Story-Tellers Myth-Keepers and the Story-Telling Tradition
By tribal law, traditional tales or stories were only told to other Cherokee. Members of the tribe were invited by the story-teller to hear the stories, which often featured animals, birds, supernatural beings, or the exploits of legendary tribesmen and women. Cherokee tales were passed down orally from generation to generation and some of the stories had mythic qualities themselves, for it was said that true myth-keepers could transform into the animal about which they spoke!
James Mooney (1861-1921) was author of one of the best published sources of Cherokee language, myths, stories, religious practices, and culture, Myths of the Cherokee and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. A self-trained ethnologist, Mooney, as a representative of the U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, studied the Eastern Cherokee in 1887 and 1888 and was able to convince many of their shamans and storytellers to relate to him the most psopular stories and explain the nuances of the cultural practices of the Eastern tribes. He first published the myths in 1900 in the 19th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology and was regarded by colleagues as a leading expert on Native Americans.
A’yun’ini, or “Swimmer,” (1835-1899) was a prominent and highly regarded Eastern Cherokee shaman and story-teller who related hundreds of traditional stories to James Mooney. Mooney claims that three-fourths of the myths he recorded originated from “Swimmer.” A’yun’ini served in the U.S. Civil War as 2nd Sgt. of the Cherokee Company A, 69th North Carolina Confederate Infantry, Thomas Legion. A central figure in the local tribe, A’yun’ini was described by Mooney as having a mind that “was a storehouse of Indian Tradition.” A’yun’ini was convinced to share his vast knowledge and record the sacred formulas and medicinal plants so they would not be lost to history as western medicine became popular among Native Americans.
Aya’sta, (1838-1916) whose English name was Sally Terrapin, was a southeastern traditional basket-maker and story-teller who assisted James Mooney in recording the oral histories and songs of the Cherokee. Mooney relied heavily on her version of “How the World Was Made” for his publication. The widow of one medicine man and mother of another, Aya’sta was the only woman privileged to speak in council among the eastern Cherokee and was considered by Mooney as “one of the best traditionalists in the tribe.”
The legend of the “Tlanuwa,” or the “Great Mythic Hawk,” is a Cherokee variation of the Thunderbird and Piasa Bird myths found in other Native American cultures. Tlanuwa were a pair of immense raptors said to live in the caves of a high cliff just below the mouth of Citco Creek on the north bank of the Little Tennessee River in Blount County. According to legend, they flew up and down the river in search of prey, even coming into villages and carrying off dogs and small children. In one famous incident, Daniel Boone claimed to have seen a giant raptor on the Tennessee River near where the Cherokee claimed the Tlanuwa made its home.
The Thunderbird is one of the most dominant icons in Native American art. Descriptions of them have been faithfully recorded for centuries in totems, carvings, pottery, cave art, and in the ancient stories of Native Americans.
The belief that sacred ponds, streams, wells, lakes, and rivers were entryways to the “otherworld” was a significant and ancient belief among many peoples and this is also true of the Cherokee. Tales of water lore and the close association between water and the control of weather has been the subject of many Native American legends, and is particularly important to the Cherokee, whose homeland was surrounded and dominated by waterways.
The use of water as a healing agent is also prominently featured in some of the earliest Cherokee beliefs. The Cherokees believed that moving water could purify and strengthen an individual and to “go to the water” for purification was a significant part of many traditional Cherokee rituals. Thus Cherokees lived by the water spiritually, psychologically and physically.
Click here to read The Story of Lover's Leap, undated, Tennessee Postcard Collection
U’tlun’ta – The Spear-Finger
The Cherokee legend of U’tlun’ta originates from East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. U’tlun’ta literally translates as “he (or she) has it sharp,” and refers to the extremely sharp, long, pointed index finger U’tlun’ta had on her right hand. Ut’lun’ta, or “Spear-finger,” was described as having the appearance of a old woman, but possessing stone-covered skin and her namesake stony finger that resembled an awl or spearhead.
She was said to have great powers over stone, and had the power to easily lift heavy stones, “cement them together by merely striking one against another,” and even used her powers to build a bridge through the air from Tree Rock on Hiwassee to Whiteside Mountain on Blue Ridge.
U’tlun’ta was best known for her ravenous appetite for livers, which she would take from any person unfortunate enough to cross her. She would often change her appearance to resemble a family member, or coax children to come near then use her finger, which was as sharp as an obsidian knife, to slice out their livers.
A great council was called and resolved to destroy Spear-Finger before she could cause further harm. A hunting party dug a pitfall across a path, covering it with grass and dirt. An old woman approached, hiding her right hand in her blanket. When she reached the pitfall she fell into the deep into the trap, at once revealing her true nature and unleashing her spear-finger, “reaching out in every direction for someone to stab.”
The hunters leapt into action and began to shower her with arrows, but none could pierce her stony skin. A titmouse landed nearby and began to sing, “un, un, un” which the men believed meant “u’nahu,” or “heart” and all aimed for her heart, but to no avail as the arrows still bounced off her stone skin. They continued to fight her hopelessly until a Chickadee, Tsi-kilili, landed on her right hand; the warriors took this as an omen that U’tlun’ta’s heart must be in her right hand, “which she kept doubled into a fist.” All the warriors took their aim and a lucky arrow struck her where her hand joined her wrist, severing her heart and killing her instantly, finally ending the curse of U’tlun’ta.
In the late 19th Century, the Cherokee stated the remains of the structures she built out of stone were still visible, and they referred to a site in Blount County as, “U’tluntun’yi,” or the “Spear-Finger Place,” because it was a place she was known to frequent.