Manataka American Indian Council









The Cherokee Legend of 

By Gary Carden



The old woman loved high places: the crest of mountains, lonely and bare, where the clouds and hanging fog blurred the world. There, she could sit with a solitary raven for company and sing her favorite song:

Uwe la na tsiku. Su sa sai
Liver, I eat it.  Su sa sai 

Uwe la na tsiku. Su sa sai

As she sang, she chuckled to herself remembering her last meal: the succulent, tasty liver of a young boy. The old woman's diet consisted totally of children's livers, and she was very accomplished at trapping them. Here, where the swirling fog and clouds rendered her near invisible, she would sometimes dance, brandishing her stone forefinger. The finger was long as a dagger, slender and sharp as an obsidian knife.  Alone in the fog, she slashed the air and laughed.  

Then, she would stare at her palm, which pulsed with a slow and steady rhythm. Her heart was in her hand! No one could harm her, even if they forced a spear into her stony breast. She laughed and closing her fingers around her hidden heart, she sang: 

Uwe la na tsiku. Su sa sai
Liver, I eat it.  Su sa sai 

Uwe la na tsiku. Su sa sai

As she danced, the old woman's feet crushed rocks and sank deep into the earth.  Her body has the density of stone, and the ground shutters with her awesome weight. The mountain trembles, and boulders shift beneath her feet.  There is a sound like thunder, mingled with the old hag's laughter that echoes down the mountain causing birds to take flight and Cherokee hunters to look anxiously at the mountain. "Utlunta!" they say. "Spearfinger!" and then they call the children home.

"Listen, little ones. Stay in the lodge. Never go into the deep forest alone. Utlunta is walking the trails, looking for little children like you. What does she look like? Like grandmother and your favorite aunt, for she is a shape-changer. 

Deception is her weapon. True, the stone finger is deadly, but she must get close enough to use it. So, when she descends the mountain, she moves with the slow, shuffling gait of a village grandmother.  As she shambles downward, trying to tread lightly, she watches for the tell-tale wisp of smoke from the valley. Like fog and clouds, smoke makes her a dim form creeping towards her prey. Brush fires in the forest are especially helpful - the kind that the Cherokees start in the fall of the year, burning an entire mountainside so they can find fallen chestnuts, lying roasted on the blackened, smoking ground. 

The old witch moves through the smoke with her hand under her blanket, the deadly knife-finger concealed. As she watches the children gather hot chestnuts, her face assumes the guise of a village crone she has passed in the smoke.  The discolored fangs withdraw; the fierce animal eyes dim. 

"Ah, children, help a poor old granny. I need to sit and rest."  The ponderous body feigns weakness; she draws the blanket closer, concealing the stone skin, the killing finger. She totters forward. 

When the children look, they see only old Nadhi who is a familiar sight in the village.  The thing that looks like Nadhi sits wearily and a little girl brings her a hot chestnut.

"Come, child, sit in Granny's lap and she will comb your hair."  The child climbs into the old woman's lap, and the witch begins to croon and hum as she combs the little girl's hair. The child's eyes droop and she dozes. The other children wander away, filling a basket with smoking chestnuts.

So quick. Spearfinger can stop a heart without inflicting pain.  With a deft twist, she can remove a liver and leave the flesh unblemished.  Sometimes, she acts with such speed, the victim does not know that their life is draining away like water in a cracked jug. They return to their homes wondering why the world is growing dim. In a few days, they fade and die.

There are numerous stories of Spearfinger's skill and trickery.   Sometimes, in the smoke of the fire, one of the chestnut gatherers wanders away from the group, perhaps to drink from a spring.  Spearfinger follows, strikes, stopping their heart like a bird snatched from flight and crushed. . Then, concealing the body, the old witch assumes the appearance of her victim. In this guise, she returns to the family.

"Where have you been, brother? We have been calling you!"  

Spearfinger does not answer.  She accompanies the family home, lingering in the background.  Her deception is not flawless, so it is best not to speak or attract curiosity. Later, in the dark lodge, or in the dim light of the village fire, she can kill at leisure, taking with her back up the mountainside, a bounty of livers!  The fools.  So easy to kill; so trusting. She sings as she climbs in the darkness.

Uwe la na tsiku. Su sa sai
Liver, I eat it.  Su sa sai 

Uwe la na tsiku. Su sa sai

Sometimes when Spearfinger is traveling along the ridge of a mountain, she meets another creature whose body is sheathed in slabs of stone.  She senses kinship, knows that they are in some way related.  This other being is always singing, a deep rumble like distant thunder, and long ago, the old witch had decided that he is male. They always look at each other guardedly as they pass, and when the Stone Man moves on, Spearfinger watches to see if the stone man will use his staff.  Spearfinger knows that they both search for the same food, and sometimes she teasingly sings her own song aloud.   

