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Beloved Woman holds court again

by Jack Neely

A couple of weeks ago I was walking down Market Street to one of those public meetings that are suddenly more interesting than they used to be, and on my way I cut through the Federal Courthouse building, as I'm allowed to do during bankers' hours. I used to work in that building when it was Whittle Communications, and on the weekends I'd let myself in with my electronic key and be the only one in the building. I felt like I owned the place. Now there are guards and metal detectors at the doors and they don't always let me into the courtyard.

The gate was wide open the other day, though, and I walked right through, and there in the courtyard I saw a face I'd never seen before. Sometimes you see a beautiful woman and it makes you a little woozy, even if you're a happily married man. But I'd never seen anyone like this. She was facing in my direction, a broad, perfect face, full lips slightly parted as if she were about to say something. She had a faraway look in her wide-set eyes. Her head was large and greenish, and it was mounted on a marble column.

There's a plaque in front of it labeled, "Beloved Woman of Justice." The statue by New York sculptor Audrey Flack was mounted here earlier this summer. The subject was apparently the sculptor's idea. Beloved Woman, as the plaque doesn't explain, was a title given to certain Cherokee women who had major influence in their tribes, especially in meting out justice.

As I looked at her, a small woman in jeans walked over purposefully, gave her a quick once-over, and offered her appraisal:

"She don't look like a Indian," she said. She doesn't, much. The plaque explains that the features were meant to represent a diversity of cultures. A face like that would be unusual in any race.

The most famous specific Beloved Woman, at least to the white man, was one who likely visited Knoxville more than once in her long life. We knew her as Nancy Ward.

The circumstances of her birth are a matter of whom you believe. Some say she was born in 1738, the full-blooded Cherokee daughter of Tame Doe, who was something of a duchess among the Cherokee because she was the sister of the great leader Attakullakulla.

The identity of Nancy's father is obscure; in matrilineal Cherokee culture, the father's no big deal. According to her own descendants, he was a traveling Delaware. Others state that he was a British officer garrisoned at Fort Loudoun, though that would seem unlikely, since Fort Loudoun wasn't even built until 1757. By then, Nancy was already famous.

She was named Nany'hi, apparently derived from Nunnehi, the mysterious spirit people who lived on the bottom of the river and occasionally kidnapped mortals. The English had a hard time pronouncing that, and knew her as Nancy.

She spent most of her life at Chota on the Little Tennessee River in what's now Monroe County. She was still very young when she married a warrior named Kingfisher; while still a teenager, she bore two children. When she went to battle with her husband, at Taliwa against the Creeks, she was just 17, maybe younger. She chewed bullets for her husband's musket; a well-masticated bullet was known to cause more damage in enemy flesh. When her husband fell dead, Nany'hi took up her husband's musket.

She was honored for her bravery with the title Ghigau, or Beloved Woman, the highest title available to Cherokee women, a sacred position that sometimes trumped the highest chiefs. Considering the Cherokee held women in higher esteem than any other tribe, especially the pale one, Nancy Ward may have been the highest-ranking woman in America.

One of the responsibilities of a ghigau was to be a sentencing judge; she could decide whether a prisoner should die, be tortured, or be freed. She made her judgments with a gesture of a swan's wing wand.

The teenaged widow married Bryan Ward, an Irish trader, and bore him a couple of kids. But by the time she was 22, he'd left her and married a white woman. Somewhere along the way, she became intrigued with agriculture, especially cattle farming, which she introduced to the Cherokee. She also may have introduced another white practice, black slavery, to the Cherokee. That may be one reason why she's not mentioned by name on the statue of the generic Beloved Woman.

Nancy's first cousin was Dragging Canoe, son of Attakullakulla and the most warlike of the Cherokee during the early white settlement of the Tennessee country. In war councils, Beloved Woman repeatedly opposed him. When she learned Dragging Canoe planned a surprise attack on the whites along the Holston, she conducted her usual purification ritual, serving warriors the "black drink" of river water from the war kettle at Chota, then secretly warned white traders about the campaign. When the attack came, many of the white defenders were gone; the battle resulted in fewer than 20 deaths on each side.

She may have seemed like a traitor, but her intention was apparently to save both Cherokee and white lives. She did so most directly when she found Lydia Bean, wife of prominent settler William Bean, being burned at the stake, and ordered that she be freed. In Nancy Ward's cabin, Mrs. Bean taught her savior how to make butter and cheese.

She would save other white and Indian prisoners from execution, 1,000 of them, by some estimates. Her tombstone calls her, a little simplemindedly, "the Pocahontas of Tennessee."

She was known for her eloquence; at Long Island in 1779, she said, "I know the white people think that a woman is nothing. But we are your mothers. Our cry is for peace. Let it continue. This Peace must last forever. Let your woman's sons be ours, and let our sons be yours. Let your women hear our cry."

She also spoke at the famous Treaty of Hopewell in 1785, as she served the peace pipe: "I look on you and the red people as my children. Your having determined on peace is most pleasant to me for I have seen much trouble during the late war. I am old but I hope yet to bear children who will grow up and people our nation. We hope the chain of friendship will never be broken."

She was, at the time, about 47; she hadn't had a husband or a child in 25 years.

Future years must have been heartbreaking. The Treaty of Hopewell was repeatedly broken. In 1793, a white militia attacking a house of peaceful chiefs wounded her daughter Betty. (The Chickamaugan assault on Knox County later that year was partly in retaliation for that attack.)

This Beloved Woman had urged Cherokee assimilation of the white man's culture. But that assimilation eventually resulted in an erosion of influence of women.

I haven't found accounts of her having visited Knoxville, but it would be strange if she didn't. Knoxville often entertained Cherokee leaders; Nancy got around a good deal, and for a quarter century of her life as a ghigau, Knoxville was the white man's nearest city and capital.

Whites bought Nancy Ward's old home in 1819; she moved to a hillside on the Ocoee, where for a while she ran a tavern. She died in 1822. Family members swore that when she died a light rose up from her body, fluttered like a bird around the room, and flew out the door.

An awestruck white man once described Nancy Ward as "tall, erect, and beautiful, with a prominent nose, regular features, clear complexion, long silken black hair, large, piercing black eyes, and an imperious, yet kindly air." With the possible exception of that prominent nose, the statue in the courtyard seems to bear a strong resemblance to Nany'hi.

August 17, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 33
© 2000 Metro Pulse