Winged creatures of all kinds are classed under the generic term of
aninâ′hilidâ′hĭ (flyers). Birds are called, alike in the singular and plural, tsi′skwa,
the term being generally held to exclude the domestic fowls introduced the
whites. When it is necessary to make the distinction they are mentioned,
respectively, as inăgĕhĭ (living in the woods), and uluñni′ta (tame). The robin is
called tsiskwa′gwă, a name which can not be analyzed, while the little sparrow is
called tsiskwâ′yă (the real or principal bird), perhaps, in accord with a principle
in Indian nomenclature, on account of its wide distribution. As in other
languages, many of the bird names are onomatopes, as waʻhuhu′ (the screech
owl), u′guku′ (the hooting owl), wagulĭ′ (the whippoorwill), kâgû (the crow),
gŭgwĕ′ (the quail), huhu (the yellow mocking-bird), tsĭ′kĭlilĭ′ (the chickadee),
sa′sa′ (the goose). The turtledove is called gulĕ′-diskaʻnihĭ′ (it cries for acorns),
on account of the resemblance of its cry to the sound of the word for acorn
(gulĕ′). The meadow lark is called năkwĭsĭ′ (star), on account of the appearance
of its tail when spread out as it soars. The nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) is called
tsulie′na (deaf), and is supposed to be without hearing, possibly on account of its
fearless disregard for man’s presence. Certain diseases are diagnosed the
doctors as due to birds, either revengeful bird ghosts, bird feathers about the
house, or bird shadows falling upon the patient from overhead.
The eagle (awâ′hĭlĭ) is the great sacred bird of the Cherokee, as of nearly all our
native tribes, and figures prominently in their ceremonial ritual, especially in allthings relating to war. The particular species prized was the golden or war eagle
(Aquila chrysætus), called the Cherokee the “pretty-feathered eagle,” on
account of its beautiful tail feathers, white, tipped with black, which were in
such great demand for decorative and ceremonial purposes that among the
western tribes a single tail was often rated as equal in value to a horse. Among
the Cherokee in the old times the killing of an eagle was an event which
concerned the whole settlement, and could be undertaken only the
professional eagle killer, regularly chosen for the purpose on account of his
knowledge of 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. It is told of one man upon the reservation that having deliberately
killed an eagle in defiance of the ordinances he was constantly haunted
dreams of fierce eagles swooping down upon him, until the nightmare was
finally exorcised after a long course of priestly treatment. In 1890 there was but
one eagle killer remaining among the East Cherokee. It does not appear that the
eagle was ever captured alive as among the plains tribes.
The eagle must be killed only in the winter or late fall after the crops were
gathered and the snakes had retired to their dens. If killed in the summertime a
frost would come to destroy the corn, while the songs of the Eagle dance, when
the feathers were brought home, would so anger the snakes that they would
become doubly dangerous. Consequently the Eagle songs were never sung until
after the snakes had gone to sleep for the winter.
When the people of a town had decided upon an Eagle dance the eagle killer was
called in, frequently from a distant settlement, to procure the feathers for the
occasion. He was paid for his services from offerings made later at the dance,
and as the few professionals guarded their secrets carefully from outsiders their
business was a quite profitable one. After some preliminary preparation the eagle
killer sets out alone for the mountains, taking with him his gun or bow and
arrows. Having reached the mountains, he goes through a vigil of prayer and
fasting, possibly lasting four days, after which he hunts until he succeeds in
killing a deer. Then, placing the body in a convenient exposed situation upon
one of the highest cliffs, he conceals himself near and begins to sing in a low
undertone the songs to call down the eagles from the sky. When the eagle alights
upon the carcass, which will be almost immediately if the singer understands his
business, he shoots it, and then standing over the dead bird, he addresses to it aprayer in which he begs it not to seek vengeance upon his tribe, because it is not
a Cherokee, but a Spaniard (Askwa′nĭ) that has done the deed. The selection of
such a vicarious victim of revenge is evidence at once of the antiquity of the
prayer in its present form and of the enduring impression which the cruelties of
the early Spanish adventurers made upon the natives.

