“The Cherokees did not separate spiritual and physical realms but regarded them as one, and they practiced their religion in a host of private daily observances as well as in public ceremonies.”
The Great Spirit – and Other Spirits
The Cherokee revere the Great Spirit, simply referred to as Unetlanvhi, or “Creator”, who presides over all things and created the Earth. The Great Spirit is said to be omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. The Unetlanvhi is said to have made the earth to provide for her children.
In the Cherokee beliefs there exists little difference between human beings and animals, and like humans the animals are organized into tribes with chiefs, townhouses and councils, and both are destined for the same afterlife in the Darkening land in the west. At one time humans and animals lived in harmony, but then humans began to kill the animals for food and showed them no respect. So the animals made war on humans and inflicted diseases upon them; the plants, however, were friends of humankind and gave them medicines.
The Cherokee believe in many animal spirits. They wear animal skins as clothing so the abilities and strength of those animals would be shared with them. They believe everything in nature had a spirit, and they pray to the spirits for good health.
The Cherokee creation story describes the earth as a great floating island surrounded by seawater. It hangs from the sky by cords attached at the four cardinal points. The story tells that the first earth came to be when Dâyuni’sï (“Beaver’s Grandchild”), the little water beetle came from Gälûñ’lätï, the sky realm (spirit world), to see what was below the water. He scurried over the surface of the water, but found no solid place to rest. He dived to the bottom of the water and brought up some soft mud. This mud expanded in every direction and became the earth.
A more detailed version of the creation story that has been passed down by generations among the Cherokee people can be found here: Cherokee: Creation and the First Men
This story describes how certain animals and plants gained special characteristics and are, therefore, special and sacred for the Cherokee. This includes animals like the cougar and the owl, and trees like the cedar, pine, spruce, holly, and laurel.
The story also tells us of the first man and woman on earth: Kanáti (“lucky hunter”) and Selu (“corn”, she is also known as the spirit/goddess of corn), and how they became the parents of the Thunder Brothers (sometimes called The Thunder Twins).
The Thunder Brothers
“…when they talk to each other we hear low rolling thunder in the west”
The story of how the brothers came to be can be found here: Cherokee: Creation and the First Men
The thunder beings were viewed as the most powerful of the servants of the Great Spirit (Creator Spirit), and were revered in the first dance of the Green Corn Ceremony held each year, as they were directly believed to have brought the rains for a successful corn crop. They are mischievous spirits that can do harm too.
Ocasta – and The First Medicine Men
Ocasta is one of The Great Spirit’s helpers. He is an equally good and evil spirit. Ocasta created witches and caused turmoil in many villages until a few of the women trapped Ocasta and pinned him to the ground with a stick piercing through his heart. The men soon cremated Ocasta, and while he was burning Ocasta taught them songs that would help them. The songs were for dancing, fighting, healing, and hunting. After this some of those men were granted great powers and they became the first Medicine Men.
Little Deer (Deer Spirit)
He is the god of deer and he is fast and invisible. Little Deer cannot be hurt by ordinary weapons. When a hunter kills a deer he must give the deer respect and thank him for his pelt and meat. If the hunter does not thank the deer, Little Deer will track the hunter down and strike him down with rheumatism, but if the deer is payed the appropriate respects, he will go up to Galunlati (heavens/spirit world).