When she was born, a white wolf was seen on the horizon. It was a sign to her people of the arrival of an exceptional person. She was given the name ‘Nanyehi”, meaning “She walks with the Spirit People”.
Nanyehi was given the title “Ghigau”, or “Beloved Woman” of the Cherokee at the age of 18, when she picked up her fallen husband’s gun and led the Cherokees to victory in battle. A Beloved Woman was given political power, voiced her opinion in important matters, and could spare the lives of condemned captives. She could even overrule a chief. Nanyehi spared the life of a captive white woman condemned to death by the Council, and befriended her. The woman , Mrs Bean, taught her in return about weaving and dairy farming.
Nanyehi lived in a time of transition. While the Cherokee, as is true of many tribes, had great respect for women as the bearers of life, and gave them political power, the influx of European settlers had brought different attitudes, and womens’ status suffered. It was a surprise to the Cherokee that women were not included in the settlers' delegations sent to negotiate with them. It was likewise surprising to the settlers that Cherokee women would be included in important negotiations. Nanyehi sat in on treaty parties, and her counsel was heeded.
Although she had earned her title in battle, in later life, Nanyehi’s concern was for peace. While her own cousin, the great War Chief , Dragging Canoe (Tsiyu Gansini), led war parties against the whites, she was advocating for peaceful coexistence. In a speech given during peace negotiations, she said:
“You know that women are always looked upon as nothing, but we are your mothers, you are our sons. Our cry is for peace. Let it continue. This peace must last forever. Let your women’s sons be ours. Let our sons be yours. Let your women hear our words.”
Like her cousin, Nanyehi also wanted to retain Cherokee lands, but through diplomacy rather than war. She had some successes, but in the end, the land was lost. She married a White man, Brian Ward, and became known to the settlers as Nancy Ward. She did not live to see the removal of her people to Indian Territory in the West, but she had a vision in her later years, wherein she saw. “ a great line of our people marching on foot. Mothers with babies in their arms. Fathers with small children on their back. Grandmothers and Grandfathers with large bundles on their backs. They were marching West and the 'Unaka' (White Soldiers) were behind them.” Nanyehi had foreseen the Trail of Tears, though she left her earthly form fifteen years before it came to pass. At her passing, witnesses are said to have observed a white light emerging from her breast, that took the form of a swan and flew toward the sacred mound at Chota.
While Nanyehi was the recipient of the title of Beloved Woman, given by her people, she was in a larger sense, representative of a long line of Native women who stood for life, for peace, and justice for her people.
Jigonsase was another great woman of peace, of the Seneca. At a time when her people were warring with neighboring tribes, she was a voice for peace. When the Peacemaker arrived, bringing a message of peace and unity, she was the first to accept his message. The Peacemaker, whose name is not spoken, was one who came to the people with a teaching for a new way of life. The tribes were persuaded and united under the Great Law of Peace, into one nation, becoming known as the Haudenosaunee, the People of the Longhouse. This became known as the Iroquois Confederacy to the White people, the Five Nations of the Mohawk, Seneca, Onandaga, Oneida, and Cayuga. Later it became six nations, with the addition of the Tuscarora. The Great Law was based on the principles of Righteousness, Civil Authority, and Mind (reason), and dedicated to the welfare of the people. This is still the oldest democracy in the world. It is documented that Benjamin Franklin met with them to learn of their form of government, and some of these ideas went directly into the US Constitution. This was formally acknowledged by the US Congress on October 21, 1988. Jigonsase helped in formulating the Law of Great Peace, and was honored by the Peacemaker, who said that women would be given a special place and powers, due to her support and contribution.
The legend goes that, when a war party passed Jigonsase’s lodge, on their way to attack an enemy village, she invited them in to eat and rest up for the battle the next day. As they slept, a war party of enemy warriors came from the other direction. She offered the same invitation, but before bringing them into the lodge and feeding them, she hung blankets to hide the other sleeping warriors. After they went to sleep, she took the blankets down. On waking and realizing they were facing their enemies, they went for their weapons. But Jigonsase said, “Now that you have eaten and slept in the same lodge, you cannot fight, for you are brothers.“
In more recent times, Wilma Mankiller, first woman Cherokee chief, stood strong for women and women’s rights. The first woman ever elected as Chief of the Cherokee Nation, in her tenure many positive changes were seen in the Cherokee Nation. In 1998, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The American feminist Goria Steinem said of her, “As long as people like Wilma Mankiller carry the flame within them, centuries of ignorance and genocide can’t extinguish the human spirit”.
“Take care how you place your moccasins upon the Earth, step with care, for the faces of the future generations are looking up from the Earth waiting their turn for life.” - Wilma Mankiller
Nanyehi, Jigonsase, and Wilma Mankiller personify the best of the feminine, the life bearer, in Native culture. In many tribes and nations, women are acknowledged to have wisdom that is inherent to their role of bearing and nurturing life. While men can be quick to go to war, women, who have borne and nurtured the children, are less likely to risk needlessly the loss of those whom they have borne, loved, and raised to adulthood.
The Beloved Woman represents the best, most life affirming qualities of the feminine, and thus, of humanity. Nanyehi had two strikes against her due to the place and time she lived; being a woman, and being of a Native race. Perhaps it is due to this that she has not gotten the historical recognition accorded to many of the famous men of American history. But she has had an impact on those who never knew her, but have heard of her words and deeds, and she is a historical example of love, courage, conviction, grace, and compassion in action for those who follow. It could be said truthfully that others have stood for the same things before her and led the way, and if we are truly blessed, the world will see others like her yet to come, leading the way for those still looking up from beneath the surface of the Earth.