Feather wand of Eagle dance made John Ax

The prayer ended, he leaves the dead eagle where it fell and makes all haste to
the settlement, where the people are anxiously expecting his return. On meeting
the first warriors he says simply, “A snowbird has died,” and passes on at once
to his own quarters, his work being now finished. The announcement is made in
this form in order to insure against the vengeance of any eagles that might
overhear, the little snowbird being considered too insignificant a creature to be
Having waited four days to allow time for the insect parasites to leave the body,
the hunters delegated for the purpose go out to bring in the feathers. On arriving
at the place they strip the body of the large tail and wing feathers, which they
wrap in a fresh deerskin brought with them, and then return to the settlement,
leaving the body of the dead eagle upon the ground, together with that of theslain deer, the latter being intended as a sacrifice to the eagle spirits. On reaching
the settlement, the feathers, still wrapped in the deerskin, are hung up in a small,
round hut built for this special purpose near the edge of the dance ground
(detsănûñ′lĭ) and known as the place “where the feathers are kept,” or feather
house. Some settlements had two such feather houses, one at each end of the
dance ground. The Eagle dance was held on the night of the same day on which
the feathers were brought in, all the necessary arrangements having been made
beforehand. In the meantime, as the feathers were supposed to be hungry after
their journey, a dish of venison and corn was set upon the ground below them
and they were invited to eat. The body of a flaxbird or scarlet tanager (Piranga
rubra) was also hung up with the feathers for the same purpose. The food thus
given to the feathers was disposed of after the dance, as described in another
The eagle being regarded as a great ada′wehĭ, only the greatest warriors and
those versed in the sacred ordinances would dare to wear the feathers or to carry
them in the dance. Should any person in the settlement dream of eagles or eagle
feathers he must arrange for an Eagle dance, with the usual vigil and fasting, at
the first opportunity; otherwise some one of his family will die. Should the insect
parasites which infest the feathers of the bird in life get upon a man they will
breed a skin disease which is sure to develop, even though it may be latent for
years. It is for this reason that the body of the eagle is allowed to remain four
days upon the ground before being brought into the settlement.
The raven (kâ′lănû) is occasionally seen in the mountains, but is not prominent
in folk belief, excepting in connection with the grewsome tales of the Raven
Mocker (q. v.). In former times its name was sometimes assumed as a war title.
The crow, so prominent in other tribal mythologies, does not seem to appear in
that of the Cherokee. Three varieties of owls are recognized, each under a
different name, viz: tskĭlĭ′, the dusky horned owl (Bubo virginianus saturatus);
u′guku′, the barred or hooting owl (Syrnium nebulosum), and waʻhuhu′, the
screech owl (Megascops asio). The first of these names signifies a witch, the
others being onomatopes. Owls and other night-crying birds are believed to be
embodied ghosts or disguised witches, and their cry is dreaded as a sound of evil
omen. If the eyes of a child be bathed with water in which one of the long wing
or tail feathers of an owl has been soaked, the child will be able to keep awake
all night. The feather must be found chance, and not procured intentionallyfor the purpose. On the other hand, an application of water in which the feather
of a blue jay, procured in the same way, has been soaked will make the child an
early riser.
The buzzard (sulĭ′) is said to have had a part in shaping the earth, as was narrated
in the genesis myth. It is reputed to be a doctor among birds, and is respected
accordingly, although its feathers are never worn ball players, for fear of
becoming bald. Its own baldness is accounted for a vulgar story. As it thrives
upon carrion and decay, it is held to be immune from sickness, especially of a
contagious character, and a small quantity of its flesh eaten, or of the soup used
as a wash, is believed to be a sure preventive of smallpox, and was used for this
purpose during the smallpox epidemic among the East Cherokee in 1866.
According to the Wahnenauhi manuscript, it is said also that a buzzard feather
placed over the cabin door will keep out witches. In treating gunshot wounds,
the medicine is blown into the wound through a tube cut from a buzzard quill
and some of the buzzard’s down is afterwards laid over the spot.
There is very little concerning hawks, excepting as regards the great mythic
hawk, the Tlă′nuwă′. The tlă′nuwă′ usdi′, or “little tlă′nuwă,” is described as a
bird about as large as a turkey and of a grayish blue color, which used to follow
the flocks of wild pigeons, flying overhead and darting down occasionally upon
a victim, which it struck and killed with its sharp breast and ate upon the wing,
without alighting. It is probably the goshawk (Astur atricapillus).
