Historical and Cultural Context

The Cherokee are a tribe of Native Americans that were originally concentrated in the Southeastern United States. There are currently three Cherokee tribes recognized by the United States government: the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians. The Cherokee Nation has the most members of the three, with 300,000 tribal members. It is the largest of the federally recognized tribes in the U.S. All in all, just over 800,000 Americans claimed to have Cherokee ancestry on the 2010 U.S. census.

In “Robin Red Breast”, Miller includes many aspects of Cherokee culture, especially their relationship with nature. Cherokees placed a high value on the natural environment in which they lived. This is evident by the fact that when harvesting plants to use for medicine or food, they only took the every fourth plant, and left the others for future use. The Cherokee people viewed themselves as part of their environment rather than separate from it. If this balance was upset, people would face sickness, bad harvest, or poor hunting. They did not try to rule over nature, but rather keep their place within it.

While being tied to the stake in the story, the warrior comes across two animals that have different reactions to his situation, a deer and a robin. In Cherokee culture, the Deer Clan is one of the seven Cherokee Clans, which makes the white-tailed deer a sacred animal. It was a staple food source for the Cherokee, and they used every part of the animal for tools, weapons, or to trade with other tribes. If a hunter killed a deer needlessly and without asking the Deer Spirit’s pardon, the protector of the deer –Little Dear- would make it so that the hunter could not hunt anymore by giving him rheumatism. While robins do not have a specific role in Cherokee culture, birds in general do. The Bird Clan is another of the Cherokee Clans, and its members were historically known as messengers. This is because birds are believed to be the messengers between Earth and Heaven, which made the clan members responsible for caring for the birds. Another key part of Cherokee culture that relates to nature and appears in Robin Red Breast is water. Cherokee’s believed that water cleaned the spirit and body, and rivers and similar bodies of water were treated as sacred. In the story, the robin brings water from the nearby creek to the warrior to nurse him back to life.

Apart from nature, Miller includs other significant parts of Cherokee culture in her story that have important meanings. War itself, an important part of the legend, was not viewed favorably by the Cherokee, as stated by John Howard Payne in his papers on the Cherokee. After battles, warriors were required to purify their bodies before returning to live a normal life as part of the tribe. This tradition changed after the religious class of Cherokee society lost influence, and the Cherokee people became involved in more conflicts. Another aspect of Cherokee culture that comes up in the story is the color red. Red is a symbol of success, long life, and triumph for the Cherokee’s, which could be why the warrior painted the robin’s breast with his blood. Everything down to the number of days that the warrior was kept in the cave and subsequently moved to the stake have meaning to the Cherokee’s. It may appear on the surface that by having the warrior be kept in the cave for six days and moved on the seventh could have a biblical meaning, and that is a valid hypothesis. However, the number seven has a dual meaning to the Cherokee people. It does not only represent the seven clans of the Cherokee, but also the height of purity and sacredness- a level that is hard to attain. Mixed in among all the parts of Cherokee culture represented in “Robin Red Breast” is one small part of white culture that comes up. When referring to the Native Americans in the story, Miller uses the term “red man”. Native Americans would not call themselves this, as they viewed themselves simply as men. Also, the term has a negative connotation, and it is unlikely Miller would intentionally degrade her people. There are a couple reasons as to why this term was included in the story. It could be that the education that the Carlisle Indian School was trying to instill in its students worked, and the author subliminally included the term in the story. On the other side, and probably more likely, it could be that it was edited by the school. While Pratt had left his position as superintendent of the school many years earlier, his practice of editing the works produced by the students to appeal to its readers was not necessarily stopped. In this case, it is plausible that “red man” was included by “the man-on-the-band-stand”, who kept an overseeing eye on the student’s works, in order to prove that the school was serving its purpose.

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