By Lowell Kirk
From 1887 to 1890 James Mooney, working with the Smithsonian Museum, lived among the Eastern Band of Cherokee. He came to know, love and respect them, and was in return, known, loved and respected by the Cherokee, especially by an old medicine man by the name of Swimmer. Mooney collected a remarkable large body of material about Cherokee culture, history, myths and sacred formulas. His book, Myths of the Cherokee and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokee is the best source book for Cherokee myths, ceremonies and sacred formulas. Reading from Mooney’s work, one will occasionally notice some similarities to myths and stories from western civilization. Some of these similarities are due to the fact that the sustained contact between the whites and Cherokees since the mid 1700’s allowed many western ideas to filter into the Cherokee stories. But most Cherokee stories seem to have well developed long before any contact with European whites.
The Cherokee, like other native Americans, did not worship spirits and icons, but believed in one Supreme Being. They lived in harmony with their natural environment. It was their myths and sacred formulas, developed over thousands of years and passed orally from generation to generation, which helped them to do this. Myths may or may not have any bases in fact. But they become institutionalized as "truth" and have a great influence in the cultural behavior of individuals, groups and communities. They are used to teach the young many of the important lessons of life. The Cherokee chose special persons in special linages to pass on their oral traditions. Great care was taken to maintain the purity of such traditions.
Virtually every aspect of the Cherokee life and the Cherokee environment had a story to explain it. A Water Spider with black downy hair and red stripes on her body brought fire to the Cherokee, after much frustrating effort. The story of the origin of core (Selu) and game (Kana’ti) includes a reference to a tribe of cannibals (Roasters or Anada’ duntaski). Kana’ti, the father, was the Lucky Hunter and Selu was his wife. Every disease was created and put on the Cherokee man by the animals. This was a revenge for man killing the animals. However, the plants, which were friendly to man, decided to furnish a remedy to counteract the evil wrought by the vengeful animals.
The hummingbird frequently draws nectar from tobacco blooms. In Cherokee mythology, it brought tobacco to the Cherokee. Unlike our modern age, the Cherokee believed that tobacco had powerful medicinal qualities. The Cherokee gave it credit for easing suffering by smoking it. It was smoked at councils, which democratically debated the beginning of war, as well at the councils which brought an end to war. It was smoked at the welcoming of any distinguished visitor to the tribe; it was used to place on fires to divine the future, according to the direction in which the wind blew the smoke.
The Cherokee believed that the sun was a young woman who lived in the East. The moon was her brother and lived in the west. One story related how the Redbird was the daughter of the sun. Eclipses were believed to be caused by a giant frog that lived in the sky and tried to swallow them. The lightning and the rainbow were the dress of the sons of Thunder, who lived far in the west above the sky vault. Several different Cherokee stories exist to explain the stars. One was about a dog that stole corn meal, and once discovered, was whipped. As the dog ran howling to his home in the north, the meal scattered across the sky and made the Milky Way. The Buzzard played an important role in Cherokee mythology. He made the mountains and valleys with his wings. He was also important as a "doctor."
The eagle was the great sacred bird to most Native American tribes, as it was to the Cherokee. It played a prominent role in their ceremonies, especially to those relating to war. The killing of an eagle to obtain the prized feathers could only be done by a designated eagle killer, who like other "professions" within the tribe, was specifically chosen and trained for that purpose. The eagle killer was taught not only how to kill an eagle, but also the "prescribed forms and the prayers to be said afterwards in order to obtain pardon for the necessary sacrilege, and thus ward off vengeance from the tribe." (Mooney, p.28l) Killing an eagle out of season, late fall or winter, could cause a front to destroy the corn and snakes to become doubly dangerous. Eagle songs were only sung after the snakes had "gone to sleep for the winter." Only great warriors or medicine men could wear the feathers.
