Manataka American Indian Council
Four Important Cherokee Stories
By Robert Francis of Mid - America Indian Fellowship
Robert Francis, a Cherokee with ancestors in Missiouri and Arkansas holds a B.S.Ed. from Ohio University and an M.Div. from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary considers each of the four stories below important. "While all the many stories of the Cherokee oral tradition are very important and no ceremony of the Cherokees is to be neglected, let it be known that these four stories are absolutely essential," said Robert Francis.
According to Francis, "...The Cherokees are the Ani-Yvwiya (The Real People) and the Ani-Kituwah (Those Under the Special Care of Creator...) The Cherokees received original instructions and continue to receive enlightenment from the Creator."
Stories of the Cherokee 1
When the earth was first made, it was covered all over with water except for one small island. This island was the top of a high mountain. This was Blue Mountain , in the Cherokee country. White folks came a short time ago and named this mountain Clingman's Dome, no doubt after some white man or other named Clingman. But it has always been Blue Mountain and always will be Blue Mountain . For the Cherokees, the Ani-Kituwa, the Ani-Yvwiya, this is where it begins.
Everyone lived together on this mountaintop island. The human beings and the animals all got along fine. In those days they could understand one another's speech, for this was before the humans broke the harmony. The animals were also much bigger in those days. In fact, the animals of today are but shadows of those who once were. It was a good place to live. Sure, the island was small, but it was what everyone knew and was used to. All were content, until there came to be more of them than the small bit of land could support.
As they noticed they were getting crowded, a general council of all the people (both humans and animals) was called. The question was asked, "What can we do?" The only answer given was, "We can pray. All we can do is pray and ask the Grandfather Above to please give us some more land.
So all the people prayed, and Creator/Apportioner answered, "Oh my precious children, there is nothing I enjoy so much as giving good gifts to my children. But if I do everything for you without asking you to help in any way, how will you ever learn any responsibility? I really want to teach you some responsibility. Here's what I will do: If one of you will swim to the bottom of the ocean and bring up some mud, just a little bit of mud, I will take that mud, that little bit of mud, and make a whole great land of it."
All the people (animals and humans) began to look at one another. Someone asked, "Who will go? Who will get the mud?"
A slow, deep voice answered, "I will go. I will get the mud." It was Grandma Turtle.
"Grandma Turtle, you can't go!" They said. "You're too old and slow. We don't know what it's like down there. We don't know how deep it is."
"I'll go," quacked Duck.
"Now that's more like it," they said. "You're a good swimmer, Duck. You can go; you can do it."
Duck paddled out onto the ocean and dived, but he popped right back up to the surface. Duck dived again and again and again, but the same thing happened each time. Well, you know how ducks are. They dive well, but they float much better. Duck paddled back to shore, shook the water off his tail and said, "I can't dive that deep. I float too well."
The question was asked again, "Who will go? Who will get the mud?"
Grandma Turtle said, "I will go. I will get the mud."
"Grandma Turtle," they said, "we settled that before! You can't go. You're too old. Who will go? Who will get the mud? Hey Otter, how about you?"
"What?" Otter said.
"How about you going to get the mud?"
"Mud? What mud?"
"The mud we need so Creator/Apportioner can make more land!"
"Oh, sure," said Otter, and he slid off into the water and was gone a good long while. When he came back, he had a fish in his mouth, but no mud. Without a word to anyone, Otter climbed up onto the beach and began munching on the fish.
Everyone was watching him, but Otter paid them no mind, just kept eating his fish. "Hey Otter!" someone yelled.
"What?" Otter said.
"Where's the mud?"
"Mud? What mud?" Otter asked. "Ohhh the mud! Well, I left here to go and get it. Then I got started playing. Then I caught this fish. Then I forgot all about the ummm, ummmm, whatever it was I was supposed to get."
Oh my! They were nearly at their wits end. "Who will go?" they all asked. "Who will get the mud?"
Grandma Turtle said, "I will go. I will get the mud." No one even paid her any mind.
"Who will go? Who will get the mud?"
"I will go," said Beaver. "I will get the mud. I don't play, and I do not eat fish."
Resolutely, Beaver swam out into the ocean. He took a deep, deep breath and dived. Wow, Beaver was gone a long time. Some of the people watching and waiting were holding their breath in sympathy, but none seemed able to hold it that long. Finally, Beaver popped to the surface gasping for air. He swam to shore and climbed onto the beach shaking his head. "It's too deep!" Beaver said. "I don't know how deep it is. I never reached the bottom."
