In Cherokee mythology, as in that of Indian tribes generally, there is no essential difference between men and animals. In the primal genesis period they seem to be completely undifferentiated, and we find all creatures alike living and working together in harmony and mutual helpfulness until man, by his aggressiveness and disregard for the rights of the others, provokes their hostility, when insects, birds, fishes, reptiles, and fourfooted beasts join forces against him. Henceforth their lives are apart, but the difference is always one of degree only. The animals, like the people, are organized into tribes and have like them their chiefs and townhouses, their councils and ballplays, and the same hereafter in the Darkening land of Usûñhi′yĭ. Man is still the paramount power, and hunts and slaughters the others as his own necessities compel, but is obliged to satisfy the animal tribes in every instance, very much as a murder is compounded for, according to the Indian system, by “covering the bones of the dead” with presents for the bereaved relatives.
This pardon to the hunter is made the easier through a peculiar doctrine of reincarnation, according to which, as explained by the shamans, there is assigned to every animal a definite life term which can not be curtailed by violent means. If it is killed before the expiration of the allotted time the death is only temporary and the body is immediately resurrected in its proper shape from the blood drops, and the animal continues its existence until the end of the predestined period, when the body is finally dissolved and the liberated spirit goes to join its kindred shades in the Darkening land. This idea appears in the story of the bear man and in the belief concerning the Little Deer. Death is thus but a temporary accident and the killing a mere minor crime. By some priests it is held that there are seven successive reanimations before the final end.
Certain supernatural personages, Kana′tĭ and Tsulʻkălû′ (see the myths), have dominion over the animals, and are therefore regarded as the distinctive gods of the hunter. Kana′tĭ at one time kept the game animals, as well as the pestiferous insects, shut up in a cave under ground, from which they were released by his undutiful sons. The primeval animals—the actors in the animal myths and the predecessors of the existing species—are believed to have been much larger, stronger, and cleverer than their successors of the present day. In these myths we find the Indian explanation of certain peculiarities of form, color, or habit, and the various animals are always consistently represented as acting in accordance with their well-known characteristics.
First and most prominent in the animal myths is the Rabbit (Tsistu), who figures always as a trickster and deceiver, generally malicious, but often beaten at his own game by those whom he had intended to victimize. The connection of the rabbit with the dawn god and the relation of the Indian myths to the stories current among the southern negroes are discussed in another place. Ball players while in training are forbidden to eat the flesh of the rabbit, because this animal so easily becomes confused in running. On the other hand, their spies seek opportunity to strew along the path which must be taken by their rivals a soup made of rabbit hamstrings, with the purpose Of rendering them timorous in action.
In a ball game between the birds and the fourfooted animals (see story) the Bat, which took sides with the birds, is said to have won the victory for his party by his superior dodging abilities. For this reason the wings or sometimes the stuffed skin of the bat are tied to the implements used in the game to insure success for the players. According to the same myth the Flying Squirrel (Tewa) also aided in securing the victory, and hence both these animals are still invoked by the ball player. The meat of the common gray squirrel (sălâ′lĭ) is forbidden to rheumatic patients, on account of the squirrel’s habit of assuming a cramped position when eating. The stripes upon the back of the ground squirrel (kiyu′ʻga) are the mark of scratches made by the angry animals at a memorable council in which he took it upon himself to say a good word for the archenemy, Man (see “Origin of Disease and Medicine”). The peculiarities of the mink (sûñgĭ) are accounted for by another story.
The buffalo, the largest game animal of America, was hunted in the southern Allegheny region until almost the close of the last century, the particular species being probably that known in the West as the wood or mountain buffalo. The name in use among the principal gulf tribes was practically the same, and can not be analyzed, viz, Cherokee, yûñsû′; Hichitee, ya′nasi; Creek, yĕna′sa; Choctaw, yanash. Although the flesh of the buffalo was eaten, its skin dressed for blankets and bed coverings, its long hair woven into belts, and its horns carved into spoons, it is yet strangely absent from Cherokee folklore. So far as is known it is mentioned in but a single one of the sacred formulas, in which a person under treatment for rheumatism is forbidden to eat the meat, touch the skin, or use a spoon made from the horn of the buffalo, upon the ground of an occult connection between the habitual cramped attitude of a rheumatic and the natural “hump” of that animal.
The elk is known, probably by report, under the name of aʻwĭ′ e′gwa, “great deer”, but there is no myth or folklore in connection with it.
