Cherokee: Creation and the First Men

The Cherokee myth on how the earth was formed, the first men, the origin of hunting and gathering, and the Thunder Twins. Stories that have been passed down from generation to generation.

Creation of the Earth

Long ago, there was no earth but only water.  The animal spirits lived in Gälûñ’lätï (spirit world in the sky, a vault made of solid rock) but it was becoming very overcrowded, and the animals were curious to see what was beneath the ocean.  At last, 220px-Fainsislandpage35spidera little water-beetle named Dayuni’si (“Beaver’s Grand Child”) offered to go see if it could learn.  Dayuni’si darted in every direction of the surface of the water but could find no place to rest.  Then it dived to the bottom and came up with some soft mud, which began to grow and spread on every side until it became the island which we call the earth.  It was afterward fastened to the sky with four cords at the cardinal points, but no one remembers who did this.

(It is believed that when the world grows old and worn out, the people will die and the cords will break and the earth will then sink down into the ocean; the Cherokee are afraid of this fate.)

At first the earth was flat and very soft and wet.  The animals were anxious to get down to the new earth, and sent out different birds to see if it was yet dry, but they found no place to alight and flew back again to Gälûñ’lätï.  At last it seemed to be time that the earth had begun to dry, and they sent out the Great Buzzard, the father of all the buzzards we see now.  He flew all over the earth, low down near the ground, and it was still soft. When he finally reached the Cherokee country, he was very tired.  His wings began to flap and strike the ground, and wherever they struck the earth he made a valley, and where they turned up again he made a mountain.  When the animals above saw this, they were afraid that the whole world would be mountains, so they called him back, but this is why the Cherokee country remains full of mountains to this day.

At long last, the earth was dry so the animals started to come down but it was dark.  So the animals got the sun and made it so that it passes just overhead the earth every day from east to west.  They set the sun too low though, and it scorched the red crawfish, turning it bright red and spoiling its meat (which is why the Cherokee do not eat it).  So the animals elevated the sun one handbreadth higher in the air but it was still to hot to survive.  So they elevated the sun again, and again, and again, until the sun was seven handbreadths higher than the earth, just under the sky arch.  (This is why the conjurers/Cherokee Medicine People call the highest place Gûlkwâ’gine Di’gälûñ’lätiyûñ’, “the seventh height,” because it is seven hand-breadths above the earth.)  Every day the sun goes along under this arch.

The plants and animals that began to make the new earth their home were told (it is forgotten by whom) that they must stay awake for seven days and seven nights if they wanted to be rewarded with a gift.  Many animals and plants could not make it and fell asleep.  Those that managed to stay awake were rewarded with special gifts.  Animals like the panther and owl were given the ability to see in the dark, allowing them to prey at night.  Only a few trees succeeded as well; cedar, pine, spruce and laurel were allowed to keep their leaves all year while the rest were forced to shed their leaves in the winter.

The First People – The Origin of Game and Corn

The first people on earth were a brother and a sister by the name of Kanáti and Selu. Their names meant “The Lucky Hunter” and “Corn,” respectively.  Kanáti would hunt and bring an animal home for Selu to prepare.  No matter when Kanati went into the wood, he never failed to bring back a load of game, which his wife would cut up and prepare, washing off the blood from the meat in the river near the house.

Kanáti and Selu had a child and they named him Good Boy (“Osda-Atsutsa”).  The little boy used to play down by the river every day.  One morning Kanáti and Selu thought they heard laughing and talking in the bushes as though there were two children playing there.  When the boy came home at night, his parents asked him who had been playing with him all day.  “He comes out of the water,” said the boy, “and he calls himself my elder brother. He says his mother was cruel to him and threw him into the river.”  This is when Kanáti and Selu knew that the strange boy had sprung from the blood of the game which Selu had washed off at the river’s edge.

Every day, when the little boy went out to play, the other boy would join him.  As he always went back again into the water, Kanáti and Selu never had a chance to see him. So one evening, Kanáti said to his son, “Tomorrow, when the other boy comes to play, get him to wrestle with you, and when you have your arms around him, hold onto him and call for us.”

The boy promised to do as he was told, so the next day, as soon as his playmate appeared, he challenged him to a wrestling match.  The other boy agreed at once, but as soon as they had their arms around each other, Kanáti’s boy began to scream for his father.  Kanáti and Selu at once came running down, and as soon as the Wild Boy saw them, he struggled to free himself and cried out, “Let me go!  You threw me away!”.  However, his brother held on until the parents reached them and they seized the Wild Boy and took him home with them. They treated him like one of their own and kept him in the house until they had tamed him, but he was always wild and artful in his disposition and was the leader of his brother in every mischief.  It was not long before they discovered that he had magic powers, and they called him Inage-Utasunhi (“He-Who-Grew-Up-Wild”).

