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, 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
(see story, “Origin of Disease and Medicine”). 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, “covering the bones of the dead” with presents for the bereaved
This pardon to the hunter is made the easier through a peculiar doctrine of
reincarnation, according to which, as explained the shamans, there is assigned
to every animal a definite life term which can not be curtailed 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 thepredestined 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 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 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 their rivals a soup
made of rabbit hamstrings, with the purpose Of rendering them timorous in
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
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 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 the angry animals at a memorable council in which he tookit 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
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 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 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 the hunter who has supplemented years of occult study withfrequent 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 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 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 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 (see number 50), 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 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
(see story, “Origin of the Bear”). 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 (see number 69), 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 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 a
medicine man. Certain persons, however, having knowledge of the proper
atonement rites, may kill wolves with impunity, and are hired for this purpose
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 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 the fireside, the children say it is counting inCherokee, “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 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
The fox (tsu′ʻlă) is mentioned in one of the formulas, but does not appear in the
tribal folklore. The black fox is known 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
The beaver (dâ′yĭ), 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, 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 awolf 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