Everyone was in despair. Beaver was the last best hope. How would they ever get mud? Maybe there would never be anything but the little mountaintop island. "Who will go?" they asked. "Who will get the mud?"
A slow deep voice answered, "I will go. I will get the mud."
"You can't go, Grandma Turtle, you're too...."
"I WILL GO! I WILL GET THE MUD!"
There were no other volunteers, so they let Grandma Turtle go. She slowly paddled her way out onto the surface of the ocean. As everyone watched, she took a slow, deep breath, then another and another and another. She took three more breaths and disappeared beneath the water.
They waited a long time. Grandma Turtle was gone much longer than Duck or Otter or even Beaver had been. She was gone all that day and the next and the next and the next. They posted a sentry up on the very top of the mountain. Finally, on the seventh day, the sentry called out, "I think I see something coming up. Yes, yes, something is rising in the water. Could it be? Could it be? Yes! It's Grandma Turtle!"
Sure enough, Grandma Turtle rose to the surface of the ocean, and there she lay, not moving, with her legs, her tail, her head all hanging down.... Grandma Turtle was dead.
Quietly, reverently, Duck, Otter and Beaver swam out and drew Grandma Turtle's body to the shore. They pulled her up on the beach, as all the people (humans and animals) gathered sadly around, and what's this? There, under her front feet, they found.... mud.
Someone took the mud, that little bit of mud from under Grandma Turtle's front feet, rolled it into a ball and lifted it up toward the sky. The Grandfather took that mud, that little bit of mud and cast it out, making this whole, great land that many nations call Turtle Island .
Of course, it was all very wet and muddy at first. Grandpa Buzzard, who was much bigger in those days, swooped down to dry the land with his great wings. Everywhere his wings went down, there was a valley. Everywhere his wings went up, there was a mountain. If someone hadn't said, "Stop that Grandpa Buzzard!" there would be no flat land left in all the earth.
Stories of the Cherokee 2
The Origins of Disease and Medicine
Long ago the humans and the animals got along fine. All the peoples, human and animal, could communicate with each other and were at peace. The animals of that long-ago time were much larger than the animals of today. Indeed, the animals of today are but shadows of those who once were.
There came a time when we humans forgot our place and broke the harmony. We humans began to reproduce at an alarming rate, and we gave ourselves to the production of all sorts of weapons meant for the destruction of the animals: spears and atlatls, bows and arrows, blowguns and traps of all kinds. We began to hunt, not just for food, but simply for the fun of killing. We humans also killed many animals just by pure carelessness, never stopping to think of the results of our actions. Even as we walked from place to place, we were not careful where we stepped, so that many of the tiny many-legged and legless ones were crushed to death or maimed. Some humans went so far as to purposely kill little animals merely from a feeling of disgust or loathing, going out of their way to step on a bug or squash a harmless spider. It was clear that we humans believed ourselves to be the only ones who mattered in all of creation, and as we continued clearing land and building our cities; it looked as if there would soon be no more room for anyone else to live in the earth.
The animals decided something had to be done about this human problem. The bears met separately from the other animals. The Great White Bear, presiding at the council asked, "What's the problem?"
"It's these humans; they kill us indiscriminately."
"How do they kill us?"
"With bows and arrows."
"Of what are their bows made?"
"The bow of locust wood and the bowstring of our guts."
The bears decided they would make bows of their own with which to kill the humans. They got some locust wood, and one of the bears sacrificed himself to give material for the bowstring. When the bow was finished and arrows were made, one of the bears stood up to shoot. He could pull the string, but releasing it was a problem. His long claws would get hung and throw him off target. The other bears, ducking his wild arrows, cried out, "Stop, stop. Something must be done. We'll cut your claws."
After the bear's claws were cut, he could shoot a bow as well as any man. "Now the humans have had it!" all the bears said. "We will hunt them, as they have hunted us! All we have to do is cut our claws."
"Wait!" said the Great White Bear. "How is it that we bears make our living?"
"By climbing trees to get honey and by ripping open rotten logs to find insects and by digging in the earth for rodents and by catching fish."
"How do we do all these things?"
"With our long claws."
The bears understood that if they cut their claws they could no longer make a living as bears and would starve to death. The idea to hunt the humans with bows and arrows was scrapped, and they never came up with another solution.
All the other animals came together in a joint council to discuss the human problem. The Grubworm presided at the council. After all, it was his people, the little creeping and crawling peoples of the earth, who had suffered most from the actions of the humans. The animals all sat in a circle. The talking stick was passed, giving each an opportunity to speak. The Toad said, "Something must be done. These humans despise me. They are forever kicking me or throwing things at me, because they think I am ugly. Just look at all the bumps they've put on my back!"