Whenever Kanáti went into the mountains, he always brought back a fat buck or doe, or maybe a couple of turkeys.  One day, the Wild Boy said to his brother, “I wonder where our father gets all that game; let’s follow him next time and find out.” A few days afterward, Kanáti took a bow and some feathers in his hand and started off toward the West.  The boys waited a little while and then went after him, keeping out of sight until they saw him go into a swamp where there were a great many of the small reeds that hunters use to make arrow shafts.  Then the Wild Boy transformed himself into a puff of bird’s down/feather, which the wind took up and carried until it alighted upon Kanáti’s shoulder, just as he entered the swamp.  Kanáti did not know anything about it.

The now old Kanáti cut reeds, fitted the feathers to them and made some arrows, and the Wild Boy, in his other shape, thought, “I wonder what those things are for?”  When Kanáti had his arrows finished, he came out of the swamp and went on again. The wind blew the down from his shoulder, and it fell back into the woods. The Wild Boy took his human shape again, then went back and told his brother what he had seen.

Keeping out of sight of their father, they followed him up the mountain until he stopped at a certain place and lifted a large rock.  At once, there ran out a large buck, which Kanáti shot with his arrows.  Lifting it upon his back, he started for home again.  “Oho!” exclaimed the boys. “He keeps all the deer shut up in that hole, and whenever he wants meat, he just lets one out and kills it with those things he made in the swamp.”  They hurried and reached home before their father who had the heavy deer to carry, and he never knew that they had followed.

A few days later the boys went back to the swamp, cut some reeds, and made seven arrows.  Then they started up the mountain to where their father kept the game.  When reached the place, they raised the rock and a deer came running out.  Just as they drew back to shoot this deer, another came out, and then another, and another, until the boys got confused and forgot what they were about.  In those days, all the deer had their tails hanging down like other animals, but as a buck was running past, the Wild Boy struck its tail so that it stood straight up, and his brother struck the next one so hard with his arrow that the deer’s tail was almost curled over his back. The deer carries his tail this way ever since.

The deer came running past, until the last one had come out of the hole and escaped into the forest. Then came droves of raccoons, rabbits, and all the other four-footed animals – all but the bear, because there was no bear then. Last came great flocks of turkeys, pigeons, and partridges, that darkened the air like a cloud and made such a noise with their wings that Kanáti, sitting at home, heard the sound like distant thunder on the mountains and said to himself, “My bad boys have got into trouble; I must go and see what they are doing.”

So he went up the mountain, and when he came to the place where he kept the game, he found the two boys standing by the rock, and all the birds and animals were gone.  Kanáti was furious, but without saying a word, he went down into the cave and kicked the covers off four jars in one corner, when out swarmed bedbugs, fleas, lice, and gnats, and got all over the boys. They screamed with pain and fright and tried to beat off the insects, but the thousands of vermin crawled over them and bit and stung them until both dropped down nearly dead.  Kanáti stood looking on until he thought they had been punished enough, then he knocked off the vermin and gave the boys a talk. “Now, you rascals,” he said, ” You have always had plenty to eat and never had to work for it. Whenever you were hungry, all I had to do was come up here and get a deer or a turkey, and bring it home for your mother to cook. Now, you have let out all the animals, and after this, when you want a deer to eat, you will have to hunt all over the woods for it and then maybe not find one. Go home now to your mother, while I see if I can find something to eat for supper.”

When the boys got home again, they were very tired and hungry and asked their mother for something to eat. “There is no meat,” said Selu, “But wait a little while and I will get you something.” So she took a basket and started out to the storehouse. This storehouse was built upon poles high up from the ground, to keep it out of the reach of animals, and there was a ladder to climb by, and one door, but no other opening. Every day, when Selu got ready to cook the dinner, she would go out to the storehouse with a bucket and bring it back full of corn and beans.  The boys had never been inside the storehouse, so they wondered where all the corn and beans could come from, as the house was not a very large one.  As soon as Selu went out of the door, the Wild Boy said to his brother,” Let’s go and see what she does.”

They ran around and climbed up at the back of the storehouse and pulled out a piece of 7551f124b5b109e9b193865a62426cf4--cherokee-history-cherokee-indiansclay from between the logs so that they could look in.  There, they saw Selu standing in the middle of the room with the basket in front of her on the floor. Leaning over the basket, she rubbed her stomach, and then suddenly the basket was half full of corn. Then, she rubbed her armpits, and then the basket was full to the top with beans. The boys looked at each other incredulously and said, “This will never do; our mother is a witch. If we eat any of that, it will poison us. We must kill her.”

