As Salaamu Alaykum wa Rahmatullah,
For those of you who are interested in the connection between Native Americans and Islam, this thread will be good for you, Insha Allah. I enjoy doing research on this kind of information and sharing it because we all know Islam was here first and its good to know a little more history about this country. Also I am Native American decent. Insha Allah I will post more articles soon.
Reviving the Classical Wisdom of Islam in the Cherokee Tradition
By Dr. Robert Dickson Crane
The Greatest Event in Five Hundred Years
On September 21, 2004, the National Museum of the American Indian
opened on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., after a highly
successful fund-raising drive, largely among Native American tribal
leaders. This culminates a history of false starts and false
When asked in January, 2004, what the purpose of the new Museum of
the American Indian is, its director, Dr. Richard West, Jr., affirmed
that every display and every project and every part of the museum is
to affirm the constitutional sovereignty of Native American nations
and to preserve their spiritual heritage for future generations.
The grand parade of 25,000 Native Americans representing more than
two hundred nations, tribes, and bands in all their traditional
finery proceeded for two hours eastward down the mall toward the
Capitol building to the adjacent museum which had been off-limits and
now was to be opened to the public. Maria Cuch, a Ute from Utah,
exclaimed, “Life and culture is not about an object or even a
building. It is about the people. You can stand here and look at the
movement of people and it is like blood, the blood coming into it and
bringing it alive.” This introduced a celebration with story-
telling and dances through the day and all through the night.
The museum itself is a quarter-billion dollar masterpiece of art that
fills the last open space on the mall with a breathtaking creation
resembling a natural geological formation from the American
Southwest. Its interior exhibits are designed entirely by Native
Americans and portray a history that has been secret for more than a
century, including original copies of the official governmental
decrees that were designed to eliminate Native Americans from
existence and from historical memory. Countless separate rooms were
designed by individual nations and tribes to portray not merely their
past but especially what they have to offer America in the future.
For the first time, the smaller tribes were given equal priority with
the larger ones, because they have been the most vulnerable to
A Cherokee chiropractor from Colorado, Nate Mayfield, exclaimed that,
“This is the greatest thing to happen to Indian people in 500
years.” Daphine Strickland, a member of the Lumbee-Tuscarora (both
related to the Cherokee) stated, “This represents a healing, a
coming together. We have survived a holocaust in the Americas, and
the story has not been told. This is the beginning of telling the
The spiritual heritage of individual nations in the great Native
American community can be preserved only by their members, because
anthropologists, government bureaucrats, and even academics either
consciously or unconsciously, have their own agendas. Even within
each nation, individual clans and groups differ in their own favorite
origin stories and prefer their own historical spin. This diversity
must be preserved, because its wisdom is part of the visions of past,
present, and future that native legends say will be passed on to
enrich people from foreign lands.
The Cherokee origin story highlighted at the museum comes from the
Eastern Band of Cherokees, who succeeded in eluding the government
troops that in 1839 drove most of the Cherokees westward from Georgia
and the Carolinas to Oklahoma in the middle of winter. In this museum
they had the freedom to ignore the official anthropological studies
that imposed outsiders’ versions of their religion and history.
Perhaps someday another native history of the Cherokees will also be
given prominence. This is the tradition that the Cherokee religion
came from a great fleet of ships that brought “The Book” out of
the East. This has been rejected as “heresy” by some
“authorities,” both Anglo and Indian. What is the truth? No-one
can say for sure, but this origin story deserves original research in
the vast amount of materials still waiting to be mined for details.
The Tradition of the Ani Waya
One source, according to my family’s tradition, is the Ani Waya
Clan. Of the original seven Cherokee clans, three were officially
disestablished by the federal government in 1905, when the Cherokee
system of representative government was abolished in favor of a
single chief appointed by the President of the United States and when
the Cherokee religion was declared to be subversive and was
officially abolished. One of these three was the Ani Waya, which
means Clan of the Wolf. The function of this clan was to preserve the
religion and the traditions.
