Myths of the Cherokee

Myths of the Cherokee

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by James Mooney

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Comprehensive selection of 126 myths, including sacred stories, animal myths, local legends, wonder stories, historical traditions and miscellaneous myths and legends. Also, extensive background on Cherokee history, notes on the myths, parallels between Cherokee and other myths, much more. 20 maps and illustrations.  See more details below


Comprehensive selection of 126 myths, including sacred stories, animal myths, local legends, wonder stories, historical traditions and miscellaneous myths and legends. Also, extensive background on Cherokee history, notes on the myths, parallels between Cherokee and other myths, much more. 20 maps and illustrations.

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Anthropologist James Mooney (1861-1921) spent much of his life studying American Indians, living for several years with a group of Cherokee while studying their language, culture, and mythology. This volume (first published in 1900) is the result, comprising 126 Cherokee sacred stories, animal myths, and local legends, as well as extensive background information and history. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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Myths of Time Cherokee

By James Mooney

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1995 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13132-0



The myths given in this paper are part of a large body of material collected among the Cherokee, chiefly in successive field seasons from 1887 to 1890, inclusive, and comprising more or less extensive notes, together with original Cherokee manuscripts, relating to the history, archeology, geographic nomenclature, personal names, botany, medicine, arts, home life, religion, songs, ceremonies, and language of the tribe. It is intended that this material shall appear from time to time in a series of papers which, when finally brought together, shall constitute a monograph upon the Cherokee Indians. This paper may be considered the first of the series, all that has hitherto appeared being a short paper upon the sacred formulas of the tribe, published in the Seventh Annual Report of the Bureau in 1891 and containing a synopsis of the Cherokee medico-religious theory, with twenty-eight specimens selected from a body of about six hundred ritual formulas written down in the Cherokee language and alphabet by former doctors of the tribe and constituting altogether the largest body of aboriginal American literature in existence.

Although the Cherokee are probably the largest and most important tribe in the United States, having their own national government and numbering at any time in their history from 20,000 to 25,000 persons, almost nothing has yet been written of their history or general ethnology, as compared with the literature of such northern tribes as the Delawares, the Iroquois, or the Ojibwa. The difference is due to historical reasons which need not be discussed here.

It might seem at first thought that the Cherokee, with their civilized code of laws, their national press, their schools and seminaries, are so far advanced along the white man's road as to offer but little inducement for ethnologic study. This is largely true of those in the Indian Territory, with whom the enforced deportation, two generations ago, from accustomed scenes and surroundings did more at a single stroke to obliterate Indian ideas than could have been accomplished by fifty years of slow development. There remained behind, however, in the heart of the Carolina mountains, a considerable body, outnumbering today such well-known western tribes as the Omaha, Pawnee, Comanche, and Kiowa, and it is among these, the old conservative Kitu'hwa element, that the ancient things have been preserved. Mountaineers guard well the past, and in the secluded forests of Nantahala and Oconaluftee, far away from the main-traveled road of modern progress, the Cherokee priest still treasures the legends and repeats the mystic rituals handed down from his ancestors. There is change indeed in dress and outward seeming, but the heart of the Indian is still his own.

For this and other reasons much the greater portion of the material herein contained has been procured among the East Cherokee living upon the Qualla reservation in western North Carolina and in various detached settlements between the reservation and the Tennessee line. This has been supplemented with information obtained in the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory, chiefly from old men and women who had emigrated from what is now Tennessee and Georgia, and who consequently had a better local knowledge of these sections, as well as of the history of the western Nation, than is possessed by their kindred in Carolina. The historical matter and the parallels are, of course, collated chiefly from printed sources, but the myths proper, with but few exceptions, are from original investigation.

The historical sketch must be understood as distinctly a sketch, not a detailed narrative, for which there is not space in the present paper. The Cherokee have made deep impress upon the history of the southern states, and no more has been attempted here than to give the leading facts in connected sequence. As the history of the Nation after the removal to the West and the reorganization in Indian Territory presents but few points of ethnologic interest, it has been but briefly treated. On the other hand the affairs of the eastern band have been discussed at some length, for the reason that so little concerning this remnant is to be found in print.

One of the chief purposes of ethnologic study is to trace the development of human thought under varying conditions of race and environment, the result showing always that primitive man is essentially the same in every part of the world. With this object in view a considerable space has been devoted to parallels drawn almost entirely from Indian tribes of the United States and British America. For the southern countries there is but little trustworthy material, and to extend the inquiry to the eastern continent and the islands of the sea would be to invite an endless task.

