still

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heard in the Upland South in connection to a church's annual homecoming covered dish, or Decoration Day, [4] the predecessor to Memorial Day, when the graves are cleaned and tended and offerings left. In most communities, the date was set for late spring when flowers were up. But Grandma Lora Bell insisted on keeping to the old Calendar, which set the date just after the new moon of Nvda Gola, usually landing in early February After eating the meal: A gift would also be left for the ancestors in the form of flowers, food, or other bio-degradable items. To close the ceremony the Cherokee version of Amazing Grace, would be sung, or whatever might have been a favorite of one of the ancestors. Amazing Grace, or rather, a Cherokee song using the same melody (Unethlanvhi Uwetsi), was sung during the Trail of Tears as the people marched west, leaving their Mountain Home, and during the many funerals along the way. By the time the Cherokees reached Oklahoma, it was one song that everyone knew by heart, and became the de facto Cherokee national anthem. Others songs sung during the Removal were Guide Us On, Jehovah and At the Cross, which was my grandmother's


favorite song. According to a story I was told about those who were removed to Oklahoma, one day an Elder was setting out food offerings at the graves of his family, when he was approached by a missionary. Just when is it you expect your ancestors to return and eat that food you leave for them? the missionary asked sarcastically. The same day YOUR ancestors return to smell those flowers you keep leaving for THEM! the Elder responded. We all have our own ways of showing gratitude to our relatives. In my culture, food and drink are life. Our gratitude and obligations to our Elders dont end simply because their bodies wear out. They live on in us, and we are the whole of them. Some of you have asked how they can conduct the ceremony. This is more of a family observance. The formal ceremony is one that has been passed down through your family. If none has been passed down, the simplest thing to do is to set an extra place at the table. This is in addition to the spirit plate that is prepared and taken outside to share hospitality with any creatures who care to partake. Bring out the genealogies, photos, personal effects of various family members who have crossed. Share

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stories of their lives. Play or sing their favorite music and songs, prepare their favorite foods. The Ancestor Ceremony has become the modern replacement for the Midwinter Ceremony, which sought to drive off the spirits of cold, hunger and disease that claimed so many lives. The spiritrepelling ceremony evolved into the Masked Dance, common called the Booger Dance. In that ceremony, community and family are clearly identified in an us versus them scenario, with a group of demon party-crashers parodied, satirized, and danced outside into the winter to go their own way in peace. The characters, originally personifications of hardships and diseases, evolved into hostile Indians, whites, blacks and Asians. More recent characters include an anthropologist, and a white woman on the prowl for a hot, buff Indian pow-wow dancer. Ancestor Ceremony allows us to define community and family on our own terms, as appropriate to our own situation. Its you dinner table, so select your guests wisely.



Feeding the Ancestors Gifting or feeding departed ancestors is a common theme worldwide. Some cultures do it through fire, others place offerings in the rivers. Among some nations, the gravesite resembles a miniature house, and food and water are left for those times when the spirit of the deceased chooses to visit.

High Andes Peru. Grave Houses in the shape of cathedrals.


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Myrtle Hoadley Rice, Joyces greatgrandmother, was taken away as a girl to the infamous Carlisle Indian School (above). Unlike many whose spirits were broken by the residential school system, Myrtle and her descendants survived and thrived. They never forgot who they really were. The Ancestor Ceremony is not only a memorial to their passing, but a tribute to their survival! It is our collective life celebration!



Suggested procedure to restore the Ancestor Ceremony within your family. Not everything works for every situation. Whats more important than following some cookbook ceremony recipe is to develop genuine connection with you departed ancestors. Now, heres where it gets tricky. Our traditions and those of other cultures forbid calling the departed to return. For many, calling a departed person to return is one step away from binding them to do your bidding on the other side, and therefore sorcery. I was taught by the Elders that when someone has passed, its not proper for us to bother them. However, we can certainly let them know that theyre welcome, that a place is set for them at the table. In some cultures, the proscription against necromancy, compelling the departed by using their names, is so strong that when a person crosses, their name is never spoken again without alteration. I recently saw a documentary preceded by the warning that the presentation my contains images, voices, and names of deceased individuals. Were not suggesting you adopt this taboo, just advising you of it so you can be sensitive to it should the question arise.


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Ancestor Worship?
Anthropologists have suggested that all religion originates from the urge to honor or placate or communicate with departed ancestors. In the Bible, God is the father of Adam, and therefore a common ancestor of all humanity. In the Cherokee story, Skywoman or Starwoman is the child of the Lord of Heaven before she falls to earth and gives birth to humankind. Even the English word God comes from the proper name Gotha, the original ancestress of the Goths. Those veterans who have been deployed to Asia know what great risks rural people will take to tend the graves of their ancestors, even crossing war zones to do it. The list of examples is almost endless. How well do you know your ancestors? How many can you name? Can you quickly draw a chart of your ancestors for the past four or five generations? What do you know of their lives, their struggles, their joys? I know that my great-grandfather Sterling was a little boy when the Civil War broke out, and hid from Union foraging parties. I know that my grandmother Josephine was a farm girl married at 16, who had her only child at 17, was widowed at 24, and didnt learn to read until years later.