After the loss of the written tradition, the oral history of the
Cherokee religion passed down through the Ani Waya to what are called
the traditionalists, including the present author’s great uncle
Joseph Franklin Bever (who had another name in Oklahoma). He was one
of the last formally trained Cherokee imams. He called the athan
every morning, but when challenged he replied simply that he was
calling the hogs. Like all Cherokees, he started every prayer
with "Ya Allah." All the prophets, starting with Abraham, are honored
in the tradition. Until 1895, the Cherokees held the hajj, with
tawaf, on the land of Uncle Henry Bever (spelled Beaver among the
Oklahoma Ani Waya) three miles southwest of Hillsboro, Indiana. The
remnants of this hajj, including the sai, can still be seen on a
large flat meadow surrounded by swamp on three sides and by a steep
hill to the East. The last custodian of this sacred land lived along
the stream immediately to the north when I lived a mile away until
shortly after Pearl Harbor.
Until the last hajj in 1895, Cherokees came all the way from Oklahoma
to attend, but only those with native fluency in Cherokee were
permitted to participate, including my great-grandmother, who was
born seven years after the forced migration in 1839, known as the
Trail of Tears, from North Carolina and Georgia to Oklahoma. She
moved in 1855 to Indiana and in her old age helped raise me. The last
of those who were trained by my great uncle was Ben Mitman, my second
cousin, who died in April, 2004, at the age of 95, but left a written
account of his life for his descendents. My father, John Bever Crane,
died in 2001 at the age of 98, but left no written history. My great
grandmother, who spoke only Cherokee after she announced that it was
time to die, had coal black hair down to her waist when she was in
her nineties. We have a home video of another of my great
grandmothers dancing at the age of ninety-six at one of the last
great Bever-Crane clan reunions. As a boy, I carefully listened to
the stories of the “old timers” at the great clan reunions, but
now I may be the last to remember.
The “Indian way” is not to build museums and, in fact, not to
divulge the past publicly with its spiritual messages, because this
would make it vulnerable to destruction.
Kitcheyan of the San Carlos Apaches in Arizona commented at the Grand
Opening of the museum, “Old things were never show-cased. In our
teachings those things are supposed to be passed on to someone else
to be taken care of.” This is similar to the custom of the Sufis in
Islam, because those who would see the externals would fail to see
the essence and would corrupt the truth. There is a time, however,
for unveiling the truth in its various expressions, and the success
of the museum is testimony that this time has come.
For the Cherokees, the Trail of Tears was the last of the great acts
of ethnic cleansing that began with the American Revolution. The
first period of genocide came when the younger generation sided with
the British against the encroaching American settlers. The older
traditionalists opposed war in principle and refused to be pawns in
foreign wars. Although the wisdom of the traditionalists eventually
triumphed in a feeble cultural renaissance after the American
Revolution, this strategy of what Gandhi called satyagraha failed in
the end. In 1839, despite the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court
under Chief Justice John Marshal that the Removal Act of 1830 was
illegal and that Cherokee sovereignty was higher than that of the
State of Georgia, the president of the United States ordered the U.S.
Army to drive the Cherokees in the middle of winter a thousand miles
all the way to Oklahoma.
Although reportedly a third of them died en route while the federal
troops watched, not all of this third actually died. Three groups
broke off from the Trail of Tears, one going to Ohio and two to
Indiana, because they feared extermination once they would arrive in
Oklahoma. The Cherokee religion was best preserved for more than a
century in an isolated Indiana group, because the Christian and U.S.
governmental drive to stamp out the Cherokee religion in Oklahoma had
significant success. My great uncle went from the other group near
Hillsboro, Indiana, in 1903 at the age of 22 down to Oklahoma, where
the formal religious training was headquartered.
The traditions were also maintained by the Eastern Band in North
Carolina, but contact among the various groups of Cherokees gradually
was lost during the century after the great removal. The tradition of
the Ani Waya is that the almost nomadic history of the Cherokees
should teach that the religion and culture are independent of both
place and time because they are gifts to all humankind.