One of the little birds rose and said, "Although I'm too small to provide much meat, their little boys kill my people and roast us over the fire until our feathers and feet are burned off." One after the other, the animals spoke of atrocities committed by the humans. The only one with nothing to say against the humans was the little chipmunk, who was too small to be hunted for food and too quick to be stepped on. When he spoke in defense of the humans, the other animals jumped on him and gave him such a scratching down his back that the stripes are there to this day!
Once it was established that something must be done about the humans in order to save the rest of creation, the floor was open for discussion of what to do. It was finally decided that each of the animal peoples would come up with at least one disease with which to inflict the humans, in order to kill most of them and to teach the rest some respect. Various animals attending the council agreed to come up with every sort of ailment from cancer to p.m.s. When the Grubworm heard this last one, he laughed so hard he fell over backwards and has been crawling around like that ever since.
So, all the animals went their separate ways to meet in council, each with their own kind, to work out the details of what they would do. The deer met in council, with their chief, Little Deer, presiding. The deer understood the humans to be a pitiful and needy people who live only by the deaths of others. For this reason, the deer decided to allow the humans to continue killing some deer each year, but only what is needed for food, NEVER FOR SPORT. Furthermore, a human hunter, upon killing a deer, is required to show respect for the spirit of the deer by begging the deer's pardon and making a proper tobacco offering. And so, Little Deer, the chief and adawehi of all the deer will come. Swiftly and invisibly he will come to the place where the deer has died. Gently he will bend down over the blood. In a whisper, he will ask the spirit of the slain deer, "Did this hunter treat you with respect? Did he beg your pardon? Did he offer tobacco?"
If the answer is, "Yes," all is well, and Little Deer will go on his way. But if the answer is, "No," Little Deer will track that hunter to his home. There, Little Deer will strike that hunter with rheumatism, that he may never hunt again!
Word was sent to the human people, and we Cherokees have not forgotten this treaty with the deer.
And so, many diseases came into the earth. Many people died. For awhile, it looked as though maybe no humans would survive in the earth. The great cities were forgotten and fell into ruin.
The plant peoples who saw all of this, also elected to come together and meet in council. Deciding to take pity on us humans, each plant agreed to give of itself to provide medicine for at least one human disease or ailment. All we humans had to do was ask in a respectful way.
Stories of the Cherokee 3
The Woman and Her Two Sons
Kanati and Selu are the first man and the first woman of the Cherokees. They had two sons. One son was Home Boy, their biological child. The other was Wild Boy who had been found living in the cane brake along the river. This story tells what happened when the sons were nearly grown and Selu’s husband Kanati was away, in the West.
One evening, Selu saw her sons getting their weapons ready, so they could go out to hunt the next morning. She smiled and said, "I see you're going to hunt tomorrow. When you come back, I'll have a wonderful meal prepared for you."
The next day, while her sons were gone, Selu took all the old meat and cooked it into a soup thickened with hominy grits. In the evening, the boys came back with a deer they had killed, and their mother served them this soup. They thought it was very good and ate eagerly but didn't know what it was. They had never seen or tasted grits or any type of corn before. "This is selu (corn)" their mother said, "and it's very good food."
The next morning, the boys went out hunting again. This time, their mother took fresh venison, cut it up fine and, once again, thickened the soup with hominy grits. That evening, the boys returned with two turkeys they had killed. Once again, they enjoyed their meal, what their mother had prepared, very much.
They next morning, as they were leaving to hunt, Wild Boy said to Home Boy, “This corn our mother gives us is a very mysterious thing. Where does it come from? Let's spy on our mother to see where she gets this.” Creeping back through the woods the boys watched as their mother came out of the house with a large basket. They saw her go into a she, and quietly ran up to peak through the cracks in the shed wall. They watched as their mother placed the basket on the floor of the shed. She then struck her sides and rubbed her belly, and hominy grits fell like snow from her body, filling the basket.
Home Boy turned to his brother and whispered, "This is a very disgusting thing we've been eating."
"Yes," Wild Boy said, "and it looks as if our mother is a witch."
That evening, the boys returned from the hunt with no game. Their mother had worked hard preparing the turkey meat with hominy grits, but the boys only picked at their food. They didn't eat.
Finally, their mother broke the silence. "Something is wrong, she said. Maybe you have learned something. Maybe you don't like what I have prepared for you. Maybe you don't like me anymore."
One of the boys said, "We know where the corn comes from. We think you are a witch. We have to kill you now."