When the boys came back into the house, she knew their thoughts before they spoke. “So… you are going to kill me?” asked Selu.

“Yes,” said the boys, “You are a witch.”

“Well,” said their mother, “When you have killed me, clear a large piece of ground in front of the house and drag my body seven times around the circle. Then drag me seven times over the ground inside the circle, and stay up all night and watch, and in the morning, you will have plenty of corn forever.”

The boys killed her with their clubs, cut off her head, and put it upon the roof of the house with her face turned to the West, and told her to look for her husband.  Then, they set to work to clear the ground in front of the house, but instead of clearing the whole piece, they cleared only seven little spots. This is why corn now grows only in a few places instead of over the whole world.  They dragged the body of Selu around the circle. Wherever her body fell on the ground, the corn sprang up. But instead of dragging her body seven times across the ground, they dragged it over only twice, which is the same reason the Cherokee still work their crop but twice.  The two brothers sat up and watched their corn all night, and in the morning, it was full grown and ripe.

When Kanáti came home at last, he looked around, but could not see Selu anywhere.  He asked the boys where was their mother. “She is a witch, and we killed her, ” said the boys. “There is her head up there on top of the house.”

When Kanáti saw his wife’s head on the roof, he was devastated and very angry and said, “I won’t stay with you any longer; I am going to the Wolf People.”  So he started off, but before he had gone far, the Wild Boy changed himself again to a tuft of down which fell upon Kanáti’s shoulder.

When Kanáti reached the settlement of the Wolf People, they were holding a council in the townhouse.  He went in and sat down with the tuft of bird’s down on his shoulder, but he never noticed it.  When the Wolf Chief asked him his business, he said, “I have two bad boys at home, and I want you to go, seven days from now, and play ball against them.” Although Kanáti spoke as though he wanted them to play a game of ball, the Wolves knew that he meant for them to go and kill the two boys.  They promised to go in seven days.  Then the bird’s down blew off from Kanáti’s shoulder, and the smoke carried it up through the hole in the roof of the townhouse.  When it came down on the ground outside, the Wild Boy took his human shape, went home, and told his brother all that he’d heard in the townhouse.  But when Kanáti left the Wolf People, he did not return home. Instead, he went on farther.

The boys then began to get ready for the Wolves, and the Wild Boy told his brother what to do.  They ran around the house in a wide circle until they had made a trail all around it, excepting on the side from which the Wolves would come – where they left a small, open space. Then they made four large bundles of arrows and placed them at four different points on the outside of the circle, after which, they hid themselves in the woods and waited for the Wolves.

In a day or two, a whole party of Wolves came and surrounded the house to kill the boys. The Wolves did not notice the trail around the house because they came in where the boys had left the opening.  However, the moment they were inside the circle, the trail changed to a high brush fence and shut them in.  Then the boys on the outside took their arrows and began shooting them down, and as the Wolves could not jump over the fence, they were all killed, except a few that escaped through the opening into a great swamp close by.  The boys ran around the swamp, and a circle of fire sprang up from their tracks and set fire to the grass and brushes, burning up nearly all the other Wolves. Only two or three got away, and from these survivors have come all the Wolves that are now in the world.

Soon afterward, some strangers from a distance, who had heard that the brothers had a wonderful grain from which they made bread, came to ask for some, for none but Selu and her family had ever known corn before.  The boys gave them seven kernels of corn, which they told them to plant the next night on their way home.  They were to sit up all night to watch the corn which would have seven ripe ears in the morning.  The kernels from the seven ripe ears were to be planted the next night, and watched in the same way, and so on every night until they reached home, and they would have enough corn to supply their people.

The strangers lived seven days journey away.  They took the seven kernels and watched all through the darkness until the morning, when they saw seven tall stalks, each stalk bearing a ripened ear.  They gathered the ears and went on their way. The next night, they planted all their corn and guarded it as before until daybreak, when they found an abundant increase.  But the way was long, and the sun was hot. The people grew tired. On the last night before reaching home, they fell asleep, and in the morning, the corn they had planted had not even sprouted.  They brought with them to their settlement what corn they had left and planted it, and with care and attention, they were able to raise a crop.  But ever since, the corn, which before would grow and ripen in one night, must now be watched and tended through half the year.

As Kanáti did not return, the boys concluded at last to go and find him. The Wild Boy took a gaming wheel and rolled it toward the Darkening Land. In a little while, the wheel came rolling back, and the boys knew their father was not there. He rolled it toward the South and to the North, and each time the wheel came back to him, so they knew their father was not there. Then he rolled it toward the Sun Land, and it did not return. “Our father is there,” said the Wild Boy. “Let us go and find him.”

