Water: The Flow of Life in Cherokee History

By Nichole Sparks:

Water is a sustaining element for the survival of the human race. For indigenous communities the struggles to obtain and possess natural resources like water have been a continuous battle throughout history. With technological advances, these struggles to possess water have changed as people are less dependent on primitive ways of obtaining water and more focused on creating clean water access and ownership for communities. The Cherokee have faced struggles with ownership and possession of water over the years; however, the Cherokee as a community have combated these struggles in key situations to help their nation and others when in need and inspired other nations to get involved in water issues.

Understanding the focal point of water in Cherokee culture in essential to connect the proactive and persistent workmanship the tribe has done to possess water for its community and other tribes. Water to Cherokee culture symbolizes a flow of life. They culture value water on a spiritual level as a power source for their people and its use as a means of purifying themselves for rituals and ceremonies (Kays 2015). Thus, the significance of water as a means of life-giving and perseverance is crucial to their indigenous community.

Since their culture is so deeply rooted in water, the Cherokee people have overcome struggles to possess this essential element when issues have arisen. Wilma Mankiller was the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma and influenced water possession rights for the Cherokee people. The Bell Waterline project that took place in the 1980s in Bell, Oklahoma is a tale of community driven need and aspiration to build a waterline to bring the natural element into their town. The U.S. government was not willing to help and the Cherokee people of Bell were “fed up with decades of waiting and broken promises, took to the ‘bush’ themselves day in and out volunteers cleared, built and laid down the water pipes themselves” (Coliver 2014). The constant broken promises led to a community-wide distrust of government agencies as there were constant promises to help, but nothing came of it. The overall morale of the people of Bell was dismal and many just accepted their fate to never have clean running water (Cherokee Word for Water-Background Video YouTube).  However, with the help of Wilma Mankiller, volunteers came together as a community and were able to construct a sixteen mile waterline pipe in eight months. Mankiller explained the effort in her autobiography, Mankiller a Chief and Her People, “The local residents were able to build on our Cherokee gadugi tradition of a physical sharing of tasks and working collectively, at the same time restoring confidence in their own ability to solve problems” (234). The ability of the small rural Bell community expressed how dedication and drive to obtain water could become a reality and also became a beckon of aspiration for other Cherokee communities, leading to other projects in the nation’s community to build homes, community centers, and access to waterlines (Coliver 2014).

The indigenous community has focused not only on constructing infrastructure to create means of possessing and owning water for its community, but also is avid in supporting its community when disaster disrupts the possession of water. When a water pipeline broke in Nowata County, Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation delivered over 4,000 bottles of water to Union Public Schools. The Cherokee Nation Emergency Department also delivered water to South Coffeyville Fire Department so that local residents could acquire it for safe drinking water. In total, the Cherokee Nation donated “16,000 bottles of water, 336 one-gallon jugs, and a 535 gallon tank of water” (Cherokee Nation 2014).  Cherokee Nation Principal Chief John Baker asserts that “The Cherokee Nation is an integral part of the community in good times and bad. When unexpected emergencies like this strike, the Cherokee Nation immediately steps in and plays an important role” (Cherokee Nation 2014). The role the Cherokee Nation has taken on helping others access water and has also been an advocate for tribes outside of their community. The Cherokee Nation donated ten thousand dollars to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in their opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline and its potential to damage their water supply. They have also donated other items such firewood to those protesting (Wire 2016). Many tribes have come together in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, expressing an overarching belief in environmental safety and the protection of water as an intertribal concern.

Overall, the role that the Cherokee Nation has created to provide its community with water is not internally wired to gain them capitalistic success like many companies in the United States, but one based on a simple reason: water is vital to life.  Their contributions and experiences in U.S history denote a value in community based support as well as stable access to natural resources like water.




“Cherokee Nation responds to Nowata County emergency with safe drinking water.” Cherokee Nation responds to Nowata County emergency with safe drinking water. Cherokee Nation, 15 Oct. 2014. Web. 06 Apr. 2017.

Coliver. “The Bell Waterline Project.” The Water Well. N.p., 28 Jan. 2014. Web. 06 Apr. 2017. <http://www.thewaterwell.net/bell-waterline-project/>.

Cw4w2009. N.d. The Cherokee Word for Water- Background Video. YouTube, 30 Mar. 2009. Web. 06 Apr. 2017.

Kays, Holly. “Cherokees and rivers: Water a centerpiece of Cherokee culture.” Cherokees and rivers: Water a centerpiece of Cherokee culture. Smokey Mountain News, 16 Dec. 215. Web. 06 Apr. 2017. <http://www.smokymountainnews.com/archives/item/16885-cherokees-and-rivers-water-a-centerpiece-of-cherokee-culture>.

Mankiller, Wilma, and Michael Wallis. Mankiller: a Chief and Her People. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000. Print.

Wire, Ap . “Cherokee Nation donates $10K to Standing Rock Sioux’s fight against pipeline.” FOX 4 Kansas City WDAF-TV | News, Weather, Sports. FOX 4 News, 23 Oct. 2016. Web. 06 Apr. 2017.

About the author: Brian King

Brian D. King lives in Oklahoma and is a writer and blogger who studies and teaches English. He earned his bachelor's degree in Political Science from Brigham Young University, and he is currently working on his graduate degree in English in Oklahoma.

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