"Do as you must," their mother said, "I ask only this one thing: When you have killed me, drag my body over the ground seven times. Wherever my blood touches the ground, a plant will grow. This plant you will call 'selu (corn)'. You will take care of it, and it will take care of you and feed you. As the stalks grow, they will form ears. You may pick some ears when they are green, for roasting or boiling. They are very good. The rest you must allow to get ripe and hard. This you will use for hominy and to make your bread. Don't forget to save the best for seed. As long as you have this corn with you, you have me with you. I am Selu, the Corn Mother."
And so the boys killed their mother. They dragged her bleeding body over the ground, but they were lazy and only dragged her around three times. Wherever the blood touched the earth, corn grew. The people had food to eat, but because of the original laziness of the boys, the corn must be hoed each year. The women wisely took over the management of the crops and so instruct the men in what to do and when to do it.
Stories of the Cherokee 4
The Daughter of the Sun
- Morning Star
“Morning Star, the star that shines brightest when all other stars go dim, the star that shines not with its own light but with the light of the Sun…”
Note: In most but
not necessarily all cases, old Cherokee stories refer to the Sun as female.
According to the old ones, the house of the Sun is in the east, beyond the sky dome, but the Daughter of the Sun used to live in the middle of the sky. Every day, in her travels, the Sun stopped at her daughter’s house for lunch. It was at this hottest part of the day that the Sun would also pause to look down at her grandchildren on the earth. When she saw the people squinting back up at her, the Sun grew angry. “My grandchildren hate me!” the Sun exclaimed to her brother, the Moon. “Just see how they scrunch up their faces whenever they look my way.” In her wrath, the Sun grew hotter and hotter, until all the crops dried up.
In desperation, the people looked high and low for a solution to the problem. Finally, the Little People came up with what seemed to be a logical solution. Now, the Little People are spirit folk. There are some spirit people who are good and some who are bad. The Little People have much in common with us human beings, in that, they can go either way. They may be helpful, or they may be mischievous. They may act wisely, or their actions may prove hurtful. Here’s what the Little People did in this situation: They changed two men into snakes. The first they changed into the Spread-Head snake. The second was transformed into the Copperhead. These two were instructed to travel up the sky vault, to wait at the house of the Daughter of the Sun. “When the Sun arrives outside her daughter’s door,” the Little People said, “strike quickly with your deadly fangs.” The two snakes slithered away to accomplish their task, but when the Sun arrived, her light so blinded the Spread-Head that when he struck, he forgot to even open his mouth to bite. He flattened his nose against the Sun. Then, in his fright, he rolled on his back and played dead, stinking like a rotting carcass, just as he does to this day. The Sun called him a nasty thing and went on into her daughter’s house. The Copperhead was so afraid; he crawled quickly away without even trying to bite, and so these two returned to the earth.
After this first failure, the Little People decided to try again. They changed two more men into snakes. One of these became the Rattlesnake. The other became the Uktin, the Great Horned Serpent. So, you see, all of these four: the Spread-Head, the Copperhead, the Rattlesnake and the Uktin were once men. Well, just as the others had done, the Rattlesnake and the Uktin traveled up the sky vault to lie in wait outside the door to the house of the Daughter of the Sun. The Sun was still in there, having some lunch with her daughter.
The Uktin was very big and dangerous. His poison was so potent that even a little splashed on the skin could be deadly, and the mere look of the Uktin’s eye could kill. All the people were thinking, “As big and mean as that Uktin is, he is sure to do the job and kill the Sun.” But the Rattlesnake was quicker than the Uktin. Getting there first, he coiled up outside the door, nervously shaking his tail as he waited for the Sun to emerge. The Rattlesnake was so eager, that as soon as the door opened, he struck. But instead of striking the Sun, the Rattlesnake struck the Daughter of the Sun. The Sun went on her way, but the Daughter of the Sun died from the poisonous bite. As with the others before them, these two snakes returned to the earth.
The Sun burned hotter and hotter, so vengeful was she for the death of her daughter. The people could no longer leave the shade in the daytime. The trees and grasses were dying. Great fires were burning in the land. People were getting sick. It was really bad.
The Little People said there was only one solution. Seven men would have to travel to the West, to the Jusgina Ghost Country, and bring back the Daughter of the Sun. The Little People gave each man a sourwood stick, with instructions on how to use these when they arrived at the Ghost Country. The men also carried a large box in which to bring back the Daughter of the Sun. The final instructions of the Little People were these: “Once she is in the box, don’t open it, for any reason, until you are back here, in your own country.”