In 1905, after Franklin Joseph Bever had studied for two years at the
seminary in Oklahoma, the U.S. government abolished the Cherokee
religion and imprisoned everyone who performed the salah publically.
The Katoowa Society was formed to fight back, but they were crushed.
It still exists today but its origins are now lost in legend. My
great uncle then spent two years trying to organize all the Native
American tribes to fight for religious freedom, but despite some
interest among the Navajo, Hopi, Crow, and Blackfeet, he failed
miserably and so went back to Indiana where I knew him as a boy. I
was impressed because he knew the names of 269 plants.
The true knowers of the Cherokee religion have kept it secret. The
traditionalists who live isolated in the woods of western Arkansas
and eastern Oklahoma told me when I was last there in 1970 as a
personal emissary of President Nixon that when anthropologists come
to study the religion, the traditionalists entertain them with a
bunch of nonsense and then whoop with laughter when they see this
nonsense printed in scholarly books.
According to the traditionalists, the Cherokee religion came in the
form of a book that was brought in a great fleet of ships out of the
east when the Cherokees lived on an island where it was never cold.
After three generations, the bad people from the south killed almost
everyone on all the islands and destroyed the book. The remainder of
the Cherokees immigrated west to the Great Land.
Their mass migration from a tropical island in the Caribbean to the
Yucatan Peninsula in the late 1300s was verified by the leading Meso-
American archeologist, T. B. Irving (Al Hajji Ta’alim Ali). He was
the only person who had recorded the relevant inscriptions. Twenty
years ago, he said he would write up this history, but he died last
year without ever doing so. I have visited the Yucatan and asked
other Mesoamerican archeologists about this history, but they know
nothing about it.
After some more generations, the number of which I have forgotten,
the bad people attacked again. This time the Cherokees all migrated
north and eastwards to find the lost book, because they knew that it
came out of the east. This is the origin story according to the Ani
What this all means is open to modern research and interpretation.
There is now thorough documentation of a great expedition of da’wa
that the Emir of Mali, Abu Bakr, sent across the Atlantic in 1310
A.C. after he met Chinese Muslims in the hajj. Scholars do not seem
to be clear on whether he was hoping to bring Islam to China or to
America, because there is evidence that at least two earlier Muslim
expeditions had visited America, one in 1100 going westward from
Africa and the other in 1178 eastward from China. When the first
expedition did not return, Emir Abu Bakr sent a second expedition two
years later in 1312, reportedly including Mandinga members from what
is now Liberia. The detailed manifests of each of the Emir’s ships
are now of historical record.
In recent years hidden libraries have been found in Timbuktu on the
southern edge of the Sahara Desert in Mali. I attended a conference
in Mali’s capital Bamako in 1999 but could not get permission to
travel the 200 miles north to Timbuktu, because, I was told, the
French-influenced government in Bamako wants to hide its great
Islamic past. These libraries should be micro-filmed while they still
exist in order to compare the practices of popular Islam with those
of the Cherokees.
Although the customs of several tribes, some archeological evidence,
and ethno-linguistic analysis give circumstantial evidence of this
early presence of Islam in America, the only oral tradition, as far
as I know, comes from my own ancestors in the Ani Waya tribe of the
Cherokee. We are not supposed to interpret tradition, because this
can introduce distortions, but the ancient Cherokee traditions of
what is called simply the “people” (Ani Yunwiya) coincide with
the devastating attacks by the Caribs from what is now Venezuela at
the end of the 1300s. And Mayan inscriptions of the next century
record the arrival of a great people from the east. The details about
this people may be buried in the personal papers of the Muslim
translator of the Qur’an, T. B. Irving. Early evidence of Islam may
be found only by scholars who are specifically looking for it.
The Modern Period
The history of the Cherokees after they arrived in the Carolinas is
part of modern America, but it is not much clearer than their history
in the earlier period, despite a wealth of documentary material and
shelves of books on the subject.