Stone Man turns and looks at her. Then, he raises his staff, and pointing towards a distant peak, he flings the staff into the air.  Instantly, a stone bridge appears, running from Stone Man's feet to the peak.  He strolls across the bridge singing, and as he steps to the ground on the other side, the bridge vanishes, and he holds his staff once more.

Two monsters, then, intent on the same mission.  The witch decides to hunt elsewhere.  There are numerous villages, and the children are always easy to catch.

Spearfinger can also build stone bridges, but for her the task is more difficult.  She hefts huge boulders, hurling them into the air, and when they strike other stones, they become fixed. In this manner, the old witch can build a bridge from one mountain crest to another.   So, she travels form Nantahala to Chilhowee and from Chilhowee to the thunder mountain called Whiteside - her favorite abode. There, she often stands on a high rock where eagles wheel and scream in the rivers of air that race along the mountain's crest. It is a good place to watch for smoke.  Hunters sometimes see her there, her hair streaming in the wind. When she sees a distant smoke, she screams with glee, and when she stamps her foot and the mountain trembles.

It is said that Spearfinger once built a great sky-bridge.  It began at the "Tree Rock" on Hiwassee and ended at the thunder mountain.  It took her months to complete, and as she hurled stones into the sky, the bridge rose until its great arc was lost in the clouds.   

Spearfinger sang as she worked, gloated as she thought of how easily she could escape over the sky bridge. But, like the white man's Bible story of Babel, the old witch's bridge angered the Higher Beings.  The bridge came too close to the Upper World, and the creatures who lived there were outraged by the witch's arrogance.

Divine lightning struck the sky-bridge, and its broken pieces crashed to the earth. Portions of the bridge can still be send in the vales of Nantahala and the rocky slopes of Hiawassee.  Standing on the thunder mountain, Spearfinger scowled at the sky.  So much work for nothing, she thought. Then, lightning fell and struck the precipice where she stood; jagged fire danced and pulsed around her.  

Sullenly, she withdrew amid a hail of shattered, smoking stone.  Best not to anger them further, she thought.  Afterwards, she restricted her self to modest bridges between adjoining peaks.  She became cautious and decided to avoid the highest, wind-swept precipices of Whiteside.

But, she continued to kill, and she became more daring.  With greater frequency, she walked into villages, stood quietly among the elderly inhabitants in the guise of a familiar crone. At night, she sat hunched by the village fire until she saw her opportunity:  A child sleeping, a small boy playing by himself.  Escaping again and again, leaving always the keening wail of grieving parents, she climbs through the dark thickets, her mouth stained with blood, as she croons: 

Uwe la na tsiku. Su sa sai
Liver, I eat it.  Su sa sai 

Uwe la na tsiku. Su sa sai  

Spearfinger was also a shape-changer. She could fly with the ravens or trot with the mountain wolves.  But, of all the countless forms she could take, she best loved to be an old woman, moving slowly, haltingly along a mountain trail.  There was one problem.  When she entered the world of her victims, she could not alter her form again until she was out of their sight. It did not seem to be a significant limitation.

But in the towns of Tomotley, Tenase, Chota and Setico, in the valleys of Chilhowee and Hiwassee, the Cherokees had decided to stop Spearfinger.  A Grand Council was called and the "adawehis," the medicine men, came.  "We know this," they said.  "She comes in the guise of an old woman, and she is drawn to smoke.  We have seen her dancing on the ledges of Sanigilagi, and we know that her forefinger is a magic knife for removing livers, but we do not know how to kill her!  Her flesh is like stone."

The medicine men recommended that a trap be set.  "Let us build a great fire with green wood," they said. "Let us dig a great pit and hide it with brush. When she comes, we will drive her into the pit."

"Then, what?" said the villagers.  The medicine shrugged. "What choice have we?  Perhaps we will get lucky!"  So, they dug a deep pit and lined it with sharp stakes.  They piled green saplings on the fire, and a thick, acrid smoke rose in the air.  The warriors armed themselves and waited.

On Chilhowee mountain, Spearfinger saw the smoke and screamed with glee.  She raced down the mountain, her feet causing boulders to crack.  She left a trail of broken stone and shattered trees until she came to the river.  Then, her gait became slow and faltering.  Beneath the blanket, the deadly finger twitched in anticipation.  As she walked along the river towards the village, Spearfinger gloated, thinking of fresh, young livers. 

