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I do not use a pattern to design these sacred baskets. My grandmother and my mother taught me the skills to construct them, how to doubleweave a flexible basket-within-a-basket with a single common rim, for example, but the actual design comes from listening to the cane itself. It speaks to me as it moves through my hands. It tells me what it wants to be, how it wants to be shaped, what is will be used for.
It is not the first time this has happened. Stands of cane all around us have been destroyed. The white settlers do not understand Cherokee ways, and they think women's work is unimportant. I overheard one say not long ago to another white man that Cherokee "squaws" are "beasts of burden" because we do the farming work. I could tell by his tone of voice he was ridiculing us. The white settlers don't understand the nature of women as the sacred weavers, food givers, and life givers. They don't recognise our status. They know nothing of Corn Woman, the first woman whose name was Selu, and the spiritual source of corn agriculture.
Everyday Selu brought home a basket of corn to her husband Kanati and her two sons. When her sons spied on her, they saw corn fall from her body into the basket. They thought she was a witch and killed her! Every place her blood spilled on the ground, corn grew. To this day corn still grows only in certain spots and not over the entire earth. Now, it must be planted and taken care of for it to grow. You can readily see why women tend the corn. We are the daughters of Selu. Cherokee men understand this and give us proper respect and veneration -- unlike the white settlers. The settlers do not understand that we need the river cane for baskets, that baskets are an essential part of our life, that we use them more than any other household ware to gather, process, and serve the food -- or if they know, they do not care.
September 7, 1755. It is harvest time now. Soon winter will be upon us, and our whole extended family, aunts, uncles, and cousins will all live together through the cold moons. But before that we will celebrate the Green Corn Festival. When the priest ignites the Town House fire, he will call upon an old beloved woman to pull a basket full of newly ripened fruits and bring them to the beloved square. After the priest consecrates the food, the women will bring a great feast to the square, the meat -- venison, bear, and buffalo -- in large earthen pans, and the bread, corn, peas, potatoes and fruit in baskets. The people will be hungry because they fasted for purification. The food will look beautiful and smell so good our mouths will water. We will gather around the pans and the baskets to share the sanctified harvest. Afterwards, the old ones will tell stories. We will laugh many times during the telling of "The Hunting of the Great Bear" and sing songs after we hear the story of "Stove Coat," the monster who gave us music and songs when he died. The balance and harmony we seek in every aspect of our lives will seem completely attainable then. Change will come and we will adapt to it, but women will continue to remember the old ways just as we always have.
Appendix have always been interested in Native Americans and particularly in Cherokees because we have some way back in our family. My great-great grandmother was a Cherokee. She married my immigrant German great-great grandfather. I knew that the Cherokees were the largest and most prosperous group of Native Americans, at least until the Trail of Tears when they were forced to walk to Oklahoma and so many died.
I thought it would be best to write the journal as though I really lived in 1755 in the Blue Ridge Mountains. So I created a character who is a lot like me. I found a name for her on the internet, which is an Indian name, although not necessarily Cherokee. I went with the meaning of the name. Agasga is "self-expressive and artistic" with "emotional intensity that is difficult to control." She has a "generous nature" and will do her "utmost to help others in need, despite inconvenience or even hardship" to herself. She is "affectionate" and responds quickly to appreciation. As a child Agasga was expressive, imaginative, and impressionable. She could excel in theatre if she were here today and be a dramatist or comedienne. This description struck a resonant chord within me, and I settled on the name Agasga for my character.
As I researched the lifestyle of Cherokee women in the 18th century, I found a nearly overwhelming amount of material. Actually, there was more than I could use, so my first task was to read each article and highlight the information I planned to use. This eliminated a few pieces which didn't seem relevant. At the same time I summarized each article so I would be ready for the Annotated Bibliography that was required. To my surprise, the best source of information I found was a scholarly article on weaving. It told how baskets were made, how the materials were gathered, how the women shaped the landscape by encouraging plants that they could use, described three main categories of basket use, as well as religious observances and rituals, and customs of everyday life. Because baskets were so essential to the life of the people, I decided that Agasga would be a ceremonial basket maker. Her baskets would be used for important religious ceremonies and this would allow me to describe some of them. I began writing her journal and the conflict unfolded to me. She goes one day to pick river canes for ceremonial baskets and finds the stand has been destroyed by white settlers who let their horses and cows eat the canes and allow their pigs to root, which kills the plants. Naturally, she is angry. Eventually all the cane stands were destroyed, although Agasga doesn't know that when the journal is being written. She only knows they are endangered.
Nearly every article I read said that the Cherokees knew how to adapt to change. I tried to show that, at least, in Agasga's attitude.
Cherokees adopted white ways. They planted white crops. They built white houses. Some of them turned Christian. Some of the women married white men. But it didn't save the people from avarice and greed. Of course, Agasga couldn't know what was going to happen.
Bender, Margaret. "Review of Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835." Canadian Journal of History, Vol. 36 (December, 2001), 595-596.
This is a review of a book by Theda Perdue. It reports that during the 18th century, the relationship between men and women in the Cherokee community was complimentary. Women were responsible for the organization of village life and farming, while men engaged in hunting, fishing, trade, warfare, and diplomacy. Women appointed and removed male leaders. Thus, women maintained and reproduced the political system while men were responsible for enacting it. (Agasga is chosen to be one of the women who will choose a new War Chief.)
Cherokee Baskets." The Cherokee Nation web site:
Baskets for storage were essential to the Cherokee household. Women made them. They did not use patterns or drawings -- the design was found in the woman's soul, memory, and imagination. Cherokee baskets were usually woven from river cane, white oak, hickory bark and later, honeysuckle. They were dyed with black walnut and blood root originally, later with butternut, yellow root, and broom sedge. (Agasga describes her method of making baskets. Her mother and grandmother taught her the skills needed for doubleweaving, but she gets the design by listening to the cane tell her what it wants to be.)
Cherokee By Blood: Traditional Stories." Cherokee folklore, stories, legends web site:
This web site contains twelve traditional Cherokee stories: "A Cherokee Fable;"
The Song of Cherokee Rose;" "Legend of the Cherokee Creation;" "Daughter of the Sun;" "The First Fire;" "What the Stars are Like;" "The Hunting of the Great Bear," "The Legend of Corn woman;" "The Legend of the Ballgame between the Birds and the Animals;" "Why Moles Live Underground;" and "The Great Yellow-Jacket: Origin of Fish and Frogs." (Agasga tells the story of Corn Woman as she comments on the fact that the white settlers do not understand the position of Cherokee women and their status as food-givers.)
Cherokee Religion." OWR web site: http://philtar.ucsm.ac.uk/encclopedia/nam/cherok.html
This web site recounts the story of creation, the origin of music, and the meaning of various Cherokee dances and ceremonies. The significance of symbols -- fire, for example, as a symbol of life -- is explained. The number four signifies the four directions and wholeness. Seven has special significance…[continue]
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