Historians acknowledge that the Cherokees when first encountered by
Europeans lived in large towns of several thousand people with two
story brick buildings and an advanced system of legislative,
executive, and judicial government. They also acknowledge that within
two hundred years from 1600 to 1800 their population had been reduced
to only a fraction of what it had been. This was part of the
universal history of European colonialism, which managed to reduce
the total native population in America from at least ten million to
as little as a few hundred thousand. With this catastrophic
disruption came a similar loss of their religious and cultural
heritage, including, in the case of the Cherokees, the dilution of
Some Western anthropologists have speculated that the Cherokee
religion with its emphasis on a sophisticated divine law and system
of government may derive from a lost Jewish tribe, but this may be
merely an attempt by Christian missionaries to hide the Cherokees'
true Islamic identity.
Perhaps the best, recent research may be found in the book by Thomas
E. Mails, The Cherokee People: the Story of the Cherokees from
Earliest Origins to Contemporary Times, published by Marlow and
Company. Mails leads the others in his conclusion that the remarkable
similarities between the Abrahamic religions and the traditional
Cherokee religion precede any possibility of adoption from European
Like the others, however, he concludes that such similarities must
come from the ancient Hebrews. This probably stems from his ignorance
of Islam and his familiarity with the commonalities with the Jews in
the Cherokee origin stories, including Adam and Eve, the flood, the
Tower of Babel, Abraham, the crossing of the Red Sea, Moses, the
wandering in the wilderness, and the ark. It is difficult to
understand how he can ignore the fact that the traditionalist
Cherokees started every prayer with Ya Allah and prayed five times a
day and fasted during Ramadhan, though it is understandable that
Mails does not know the Cherokee rituals of the Hajj, since these
have been kept highly secret.
Unfortunately, only a knowledgeable Muslim would be able to mine the
wealth of very difficult source material to compare this with Islam.
The major original source, since the Cherokees had lost their written
language long before they moved to what is now the United States, is
the fourteen volume collection known as the John Howard Payne Papers,
Ayer MS 689, in the Ayer Collection of Americana, Newberry Library of
the University of Chicago. These are in miniscule handwriting and in
script that is very difficult to decipher. The Payne papers are by
Payne and by a couple of others who authored individual chapters,
especially Daniel Sabin Butrick, who was a Christian missionary to
the Cherokees from 1817 to 1847.
In another file on the Cherokees that probably is in my sister’s
historic stone barn in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, I have
reference to a typewritten copy of the Payne originals prepared by
his great granddaughter. She spent an entire year turning the almost
illegible manuscript into readable copy. Payne, who lived from 1791
to 1852, unlike Butrick, was sympathetic to the Cherokees. His
informants among the Cherokees were born as early as 1735 at a time
when contact with outsiders had barely begun. Payne was a poet by
trade and lived with the Cherokees during the period of their
successful effort to gain U.S. Supreme Court acceptance of their
sovereignty and their unsuccessful effort thereafter to stop their
removal to Oklahoma. One would have to examine the so-called Payne
papers to determine what may be authentic scholarship on the
Cherokees and what was propaganda and spin to demean them. My
impression is that the unexpurgated Payne writings are available to
whoever can find them or at least were until forty years ago. In all
research on the wisdom of Islam in the Cherokee religion, one must
beware of a long history of cultural genocide.
The earliest account of the Cherokees was James Adair’s The History
of the American Indians. He was a trader with the Cherokees in 1736
and first pointed out the identity of the Cherokee religion with
Abrahamic sources. In 1888, James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee
and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees does not discuss these origins
but does treat in detail Cherokee astronomy, which he learned about
from Cherokees who were born as early as 1800. Other books, such as
Haywood’s of 1823 and Washburn’s of 1869 should be compared with
the more recent books, such as The Eastern Cherokees by William
Harlen Gilbert, Jr. and others, which are stored, together with my
most valuable books, in my sister’s barn.
The more recent books in some ways are more objective, but the
definitive history of the Cherokees, and especially analysis of the
relation of Islam to the founding of America has yet to be written.
