The sacred formulas here translated are representative of only two from a collection of approximately six hundred which were collected on the Cherokee reservation in North Carolina in 1887 and 1888. These formulas had been handed down by oral tradition from ancient times, until Sequoyah’s invention of the Cherokee syllabary enabled tribal shamans to put them into writing. The formulas here presented, like all in the collection, were recorded by the shamans themselves – men who practiced the ancient religion and spoke only their native language. These rites were genuinely Native American Indian. The numerous archaic and figurative expressions used could only be understood through the interpretation of the priests, whose knowledge has now been lost to us, since the extermination of the old religion, and the genocide of this indigenous race. As was the case among the Celtic Druids of antiquity, the Native American shaman by necessity had to form an extensive memory. No formula was repeated more than once for his benefit. If he could not repeat the formula after one recitation, he was considered unworthy to be a shaman, who was careful that these sacred words were not discovered by the laity, or of rivals in the occult. They were performed in such a low tone of voice as not even to be understood.
The following formulas for victory in war, and infant’s disease, were obtained from the shaman, A wa ni ta, or “Young Deer.” Pictured on this page is the shaman, A yu i ni, or “Swimmer.”
Jennifer Reeser is the author of four books of poetry, including Sonnets from the Dark Lady and Other Poems (2012) and The Lalaurie Horror (2013). X.J. Kennedy wrote that her debut “ought to have been a candidate for a Pulitzer.” Her poems and translations of French and Russian literature have appeared in POETRY, Recours au Poeme, The National Review, and anthologies including Everyman’s, Measure for Measure, Longman’s An Introduction to Poetry, , and Poets Translate Poets: A Hudson Review Anthology. Her translations of Anna Akhmatova are authorized by FTM Agency, Moscow. Reeser’s own work has been translated into Persian, Czech and Hindi. Thes poems are from her collection, “INDIGENOUS,” forthcoming from Saint James Infirmary Books. Her website is www.jenniferreeser.com
To Treat the Child’s Disease
An ancient Cherokee shaman’s formula
Listen! Quickly you’ve drawn near,
O Blue Sparrow-Hawk, to hear!
Quickly you descend to rest
In the arbor’s spreading crest.
An intruding bird alone
Is this shadow on him shown.
Swooping, swift, you carry it away.
Remedy has been accomplished. Hey!
Listen! Quickly do you draw
Nearer, O Brown Rabbit-Hawk!
From your rest upon a bough,
Speedily you come down now.
Only for committee blather
Do these feathered creatures gather.
You scatter them without delay.
Remedy has been accomplished. Hey!
Veteran’s Victory Rite
A Cherokee Shaman’s Formula for War
*(song for the adversary)
Hey! You! Listen! Now do we
Lift red ward clubs instantly.
Soon his soul shall lack for motion,
There beneath the earth and ocean,
Where the clubs of war take aim
Like black ball bats in the game;
There, his living soul shall be,
Nevermore again to see.
Hey! We cause it to be so,
Never shall his spirit go
Lifting up the war club. We
Cause it to be so, to be.
Where the war club and black cloud
Come together in a shroud,
Underneath our mother ground,
Never shall it move around,
Lifted to allow him seeing.
We have called it into being.
*(song for the warriors)
Instantly, their souls shall be
In the seventh heaven, free.
Never shall their souls be broken.
This shall happen. We have spoken.
We have moved their souls hereby
To a place of peace on high.
Crimson war clubs as their guard,
Never shall their souls be scarred.
Cause it quickly to be so.
There on high, their souls shall go.
Grant now they will not grow blue,
Shielded by red war clubs. Yu!