The Uktena played an important role in Cherokee mythology. Mooney wrote:
"Those who know say that the Uktena is a great snake, as large around as a tree trunk, with horns on its head, and a bright, blazing crest like a diamond upon its forehead, and scales glittering like sparks of fire. It has rings or spots of color along its whole length, and can not be wounded except by shooting in the seventh spot from the head, because under this spot are its heart and its life. The blazing diamond is called Ulunsu’ti, ‘Transparent,’ and he who can win it may become the greatest wonder worker of the tribe, but it is worth a man’s life to attempt it, for whoever is seen by the Uktena is so dazed by the bright light that he runs toward the snake instead of trying to escape." (Mooney, p.297)
Another important element in Cherokee mythology was the Nunne’hi, or immortals, who lived throughout the highlands of the Cherokee nation. A race of spirit people, they were invisible except when they wanted to be seen, at which times they appeared to physically resemble the Cherokee. Generally, they were friendly and frequently helped those who were in need. Like the Cherokee, they were extremely fond of music and dancing. Many of their townhouses were said to be on the high mountain balds, although many stories associate them with the ancient mound of Nikwasi, near present day Franklin North Carolina.
Perhaps no Cherokee legend has been more enduring than the belief in the Yunwi Tsunsdi’, the Little People.. About knee high to an adult, they were well shaped and handsome, with long hair, which reaches the ground. Considered to be wonder workers, like the Nunne’hi, they spent half their time drumming and dancing. Helpful and kind hearted; they were especially helpful to children, and frequently helped adults, unseen at night, at such things as gathering corn. Usually associated with a certain place or community, if they were offended, they would leave the place, never to be seen again!
The rabbit played a prominent role in the Cherokee myths. It was always a trickster and deceiver, usually malicious and often beaten at his own game, and by those he intended to victimize. Cherokee legends are full of rabbit stories. "The Rabbit goes Duck Hunting," "How the Rabbit Stole the Otter’s Coat," "Why the Possum’s Tail is Bare," "How the Wildcat Caught the Gobbler," (which includes the Rabbit begging for his life by saying, "I’m so small, I would make only a mouthful for you, but if you let me go I’ll show you where you can get a whole drove of Turkeys." (Mooney p. 270) This is the same story that was used in the Uncle Remus story of the Rabbit begging not to be thrown into the briar patch. The Cherokee story of "The Rabbit and the Tar Wolf" is the origin of the Uncle Remus story of the Tar Baby. In the Cherokee story of "The Rabbit Dines the Bear," we have the origin of the love-hate relationship between Brer Rabbit and Brer Bear. Cherokee stories were a treasure house for Native Americans, Negro slaves, and eventually for Joel Chandler Harris who wrote the "Uncle Remus" stories. The Cherokee story, "How the Terrapin Beat the Rabbit," taught a very basic lesson of life. That lesson was repeated by the Cherokee Chief, John Ross, in a letter to his son in l865. Ross wrote that in the long run, it is the slow and steady pull that accomplishes the most in life.
Uncle Remus illustration from the Joel Chandler Harris book -
"Legends of The Old Plantations" 1881.
As a child, I loved the Walt Disney movie, Song of the South, which was based on the writing of Joel Chandler Harris. I was well into my middle age when I learned that the tales of Uncle Remus were all Native American Indian stories. Prior to the tragic Cherokee Trail of Tears removal in l838 many Blacks and Cherokee in north Georgia had intermarried. Many of the wealthy Cherokee also owned slaves. When the Cherokee were forced to move to Oklahoma, many of the Blacks remained in Georgia. But they continued to tell the Native American stories, sometimes with small changes, to their children in the Black dialect. After the Civil war Joel Chandler Harris, at the time an Atlanta newspaper writer went among the Blacks collecting these fascinating stories and eventually published them in the l880s. Harris used the Uncle Remus stories to oppose racism in the post Civil War South. He believed the stories contained examples as to how slaves had outwitted their masters. Harris assumed the origin of many of those stories was Africa. But in truth, they were Native American Indian stories. Most of these stories can be found in James Mooney’s book.
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