This is the task of young American-born Muslims, because they know
that other Americans fear what they do not know and that this history
would show that Islam is not foreign to America.
The Original Founders of Modern America
The Cherokee were Grandfathers of the Great American Experiment in
the holistic symbiosis of order, justice, and liberty. Jefferson said
that he borrowed the American system of government from the Iroquois
confederation. If the Cherokee religion and political culture were
introduced into America by Muslim settlers from North Africa two
hundred years before Columbus “discovered ” America, then it
remains to be researched whether the Iroquois system of
representative government comes from the Cherokee nation.
Jefferson was familiar with the Iroquois and maintained contact with
the leaders of a great religious revival among the Iroquois from
about 1800 to 1810. He spent some time with their greatest religious
leader, known as Handsome Lake of the Seneca, and not only
corresponded with him but invited him twice to the White House. The
details are in The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca by Anthony F C
Wallace, Vintage, 1972, 395 pages.
The origin of this religious rebirth, like that of the coeval rebirth
among the Cherokee further south, lay in their response to the
destruction of the native way of life by the white settlers,
especially by the introduction of alcohol and gambling, and by the
destruction of the nuclear family and of moral community. It was also
a reaction against the missionary efforts of the Christians who
wanted the Iroquois to assimilate into Western society and disappear.
Handsome Lake was convinced that his people could not adopt
Christianity without adopting everything bad about Western society
along with it.
Part of the spiritual quest by young American Muslims today should be
to explore whether the religion that he revived was Islam as borrowed
from the Cherokee, who had been adopted under the tribal name of
Tuscarora into the Iroquois confederacy. By the year 1500, the
Cherokee had established a vast trading empire in eastern North
America, and a portion of them, known as the Tuscarora, moved from
North Carolina to Iroquois country before the arrival of the first
European settlers. The Tuscarora who lived with the Iroquois were the
first to adopt Christianity as their religion, but the original
religion of the Tuscarora was not the ancient Iroquois religion but
Islam. This origin of the Seneca rebirth was not known to Wallace,
but he recounts in detail the revival of this religion and
Jefferson’s admiration of it.
According to an article in The Message, published by the Islamic
Society of North America, in July, 1996, the last Cherokee chief with
a Muslim name was Ramadhan ibn Wati, who lived from 1806 to 1871 and
governed during the time of the great split between the Union
Cherokee and the Confederate Cherokee in the American Civil War.
Chief (Emir) Ramadhan was a Confederate brigadier general who shared
the South’s opposition to the encroaching power of the
industrialized North. He surrendered his command to President Lincoln
on June 23, 1865, and his young son, Saladin Watie, named after the
famous liberator of Jerusalem in 1187, Salah al Din, served in the
Southern Cherokee delegation to sign a treaty of surrender in
The traditionalist Cherokee political system was based on governance
from the bottom up, rather than from the top down as was common in
Europe. The ultimate sovereign was Allah and he governed through the
individual members of the Cherokee nation, each of whom carried the
amana to be a representative of the divine on earth. The nation was
composed of autonomous bands or clans, such as the Ani Waya. The
members of each band chose their leaders through a system of indirect
election of at least four communities. One community represented the
warriors, one the religious leaders, and one the merchants. The
fourth I believe may have been the judicial community. These four
elected leaders in turn elected the head of the band, and the heads
of the bands elected the leader of the nation.
This system today is known as constitutional or republican
federalism. It contrasts with the system of absolutist democracy
bound by popular majority rule, which all of America’s founders
condemned as inherently unjust and dangerous.
In times of trouble, women rose to prominence, especially to
arbitrate between the young warriors who wanted to risk the lives of
their sons and the elders who preached non-violence in all except the
greatest threats to group survival. This matriarchal custom still
existed at the time of the American Revolutionary War, according to
Theda Perdue’s “Cherokee Women and the Trail of Tears,”
published in Journal of Women’s History, vol 1, 1989, pp. 14-17.
