I’ve known for a long time that I can use fire for healing. When I’m having an especially bad day, I can light one of the piles of wood on my property, and tend it till it’s spent. I find that having to be present to keep my fire burning, and to make sure it’s burning safely, takes just enough brain work that my mind doesn’t spiral into negative thoughts. But it doesn’t take so much brain work that I feel any fatigue. Often a fire inspires me to eat, because I can put some sausages onto a roasting stick, or put potatoes and onions into the coals. I sometimes forget to eat, so any reminder is a good thing. As you all know, fire is beautiful, and finding beauty is another tool I use to keep my spirits up. Fire is warm and bright when these winter nights are damp and cold and last so long.
I live on 4 1/2 acres surrounded by trees. Storms all year ’round knock the branches off trees and I pick them up and pile them up. During pandemic isolation, walking the length and breadth of my property, hauling armloads of branches is a great diversion and also good exercise. I periodically tear out blackberries and prune back the willow-type bushes that grow in profusion beside the creek, and heap those onto the piles too. Sometimes the piles can get really high.
Having bonfires is such a big part of my life that I have three permanent fire locations. One up at the top of the hill, close to the house, one down below by the bend in the creek, and one small 4′ in diameter fire pit lined with rocks for summer burning. I renew my burn permit every year, and part of the restrictions are that during the summer “no burn” months, burning is only allowed in fire pits no larger than 4′. I don’t want to stop burning at any point during the year, ha ha, so Douglas (pictured above) built me a fire pit. Looking back through my years of photos, I find images of fire, over and over. I’ve posted some of them here.
I found a fellow fire-lover yesterday when he called to discuss a project we are working on. We talked about how much we love having a fire in our homes. I remembered that I had happily removed all the electric heating in the great room because I plan to heat exclusively with wood. I wonder what any future occupants of this house will think of that. My friend said his family teases him because he loves fire so much, but he can’t help himself. He thinks it is because he is Cherokee, and because fire has always been important to Cherokees, so it comes naturally to him.
It was the first time anyone had helped me make that link between my love of fire and my Cherokee ancestry. When I studied anthropology, I discovered that often tradition and meaning is passed through generations without realizing it. So even while no one I was raised with ever pulled me aside and taught me about fire, it is possible that I picked up on some of the emotions that my elders felt. It is possible that part of my relationship with fire is Cherokee, even without being taught our traditions. At the very least, with fire I am connected to my humanity, as every ancient people valued fire, and evidence of human use of fire goes back two million years. It’s in my DNA. And yours.
These days I do know some traditional Cherokee fire knowledge. I’d like to share some of it with you. First, I must acknowledge that there is a pervasive belief that Cherokee knowledge should not be shared with non-Cherokees, so some will not approve of my sharing. However, there are multiple wise, thoughtful, proud and dedicated Cherokee leaders who push back against the idea of keeping traditions a secret. Their perspective has convinced me that it is better to tell our stories and let the world know who we are and remind them we are still here, than to keep hiding, which helps the world forget us. There was a time in history when expressing Cherokee tradition and language was illegal, and people caught behaving like a Cherokee were brutally punished. It is easy to believe that this is where the habit of hiding our culture came from. At one point it was definitely the best advice. I have chosen not to tell everything, particularly what I have learned about medicine, which is a term that incorporates all the ways one can get physical or spiritual healing. One other thing I will say is that in the true nature of oral tradition, there is no one version. What follows is a single version I distilled from the versions I have heard. And each of those versions in turn, were passed to me as a single version of what that person heard. There are many different stories.
There is an oral tradition that talks about how fire was given to the people. In the beginning the Creator gave us gifts, and one of those gifts was the only one we had actually asked for: a piece of the sun. The Creator put a piece of the sun at the base of a tree, where it burned as fire, and we were told that we must keep that fire lit. One story has it that the fire was placed on an island, and Water Spider was the only one of the animals who could bring it safely to the rest of the world. Another story tells that the fire was placed on a mountaintop and seven wise men each carried a piece of the fire to their clans. Tradition holds that the Cherokee people have kept that fire alive from the time it was given us until today – through colonization, removal, and despite the Trail of Tears, that same fire continues to burn.
Fire is at the center of not only Cherokee religion, but the social and governmental structure as well. Cherokee communities used to surround what was called a “Mother Town,” the most famous of which today was at the site of the Kituwa Mound in western North Carolina. Cherokees say that at the top of this mound was a structure that housed the sacred fire. Magnetic surveys of the area by gradiometer confirmed that there is a hearth site below ground at the center of the mound, as oral tradition predicted. In the past an Autumn fire renewal ceremony would be held, in which all the fires in a community would be put out, and the hearths cleaned. Then the people in communities throughout the area would travel to their Mother Town and participate in a fire renewal ceremony, and then bring back some of the fire to restart the Council fire. From that, each household would restart their own fire. Every ten years the Mother Towns would have a renewal ceremony at the main Mother Town. This promoted community structure and governance. It is possible that Kituwa was the main Mother Town.
Tradition teaches that fire is a living thing and must be cared for and nurtured. Descendants of the Paint Clan, one of the seven Cherokee clans, are the keepers of the fire and responsible for the sacred fire. A fire must be “fed,” and it will also take up what it around it, as though feeding. So if a fire is near bloodshed, that violence will feed the fire. This is why there was an annual fire renewal ceremony, because over time, fire gets tainted. Mother Towns were places of peace where violence was not allowed, and so those fires remained strong.
One finds a sacred Cherokee fire at the center of a stomp dance, or gatiyo, a religious ceremony and social celebration. The stomp dance tradition was revitalized in the late 1880s and in 1907 it is recorded that there were at least 22 sacred fires burning. By the 1940s and 1950s stomp dance was again a big part of Cherokee life. As Christianity gained popularity among Cherokees, concern grew that honoring the fire might be witchcraft, and interest waned. In the 1970s, only 3 fires were still known to exist. From what I know today, from the few sources I have learned from, there is only a single fire widely agreed upon to still have a direct line to the original fire. Starting a new fire requires a ceremony, and while there are six or more fire locations today that are claimed to be sacred fires, it is not clear that each of these followed the proper ceremony to move the fire. Of course, this history will be disputed.
A stomp dance is in an undisclosed location where only people who are invited will know how to find it. It is not a pow wow. The fire burns on top of a mound (today the mound is small, not like the significant earthworks at Kituwa) and dancers circle the fire in a counter-clockwise manner. One person told me that this is to keep one’s heart close to the fire. The leader chooses the dance and sings, and everyone follows. Men do the singing, often a call and response. Women keep the beat by stomping their feet with rattles on their ankles as they move around the fire. It makes a fascinating rhythm if you get a chance to hear a recording of it. Traditionally these rattles are made from turtle shells filled with small pebbles, but they can be empty tin cans filled with pebbles. Seven arbors surround the fire, each representing one of the seven Cherokee clans. Outside the arbors, people are gathered and camped, socializing around meal preparation, and playing stickball. People who attend stay with their own clan, or if they do not know their clan, will stay with the clan who sponsors them. I have been told that in the past, the dance would continue for three days, but today the dance begins after dark and continues until dawn. Please know I have never witnessed a stomp dance ceremony, and relay to you the things I have been told. One day I hope to have the honor of being invited to participate in a stomp dance.