The men set out on their journey. Seven days later, arriving in the Ghost Country, the seven men found the people dancing in a great circle. Positioning themselves outside the circle, they waited for the Daughter of the Sun to come around. As she came by, the first of the seven men touched her with his sourwood stick. When she came around the second time, the next man touched her with his sourwood stick. This same pattern continued until all seven men had, in turn, touched the Daughter of the Sun with their sourwood sticks. At the touch of the seventh stick, she fell backward, as in a swoon. The men put her in the box, securely fastened the lid and headed back to their own country.
As the men walked along, carrying the box, the Daughter of the Sun awoke and began to complain. “I’m hungry,” she said. “Please open the box and give me something to eat.”
“Oh no,” the men said, remembering the warning of the Little People. “We can’t open the box until we are back in our own country.”
As they walked on, the Daughter of the Sun complained again. “I’m thirsty,” she said. “Please, oh please open the box and give me just a little sip of water.”
“Oh no,” the men said. “We can’t open the box until we are back in our own country.”
Finally, the Daughter of the Sun complained again. In a faint voice she said, “I can’t breathe. Please, please open the box. I think I may suffocate!”
The seven men stopped and looked at each other. It was well known that a person could live a long time without food. There were some who had lived as much as seven days without water. But air was something a person could not live without. “Maybe we should open the box,” one man offered.
“Don’t forget what the Little People said,” another cautioned. “We can’t open the box for any reason.”
“But what if she dies,” yet another man said. “We’re back where we started.”
Finally, someone offered an acceptable compromise. “Let’s open the box just a crack,” the man argued, “not enough for her to get out, but enough for her to get some air.” This course of action seeming reasonable to all, the box was unlatched and opened just the tiniest crack.
“What was that?” one man exclaimed. They had all seen a flash of red light, flying out from the box to disappear in the brushy woods.
“I don’t know what that was,” another man said, “but I think we’d better keep the lid closed tight on this box from now on, no matter what she says.”
The men went on their way, hearing no more complaints from the Daughter of the Sun. They worried that maybe she was dead. The next day, the seven arrived back in their own country. The box was opened, and to everyone’s dismay, it was empty.
When the Sun saw her daughter would not be returned to her, her wrath turned to sorrow. She began to cry, and the tears of the Sun threatened to flood the whole earth. The people tried their best to cheer her up. They sang their best songs and danced until their feet were sore. The heart of the Sun was touched by this effort, but her sorrow was not taken away. Then a flash of red was seen in the edge of the woods and a beautiful song was heard. Looking down, the Sun saw her daughter, who had become the Redbird, the Dojuwa, and had elected to stay in the earth. The Sun saw her daughter in the earth, and the Sun smiled.
Note: I have been told recently that the Cherokee word “Dojuwa” may not have originally referred to the crested redbird known as the cardinal, but rather to the summer tanager, the uncrested redbird of the deep forests of southeastern North America.
One Came From the Heavens
Of course the Uktin, the Great Horned Serpent was in the earth. He was still very angry and very dangerous. Even the look of the Uktin’s eye was sure death, not only for the person heedless enough to make eye contact, but even for that person’s whole family. Having failed to destroy the Sun, the Uktin wanted to destroy the Earth, along with all her children, and it looked as though he would do it. But then, one came down from the heavens. This is the one the Cherokees call Jiya Unega (White Otter). Now, this name does not mean this was a white person any more than it means this was literally an otter. It is simply the name by which the Cherokees knew this person. Names have significance. Colors have significance. White, for Cherokees, is the color of the South and signifies new life, new beginnings. Jiya Unega fought against the Uktin and defeated him. Although the Uktin had children who remained in the earth, the Great Uktin himself was sent to the place where dangerous beings are kept. In his fight with the Great Horned Serpent, Jiya Unega was horribly wounded. With one arm torn from his body, Jiya Unega’s blood gushed out onto the earth, and Jiya Unega died in the earth. But Jiya Unega did not remain dead. Rising from the dead, Jiya Unega ascended into the heavens to take his place as the Morning Star, the star that shines brightest when all other stars go dim, the star that shines not with its own light but with the light of the Sun, the star the Cherokees call Unelvnvhi Uwegi (Creator-Son).
We Cherokees understand that it was Jiya Unega who gave our people the Sacred Fire that has been kept now for some 5,089 years. Jiya Unega gave the Fire as reminder of Creator’s presence with us, and he gave us the ceremonies with which to keep the Fire. Jiya Unega, Creator-Son, instructed us that as long as we keep this Fire, we will continue to survive as a people.
Robert Francis of Mid - America Indian Fellowship
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