But, the butchering of the Cherokees by the American settlers and
their abandonment by the British undercut the traditionalists and
nearly destroyed the entire set of cultural traditions that had
survived for centuries since the time of the origins in the
Caribbean. This period of Cherokee history, which exceeds in its
tragedy even that of the Trail of Tears, and the role of the Cherokee
women is described in Tom Hatley’s book, The Dividing Paths:
Cherokees and South Carolinians through the Era of the Revolution,
Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 220 ff.
The Cherokee leaders often were known by Anglo names. The most famous
was Nancy Ward, who was known as the principal Ghigau of the Cherokee
Nation, a term translated by the colonialists as “war-leader.” In
fact, she was the principal peace leader, as described in Norma
Tucker’s article, “Nancy Ward: Ghigau of the Cherokees,” in
Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 53, 1969.
She persuaded the Raven of Chota, who was the war leader of the
principal Cherokee town, to seek peace. As the official emissary of
the entire nation, she persuaded Jefferson’s emissary, Arthur
Campbell, to declare an armistice or truce prior to the signing of a
peace treaty. Unfortunately, according to Campbell’s own diary,
“I wished first to visit the vindictive part of the nation … and
to destroy the whole as much as possible by destroying their
habitations and provisions.” Although he had spared Chota in the
past out of respect for Nancy Ward, he attacked in the middle of
winter and commenced to destroy a thousand houses, fifty thousand
bushels of corn, and all but a few small towns. The Raven of Chota
reported later, as recorded in O’Donnell, Southern Indians in the
American Revolution, pp. 118-119, the Virginians “dyed their hands
in the blood of many of our women and children, burnt 17 towns, and
destroyed all our provisions by which we and our families were almost
destroyed by famine this Spring.”
Jefferson was a Virginia politician so he did what was politically
correct. But, at the same time, he was impressed by the Cherokee
traditionalists, including the women leaders at the time of their
maximum tragedy, who tried to practice what Mahatma Gandhi called
satyagraha or peaceful defense based on spiritual power. This is a
well established practice in Islamic history (see the section on
heroes in www.theamericanmuslim.org),
<http://www.theamericanmuslim.org),/> but needs much further research.
The Iroquois adopted the best of the Cherokee religion, and this is
what most impressed Jefferson in later years. The religion as revived
by Handsome Lake opposed both cultural assimilation, which is
suicide, and cultural nativism, which is the continuation of a
culture based on worship of one’s own ethnic group rather than on
the enlightened understanding of divine revelation and natural law.
According to Wallace’s book, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca,
Handsome Lake’s primary message consisted of four basic principles:
1) All people came from the same source, a transcendent God, and thus
are equal in dignity.
2) All religions are legitimate paths to God. Therefore one should
not blame the Christians for not accepting the divine revelation that
he was reviving. They should follow their religion until they
understand that the religion that he was reviving teaches a truer
knowledge of God.
3) Violence results from ignorance of true religion. Therefore
knowledge is the most powerful weapon against war, and war is almost
never the best solution to conflict. And
4) More important than knowledge is love of the transcendent God,
because love is the path to knowledge.
Much research remains to be done to connect Jefferson's then unique
concept of federalism with Islamic concepts of religious and
political pluralism. The efforts of both the Cherokees and Iroquois
to conduct interfaith meetings with the Europeans as equals impressed
the Christian missionaries, since such interfaith outreach without
any effort to convert others was almost unknown in the Christian
Jefferson tried to keep his personal relationship with God secret and
largely succeeded, though recent research in his twenty volumes of
hitherto secret personal correspondence should shed much light on
this, including the influence of Islam.
Perhaps his major message was the same as that taught by the Cherokee
and Iroquois. No people, he said, can remain free unless they are
educated; education consists above all in knowledge of virtue; and no
people can remain virtuous except within a religious framework,
whether it be Christian or of some other faith tradition, and unless
this framework of respect for the divine legitimacy of cultural and
religious pluralism and for the power of interfaith cooperation
pervades all public life.
This is the profound wisdom of the Great American Experiment, but we
have just begun to explore its ancient roots.