The deer, aʻwĭ′, which is still common in the mountains, was the principal dependence of the Cherokee hunter, and is consequently prominent in myth, folklore, and ceremonial. One of the seven gentes of the tribe is named from it (Ani′-Kawĭ′, “Deer People”). According to a myth given elsewhere, the deer won his horns in a successful race with the rabbit. Rheumatism is usually ascribed to the work of revengeful deer ghosts, which the hunter has neglected to placate, while on the other hand the aid of the deer is invoked against frostbite, as its feet are believed to be immune from injury by frost. The wolf, the fox, and the opossum are also invoked for this purpose, and for the same reason. When the redroot (Ceanothus americanus) puts forth its leaves the people say the young fawns are then in the mountains. On killing a deer the hunter always cuts out the hamstring from the hind quarter and throws it away, for fear that if he ate it he would thereafter tire easily in traveling.
The powerful chief of the deer tribe is the A[ʻ]wĭ′ Usdi′, or “Little Deer,” who is invisible to all except the greatest masters of the hunting secrets, and can be wounded only by the hunter who has supplemented years of occult study with frequent fasts and lonely vigils. The Little Deer keeps constant protecting watch over his subjects, and sees well to it that not one is ever killed in wantonness. When a deer is shot by the hunter the Little Deer knows it at once and is instantly at the spot. Bending low his head he asks of the blood stains upon the ground if they have heard—i. e., if the hunter has asked pardon for the life that he has taken. If the formulistic prayer has been made, all is well, because the necessary sacrifice has been atoned for; but if otherwise, the Little Deer tracks the hunter to his house by the blood drops along the trail, and, unseen and unsuspected, puts into his body the spirit of rheumatism that shall rack him with aches and pains from that time henceforth. As seen at rare intervals—perhaps once in a long lifetime—the Little Deer is pure white and about the size of a small dog, has branching antlers, and is always in company with a large herd of deer. Even though shot by the master-hunter, he comes to life again, being immortal, but the fortunate huntsman who can thus make prize of his antlers has in them an unfailing talisman that brings him success in the chase forever after. The smallest portion of one of those horns of the Little Deer, when properly consecrated, attracts the deer to the hunter, and when exposed from the wrapping dazes them so that they forget to run and thus become an easy prey. Like the Ulûñsû′tĭ stone, it is a dangerous prize when not treated with proper respect, and is—or was—kept always in a secret place away from the house to guard against sacrilegious handling.
Somewhat similar talismanic power attached to the down from the young antler of the deer when properly consecrated. So firm was the belief that it had influence over “anything about a deer” that eighty and a hundred years ago even white traders used to bargain with the Indians for such charms in order to increase their store of deerskins by drawing the trade to themselves. The faith in the existence of the miraculous Little Deer is almost as strong and universal to-day among the older Cherokee as is the belief in a future life.
The bears (yânû) are transformed Cherokee of the old clan of the Ani′-Tsâ′gûhĭ. Their chief is the White Bear, who lives at Kuwâ′hĭ, “Mulberry place,” one of the high peaks of the Great Smoky mountains, near to the enchanted lake of Atagâ′hĭ, to which the wounded bears go to be cured of their hurts. Under Kuwâ′hĭ and each of three other peaks in the same mountain region the bears have townhouses, where they congregate and hold dances every fall before retiring to their dens for the winter. Being really human, they can talk if they only would, and once a mother bear was heard singing to her cub in words which the hunter understood. There is one variety known as kalâs′-gûnăhi′ta, “long hams,” described as a large black bear with long legs and small feet, which is always lean, and which the hunter does not care to shoot, possibly on account of its leanness. It is believed that new-born cubs are hairless, like mice.
The wolf (wa′ʻya) is revered as the hunter and watchdog of Kana′tĭ, and the largest gens in the tribe bears the name of Ani′-wa′ʻya, “Wolf people.” The ordinary Cherokee will never kill one if he can possibly avoid it, but will let the animal go by unharmed, believing that the kindred of a slain wolf will surely revenge his death, and that the weapon with which the deed is done will be rendered worthless for further shooting until cleaned and exorcised by a medicine man. Certain persons, however, having knowledge of the proper atonement rites, may kill wolves with impunity, and are hired for this purpose by others who have suffered from raids upon their fish traps or their stock. Like the eagle killer (see “The Bird Tribes”), the professional wolf killer, after killing one of these animals, addresses to it a prayer in which he seeks to turn aside the vengeance of the tribe by laying the burden of blame upon the people of some other settlement. He then unscrews the barrel of his gun and inserts into it seven small sourwood rods heated over the fire, and allows it to remain thus overnight in the running stream; in the morning the rods are taken out and the barrel is thoroughly dried and cleaned.