I know that one line of my family picked the losing side against a powerful feudal family, and was exiled to the countryside. I know who was poor, and who was dirt poor. I know that my ancestors fought both for and against the United States. I know Native mixed-blood people who can trace their ancestry to Constantine and Tiberius, and also to migrants who came up from the Yucatan centuries, even millennia ago. Family Shrine In some cultures there is a formal family shrine. In America, we tend to be less formal, but the idea is still good. Yes, genealogy is time-consuming and can be expensive, but its the only way to really know your ancestors. A family shrine can be as simple as a set of photos or a wall, or a few heirlooms on a shelf on in a box. Does your family have a motto or favorite saying? Ideally, an Ancestor Ceremony is celebrated within the family or extended family or community. Prepare a good dinner (whether that means lunch or supper in your region!) and call the family together. If a particular dish was a favorite of an ancestor, tell people! So much family history is lost because of I thought everybody knew that or I didnt think anyone else cared.


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Honoring It may be good prior to eating to honor specific ancestors, especially those who have passed in the last year. Those who are honoring an individual should come prepared. Gather before the meal. Set up photos, albums, heirlooms, especially of common ancestors. Set an extra seat and place setting for any of the ancestors who might arrive. This isnt an episode of Ghosthunters dont expect voices and visitations. The important part isnt that they eat the food or smell the flowers, but that YOU make the offer. Recall events, preferences, stories of the ancestors. Recall their names. Some believe its wrong to speak the name of a deceased person; in English we add the late to the name, and you can think of that as a way of changing the name. Or it may not be important in your tradition. Sing some of their favorite songs. Most importantly, let them know that you are grateful for everything they passed on to you, including your DNA, and that they are welcome to drop in if they feel like it. THEY ARE STILL your family, and ALWAYS will be. After the meal and before the group breaks up, take the food from their plate outside as a spirit plate.


This way, gifts are still being made for them, in their name. The earth, the sky, the fire, the plants, the animals, the spirit creatures are ALSO our relatives. Conclusion As we look at the circle of life from a Native viewpoint, theres seldom a definite line between the living and the deceased. The other side is just over yonder or toward the darkening sunset, not the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns as Shakespeare called it. We believe that our departed family still watches. As you look around to the mementos of the departed, look again to what lessons you leave for your descendants.


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[1] A collection of carved or painted stones, about the size of a quarter or half dollar, representing each of the twenty day and week signs. Brian Wilkes, Even Heaven Falls Apart: Cherokee Cosmology from Creation to 2012 and Beyond ISBN-13: 978-1482016260 Brian Wilkes, Cherokee Calendar (Nvdodisesdi Ditsalagi) 2013: Dawn of the Sixth World ISBN-13: 978-1481887472 [2] From a telephone conversation with Shirley Brewer (19412009) shortly before her death in December 2009. Her late sister Lora Bell Stewart Rheal was a prominent healer and calendarkeeper and ceremonial leader in East Tennessee: She (Lora Bell) did all of the naming, and there were two names given... one name which was the community and everyday name, besides the English name, which indicated the guide and strength of the individual. The other was ceremonial and was linked the calendar and when they were born. She did say that the signs I was born under were two birds and the snake. She looked at the birth signs to help her determine who would be the strongest in the medicines. P17 Pieces from an incomplete set of Calendar Stones unearthed in Caldwell Co., Kentucky, probably representing sunflower, heron, vulture, and redbird. [4] Annual Decoration Days for particular cemeteries are held on a Sunday in late spring or early summer in some rural areas of the American South, notably in the mountains. In cases involving a family graveyard where remote ancestors as well as those who were deceased more recently are buried, this may take on the


character of an extended family reunion to which some people travel hundreds of miles. People gather on the designated day and put flowers on graves and renew contacts with kinfolk and others. There often is a religious service and a dinner on the ground, the traditional term for a potluck meal in which people used to spread the dishes out on sheets or tablecloths on the grass. It is believed that this practice began before the American Civil War and thus may reflect the real origin of the memorial day idea. On May 5, 1868, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic - the organization for Union Civil War veterans - General John A. Logan issued a proclamation that Decoration Day should be observed nationwide and annually. It was observed for the first time on May 30 of the same year; according to folklore, the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of a battle. - from Wikipedia


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Joyce Rheal was raised in an Appalachian home that kept traditional Cherokee practices. She recognizes values the importance of keeping ones identity, culture and spirituality intact while honoring the whole of all my ancestors. Her grandmother spoke Cherokee was a recognized by her community as a healer and ceremonial leader. Brian Wilkes is of mixed Native American ancestry, and became active in the community in the1990s. He teaches the Cherokee language and has worked to revive use of the traditional Cherokee Calendar. They are co-leaders of the Four Rivers chapter of the Native American Church, based in southern Illinois.



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