The elders saw the old woman creeping down the trail.  "She is coming,"  they said to the young men who lay in ambush before the hidden pit.  "Be ready."  Then, the old woman hobbled nearer.  The young men laughed. "Is this our terrible enemy?" they said. "Don't be fooled," said the adawihi.  "That is Spearfinger."  The young men became embarrassed.  "Surely we are not expected to attack this poor old grandmother!" they protested. 

Some even thought that they recognized her.  "I think she is one of the Bird Clan," said one young man. "What will her family say if we kill her?"

Creeping along the trail, the old witch chuckled.  So easy to fool, these stupid villagers.  Seeing the elders watching her, she called out in a voice of pitiful entreaty. "Help a poor old granny!  I have walked too far and need to rest.  Surely, there is one among you who will give me a place to sleep and a little corn mush.  The old head sunk on the frail bosom, then tilted sideways as the slyly watched the elders. It was then that the adawihi threw his spear.

The spear shattered on the old hag's stony breast, and the astonished hunters saw the shriveled body suddenly stiffen.  The old eyes glittered and Spearfinger laughed.  "So you've seen through old granny's disguise."  There was no fear in the old hag.  She withdrew her hand from beneath the blanket and brandished the stone finger.   Then, she rushed head-long down the trail straight toward the frightened old men who turned and fled.  Cackling, the old woman charged straight on...straight into the pit.

The stakes did her no harm. Certainly, a human body would have been horribly mangled, but the deadly sourwood poles shattered beneath the old woman's weight.  As she stood among the broken poles, a cloud of arrows struck her, broke on her rocky flesh and fell at her feet.  Spearfinger swatted at the arrows as though they were irksome gnats. 

Seeing that pretense was futile, she became the malevolent thing that she was.  Repeatedly, she raced to the pit's brink, attempting to slash the warriors who stared down at her.  Finally she stood, joyfully laughing at the futile arrows.  "I have wasted much time in pretense," she said.  I can drive you from your lodges, leave you trembling like the frightened rabbits in the forest. I can kill you at my leisure"

"Here, fools!" she shouted.  "Send your spears, arrows and your deadly knives!"  She offered her breast to the anxious warriors.  Her mocking laughter rising from the pit as the shattered weapons continued to rain around her.

"When the arrows are gone and the spear points are broken, she is going to climb out of there," said one warrior.  "Then, what do we do?"

"Livers!" said Spearfinger, surveying her captors. "So many livers!" She sang, her voice rising from the pit in a taunting whine:

Uwe la na tsiku. Su sa sai
Liver, I eat it.  Su sa sai

Uwe la na tsiku. Su sa sai

It was then that the birds came.  The old stories say that there were only two: the titmouse and the chickadee. Time and again, the two birds flitted through the smoke, singing.  They were not ordinary birds, but celestial beings.  In the time when Spearfinger existed, all creatures spoke, and the titmouse and the chickadee had come to aid the Cherokees, to tell them how to kill this monster.  The titmouse sang, "un, un, un," which to the villagers sounded like "heart, heart, heart."  Assuming that the titmouse wanted them to shoot at Spearfinger's heart, their best marksmen repeatedly aimed at the old hag's breast.  Angered by their lack of success, the marksmen captured the titmouse and cut its tongue out and named it "the liar."

When released, the injured bird flew straight up, vanishing in the sky.  It had returned to the Upper World and would never return.  The chickadee was more specific.  Flying directly to Spearfinger, the bird came to rest on the witch's hand.  The marksmen understood immediately, and within seconds Spearfinger's hand was repeatedly impaled by arrows.  A pulsing stream of blood erupted from the shattered flesh, and as the Cherokees watched, Utlunta sank to the earth.  Lying among the broken spears and shattered arrow points, she laughed at her enemies.  The deadly forefinger twitched and was still.

On the thunder mountain, Stone Man saw the pall of smoke that hung over Chilhowee, and heard the shout of triumph that rose from Spearfinger's pit.  Later, when he saw the hand impaled on a post outside the village, he knew what had happened.  He understood that he had been given a warning.  Stone Man shrugged.  They could not stop him so easily.  True, he had a flaw, but then, no man knew it.  Stone Man sang as he walked; he sang of hunting and war and livers.

The Cherokees honor the chickadee.  Although it, too, returned to the Upper World when man's cruelty became unbearable, it's inferior, earthly descendant is honored by the name, tsi kilili, the "truth teller."  Alas, the poor titmouse!  Certainly, it does not deserve to be branded "the liar," for it did not lie.  It simply was not specific enough.

CREDITS:  Our thanks to Gary Carden,

Submitted by: Carole Eveland