So the two brothers set off toward the East, and after travelling a long time, came upon Kanáti walking along with a little dog by his side. “You bad boys,” said their father. “Have you come here?”

“Yes,” they answered. “We always accomplish what we start out to do. We are men.”

“Well,” said Kanáti, “as you have found me, we may as well travel together, but I shall take the lead.”

Soon they came to a swamp, and Kanáti told them there was something dangerous there  and they must keep away from it.  He went on ahead, but as soon as he was out of sight, the Wild Boy said to his brother, “Come! Let us see what is in the swamp.”

They went in together, and in the middle of the swamp, they found a large panther asleep.  The Wild Boy got out an arrow and shot the panther in the side of the head.  The panther turned his head, and the other boy shot him on that side.  He turned his head away again, and the two brothers shot together – tust, tust, tust!  However, the panther was not hurt by the arrows and paid no more attention to the boys.

They came out of the swamp and soon overtook Kanáti, waiting for them. “Did you find it?” asked Kanáti.

“Yes,” said the boys, “we found it, but it never hurt us.  We are men.” Kanáti was surprised, but said nothing.  They went on again.

After a while, he turned to them and said,”Now, you must be careful.  We are coming to a tribe called the Anada Duntaski, and if they get you, they will put you in a pot and feast on you.”  Then he went on again.

Soon, the boys came to a tree which had been struck by lightning, and the Wild Boy directed his brother to gather some of the splinters from the tree and told him what to do with them.  In a little while, they came to the settlement of the cannibals, who, as soon as they saw the boys, came running out, crying “Good, here are two nice, fat strangers.  Now we’ll have a grand feast!”

They caught the boys, dragged them to the townhouse, and sent word to all the people of the settlement to come to the feast.  They made a great fire, put water into a large pot, set it to boiling, and then seized the Wild Boy, putting him down into it.  His brother was not the least bit frightened and made no attempt to escape, but instead, quietly knelt down and began putting the splinters into the fire, as if to make it burn better.

When the cannibals thought the meat was about ready, they lifted the pot from the fire, and that instant, a blinding light filled the townhouse.  The lightning darted from one side to the other, striking down cannibals until not one of them was left alive.  Then the lightning went up through the smoke hole, and the next moment, there were the two boys standing outside the townhouse as though nothing had happened.

They went on and soon met Kanáti, who seemed much surprised to see them, and said,”What! Are you here again?”

“Oh, yes. We never give up. We are great men!”

“What did the cannibals do to you?”

“We met them. They brought us to their townhouse, but they never hurt us.” Kanáti said nothing more, and they went on.

Kanáti soon got out of sight of the boys, but the boys kept on until they came to the end of the world, where the sun comes out.  The sky was just coming down when they got there, but they waited until it went up again, and they went through and climbed up on the other side.  There they found Kanáti and Selu sitting together.  They received them kindly and were glad to see them, telling them they might stay there awhile but would have to go to live where the sun goes down. The boys stayed with their parents for seven days and then went on toward the Darkening Land, where they are now. We call them Anisgaya Tsvsdi, the Little Men, and when the boys talk to each other, we hear low, rolling thunder in the West.

The Thunder Boys

After Kanáti’s boys had let the deer out from the cave where their father used to keep them, the hunters tramped about in the woods for a long time without finding any game so that the people were very hungry.  At last, they heard that the Thunder Boys were now living in the far West, beyond the Sun Door, and that if they were sent for, they could bring back the game.  So they sent messengers for them, and the boys came and sat down in the middle of the townhouse and began to sing.

At the first song, there was a roaring sound like a strong wind in the Northwest. It grew louder and nearer as the boys sang on, until at the seventh song, a whole herd of deer led by a large buck came out from the woods.  The boys had told the people to be ready with their bows and arrows, and when the song was ended and all the deer were close around the townhouse, the hunters shot into them and killed as many as they needed before the heard could get back into the timber.

Then the Thunder Boys went back to the Darkening Land, but before they left, they taught the people the seven songs with which to call up the deer.  It all happened so long ago, the songs are now forgotten – all but two, which the hunters still sing whenever they go after the deer.

It is believed that Cherokee people have seven lives, and must pass the tests in each life to reach Gälûñ’lätï, just as the thunder twins went through many trials and tribulations to reach the Darkening Land and the place they now live near the West. If one calls on the Thunder Twins, one can use their knowledge so that you can come back again to your next life.


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