Perhaps the most stringent of all of the laws of the Cherokee was the one that prohibited marriage within the same clan. Members of the same clan were considered near relatives and therefore the requirement that the man and woman be from different clans. In ancient times this violation resulted in the death penalty which was enforced by members of the offended clan. In the early 19th century this penalty was eased and replaced by a public whipping. This penalty was later entirely eliminated.A young woman was not eligible to marry until after she had gone through her first menstrual period. When this occurred, the young woman was separated from the rest of her family for seven days. No one could touch her during this time and se was restricted from handling her own food, depending upon another woman to feed her. During this time she was considered to be unclean. After the seven days were over she washed herself, her clothing and anything else she had handled while she was considered to be unclean. She was then returned to her family and was then eligible to marry.
Not only did the various Indian tribes have different approaches to marriages but so did those within the same tribe. Should we be studying the tribe of Creek Indians, for example, we would learn that a man who could afford it was permitted to have multiple wives. The Creek considered it of great value to having several wives or concubines; but only the wealthy had the means to support more than one wife. The Cherokee, however, accepted marriage as a contract for life and if either spouse left the other, the one who was in fault was publicly humiliated. Normally, for punishment, a man was whipped by a tribal leader and the wife had her hair cropped by the women of the town.
There were several ways in which a Cherokee could enter into a marriage relationship. Different circumstances dictated the way that a couple could be married; dependent upon the region and customs of the time.
Sometimes a young man would fall in love with a young girl but because of her age she was not permitted to marry as she had not begun he menstrual cycle. He could inform her parents that he wanted to marry her but the decision was left to them to allow the union. If they agreed, the young man could keep her supplied in venison and her parents would not allow her to marry another person. After the purification ritual during her first menstruation period, the marriage ceremony could then take place.
A marriage could also be purchased by the suitor of a young maiden. If the parents approved of the union, the girl could not refuse the marriage. The parents and the suitor would enter into a contract in which the man would agree to assist the parents for a specified amount of time. His varied duties could be the making of canoes, hunting, or other chores. He also present them with presents of items which he possessed, including jewelry and articles of clothing.
Sometimes a marriage could be finalized merely by having a female relative make the request to the young woman’s mother. If the mother approved, the marriage could be consummated merely by their sharing the bed together. This was a simple way to began a marriage relationship.
Some marriage ceremonies, however, involved a more elaborate style. One method required the activities to begin the evening before the wedding. The groom and his male companions gathered on one side of the council house and staged a feast while the bride and her female friends were on the opposite side doing the same thing. When the time arrived for the wedding rites to begin, the entire town gathered in the town council house for the ceremony. Males and female remained separated; with the men on one side and the women on the other.
After a signal was given, the groom entered, escorted by a priest, and took his assigned place at one end of the open space in the center of the council house. The bride then entered, escorted by another priest, and took her place at the opposite end. The grooms mother supplied him with a leg of venison and a blanket while the bride received from her mother an ear of corn and a blanket.
The couple then met near the sacred fire at the center of the council house where they exchanged the venison and corn, and joined their blankets together. This was symbolic of cooperating and sharing the mutual responsibilities of the man and woman as they formed another Cherokee family. When the ceremony was completed, they separated and walked alone, silently, to the dwelling of the brides mother or within the mother’s clan area. The mariage could then be consummated by their sharing a bed.