The dog (giʻlĭ′), although as much a part of Indian life among the Cherokee as in other tribes, hardly appears in folklore. One myth makes him responsible for the milky way; another represents him as driving the wolf from the comfortable house fire and taking the place for himself. He figures also in connection with the deluge. There is no tradition of the introduction of the horse (sâ′gwălĭ,asâ′gwălihû′, “a pack or burden”) or of the cow (wa′ʻka, from the Spanish, vaca). The hog is called sĭkwă, this being originally the name of the opossum, which somewhat resembles it in expression, and which is now distinguished as sĭkwă utse′tstĭ, “grinning sĭkwă.” In the same way the sheep, another introduced animal, is called aʻwĭ′ unăde′na, “woolly deer”; the goat, aʻwĭ′ ahănu′lăhĭ, “bearded deer,” and the mule, sâ′gwă′lĭ digû′lanăhi′ta, “long-eared horse.” The cat, also obtained from the whites, is called wesă, an attempt at the English “pussy.” When it purrs by the fireside, the children say it is counting in Cherokee, “ta′ladu′, nûñ′gĭ, ta′ladu′, nûñ′gĭ,” “sixteen, four, sixteen, four.” The elephant, which a few of the Cherokee have seen in shows, is called by them kăma′mă u′tănû, “great butterfly,” from the supposed resemblance of its long trunk and flapping ears to the proboscis and wings of that insect. The anatomical peculiarities of the opossum, of both sexes, are the subject of much curious speculation among the Indians, many of whom believe that its young are produced without any help from the male. It occurs in one or two of the minor myths.
The fox (tsu′ʻlă) is mentioned in one of the formulas, but does not appear in the tribal folklore. The black fox is known by a different name (inâ′lĭ). The odor of the skunk (dĭlă′) is believed to keep off contagious diseases, and the scent bag is therefore taken out and hung over the doorway, a small hole being pierced in it in order that the contents may ooze out upon the timbers. At times, as in the smallpox epidemic of 1866, the entire body of the animal was thus hung up, and in some cases, as an additional safeguard, the meat was cooked and eaten and the oil rubbed over the skin of the person. The underlying idea is that the fetid smell repels the disease spirit, and upon the same principle the buzzard, which is so evidently superior to carrion smells, is held to be powerful against the same diseases.
The beaver (dâ′yĭ), by reason of its well-known gnawing ability, against which even the hardest wood is not proof, is invoked on behalf of young children just getting their permanent teeth. According to the little formula which is familiar to nearly every mother in the tribe, when the loosened milk tooth is pulled out or drops out of itself, the child runs with it around the house, repeating four times, “Dâ′yĭ, skĭntă′ (Beaver, put a new tooth into my jaw)” after which he throws the tooth upon the roof of the house.
In a characteristic song formula to prevent frostbite the traveler, before starting out on a cold winter morning, rubs his feet in the ashes of the fire and sings a song of four verses, by means of which, according to the Indian idea, he acquires in turn the cold-defying powers of the wolf, deer, fox, and opossum, four animals whose feet, it is held, are never frostbitten. After each verse he imitates the cry and the action of the animal. The words used are archaic in form and may be rendered “I become a real wolf,” etc. The song runs:
Tsûñ′wa′ʻya-ya′ (repeated four times), wa + a! (prolonged howl). (Imitates a wolf pawing the ground with his feet.)
Tsûñ′-ka′wi-ye′ (repeated four times), sauh! sauh! sauh! sauh! (Imitates call and jumping of a deer.)
Tsûñ′-tsu′ʻla-ya′ (repeated four times), gaih! gaih! gaih! gaih! (Imitates barking and scratching of a fox.)
Tsûñ′-sĭ′kwa-ya′ (repeated four times), kĭ +. (Imitates the cry of an opossum when cornered, and throws his head back as that animal does when feigning death.)
Source: James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee, Extract from the Nineteenth Annual Report of the American Bureau of Ethnology.
Language Group: Cherokee (Tsalagi Gawonihisdi) is an Iroquoian language spoken by the Cherokee people. It is the only Southern Iroquoianl anguage and differs significantly from the other Iroquoian languages.