The common swamp gallinule, locally known as mudhen or didapper (Gallinula
galeata), is called diga′gwanĭ′ (lame or crippled), on account of its habit of
flying only for a very short distance at a time. In the Diga′gwanĭ′ dance the
performers sing the name of the bird and endeavor to imitate its halting
movements. The dagûl′kû, or white-fronted goose (Anser albifrons), appears in
connection with the myth of the origin of tobacco. The feathers of the tskwâyĭ,
the great white heron or American egret (Herodias egretta), are worn ball
players, and this bird probably the “swan” whose white wing was used as a
peace emblem in ancient times.


A rare bird said to have been seen occasionally upon the reservation many years
ago was called the curious name of nûñdă-dikanĭ′, “it looks at the sun,” “sun-
gazer.” It is described as resembling a blue crane, and may possibly have been
the Floridus cerulea, or little blue heron. Another infrequent visitor, whichsometimes passed over the mountain country in company with flocks of wild
geese, was the gu′wisguwĭ′, so called from its cry. It is described as resembling a
large snipe, with yellow legs and feet unwebbed, and is thought to visit Indian
Territory at intervals. It is chiefly notable from the fact that the celebrated chief
John Ross derives his Indian name, Gu′wisguwĭ′, from this bird, the name being
perpetuated in Cooweescoowee district of the Cherokee Nation in the West.
Another chance visitant, concerning which there is much curious speculation
among the older men of the East Cherokee, was called tsun′digwûntsu′ʻgĭ or
tsun′digwûn′tskĭ, “forked,” referring to the tail. It appeared but once, for a short
season, about forty years ago, and has not been seen since. It is said to have been
pale blue, with red in places, and nearly the size of a crow, and to have had a
long forked tail like that of a fish. It preyed upon hornets, which it took upon the
wing, and also feasted upon the larvæ in the nests. Appearing unexpectedly and
as suddenly disappearing, it was believed to be not a bird but a transformed red-
horse fish (Moxostoma, Cherokee âligă′), a theory borne out the red spots and
the long, forked tail. It is even maintained that about the time those birds first
appeared some hunters on Oconaluftee saw seven of them sitting on the limb of
a tree and they were still shaped like a red-horse, although they already had
wings and feathers. It was undoubtedly the scissor-tail or swallow-tailed
flycatcher (Milvulus forficatus), which belongs properly in Texas and the
adjacent region, but strays occasionally into the eastern states.
On account of the red throat appendage of the turkey, somewhat resembling the
goitrous growth known in the South as “kernels” (Cherokee, dule′tsĭ), the
feathers of this bird are not worn ball players, neither is the neck allowed to
be eaten children or sick persons, under the fear that a growth of “kernels”
would be the result. The meat of the ruffed grouse, locally known as the
pheasant (Bonasa umbellus), is tabued to a pregnant woman, because this bird
hatches a large brood, but loses most of them before maturity. Under a stricter
construction of the theory this meat is forbidden to a woman until she is past
child bearing.
The redbird, tatsu′hwă, is believed to have been originally the daughter of the
Sun (see the story). The huhu, or yellow mocking-bird, occurs in several stories.
It is regarded as something supernatural, possibly on account of its imitative
powers, and its heart is given to children to make them quick to learn.The chickadee (Parus carolinensis), tsĭkĭlilĭ′, and the tufted titmouse, (Parus
bicolor), utsu′ʻgĭ, or u′stûtĭ, are both regarded as news bringers, but the one is
venerated as a truth teller while the other is scoffed at as a lying messenger, for
reasons which appear in the story of Nûñyunu′wĭ (q. v.). When the tsĭkĭlilĭ′
perches on a branch near the house and chirps its song it is taken as an omen that
an absent friend will soon be heard from or that a secret enemy is plotting
mischief. Many stories are told in confirmation of this belief, among which may
be instanced that of Tom Starr, a former noted outlaw of the Cherokee Nation of
the West, who, on one occasion, was about to walk unwittingly into an ambush
prepared for him along a narrow trail, when he heard the warning note of the
tsĭkĭlilĭ′, and, turning abruptly, ran up the side of the ridge and succeeded in
escaping with his life, although hotly pursued his enemies.


Myths of the Cherokee, James Mooney