The Cherokee system was based more on responsibility for wrongful actions than on the notion of "justice" in the western sense of the word. Rather than justice, the Cherokee system was ideal for keeping balance and harmony in the spiritual and social worlds.
One day, some Cherokee children were playing outside, when a rattlesnake crawled out of the grass. They screamed and their mother ran outside. Without thinking, she took a stick and killed it. Her husband was hunting in the mountains. As he was returning homethat night, he heard a strange wailing sound. Looking around, he found himself in the midst of a gathering of rattlesnakes, whose mouths were open and crying. "What is the matter," the man asked the snakes.
The rattlesnakes responded, "Your wife killed our chief, the Yellow Rattlesnake today. We are preparing to send the Black Rattlesnake to take revenge." The husband immediately accepted their claim and took responsibility for the crime.
The rattlesnakes said, "If you speak the truth, you must be ready to make satisfaction." The price they demanded was the life of his wife in sacrifice for that of their chief. Not knowing what else might occur, the man consented. The rattlesnakes told the man that the Black Rattlesnake would follow him home and coil up outside his door. He was to ask his wife to bring him a fresh drink of water from the spring. That was all. When the man reached home, it was very dark.
His wife had supper waiting for him. "Please bring me some water," he asked her. She brought him a gourd from the jar, but he refused it.
"No," he said. "I would like some fresh water from the spring." His wife took a bowl and stepped outside to get him some fresh water. The man immediately heard her cry. He went outside and found the Black Rattlesnake had bitten her and she was already dying. He stayed with her until she was dead. The Black Rattlesnake then crawled out of the grass. "My tribe is now satisfied," he told the husband.
He then taught the man a prayer song. The Black Rattlesnake told him, "When you meet any of us here after, sing this song and we will not hurt you. If by accident one of us should bite you, sing this song over the person and he will recover."
And the Cherokee have kept this song to this day.