The author desires to return thanks for many favors from the Library of Congress, the Geological Survey, and the Smithsonian Institution, and for much courteous assistance and friendly suggestion from the officers and staff of the Bureau of American Ethnology; and to acknowledge his indebtedness to the late Chief N. J. Smith and family for services as interpreter and for kindly hospitality during successive field seasons; to Agent H. W. Spray and wife for unvarying kindness manifested in many helpful ways; to Mr William Harden, librarian, and the Georgia State Historical Society, for facilities in consulting documents at Savannah, Georgia; to the late Col. W. H. Thomas; Lieut. Col. W. W. Stringfield, of Waynesville; Capt. James W. Terrell, of Webster; Mrs A. C. Avery and Dr P. L. Murphy, of Morganton; Mr W. A. Fair, of Lincolnton; the late Maj. James Bryson, of Dillsboro; Mr H. G. Trotter, of Franklin; Mr Sibbald Smith, of Cherokee; Maj. R. C. Jackson, of Smithwood, Tennessee; Mr D. R. Dunn, of Conasauga, Tennessee; the late Col. Z. A. Zile, of Atlanta; Mr L. M. Greer, of Ellijay, Georgia; Mr Thomas Robinson, of Portland, Maine; Mr Allen Ross, Mr W. T. Canup, editor of the Indian Arrow, and the officers of the Cherokee Nation, Tahlequah, Indian Territory; Dr D. T. Day, United States Geological Survey, Washington, D. C., and Prof. G. M. Bowers, of the United States Fish Commission, for valuable oral information, letters, clippings, and photographs; to Maj. J. Adger Smyth, of Charleston, S. C., for documentary material; to Mr Stansbury Hagar and the late Robert Grant Haliburton, of Brooklyn, N. Y., for the use of valuable manuscript notes upon Cherokee stellar legends; to Miss A. M. Brooks for the use of valuable Spanish document copies and translations entrusted to the Bureau of American Ethnology; to Mr James Blythe, interpreter during a great part of the time spent by the author in the field; and to various Cherokee and other informants mentioned in the body of the work, from whom the material was obtained.




The Cherokee were the mountaineers of the South, holding the entire Allegheny region from the interlocking head-streams of the Kanawha and the Tennessee southward almost to the site of Atlanta, and from the Blue ridge on the east to the Cumberland range on the west, a territory comprising an area of about 40,000 square miles, now included in the states of Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. Their principal towns were upon the headwaters of the Savannah, Hiwassee, and Tuckasegee, and along the whole length of the Little Tennessee to its junction with the main stream. Itsât, or Echota, on the south bank of the Little Tennessee, a few miles above the mouth of Tellico river, in Tennessee, was commonly considered the capital of the Nation. As the advancing whites pressed upon them from the east and northeast the more exposed towns were destroyed or abandoned and new settlements were formed lower down the Tennessee and on the upper branches of the Chattahoochee and the Coosa.

As is always the case with tribal geography, there were no fixed boundaries, and on every side the Cherokee frontiers were contested by rival claimants. In Virginia, there is reason to believe, the tribe was held in check in early days by the Powhatan and the Monacan. On the east and southeast the Tuscarora and Catawba were their inveterate enemies, with hardly even a momentary truce within the historic period; and evidence goes to show that the Sara or Cheraw were fully as hostile. On the south there was hereditary war with the Creeks, who claimed nearly the whole of upper Georgia as theirs by original possession, but who were being gradually pressed down toward the Gulf until, through the mediation of the United States, a treaty was finally made fixing the boundary between the two tribes along a line running about due west from the mouth of Broad river on the Savannah. Toward the west, the Chickasaw on the lower Tennessee and the Shawano on the Cumberland repeatedly turned back the tide of Cherokee invasion from the rich central valleys, while the powerful Iroquois in the far north set up an almost unchallenged claim of paramount lordship from the Ottawa river of Canada southward at least to the Kentucky river.

On the other hand, by their defeat of the Creeks and expulsion of the Shawano, the Cherokee made good the claim which they asserted to all the lands from upper Georgia to the Ohio river, including the rich hunting grounds of Kentucky. Holding as they did the great mountain barrier between the English settlements on the coast and the French or Spanish garrisons along the Mississippi and the Ohio, their geographic position, no less than their superior number, would have given them the balance of power in the South but for a looseness of tribal organization in striking contrast to the compactness of the Iroquois league, by which for more than a century the French power was held in check in the north. The English, indeed, found it convenient to recognize certain chiefs as supreme in the tribe, but the only real attempt to weld the whole Cherokee Nation into a political unit was that made by the French agent, Priber, about 1736, which failed from its premature discovery by the English. We frequently find their kingdom divided against itself, their very number preventing unity of action, while still giving them an importance above that of neighboring tribes.

The proper name by which the Cherokee call themselves (1) is Yûñ'wiy', or Ani'-Yûñ'wiya' in the third person, signifying "real people," or "principal people," a word closely related to Oñwe-hoñwe, the name by which the cognate Iroquois know themselves. The word properly denotes "Indians," as distinguished from people of other races, but in usage it is restricted to mean members of the Cherokee tribe, those of other tribes being designated as Creek, Catawba, etc., as the case may be. On ceremonial occasions they frequently speak of themselves as Ani'-Kitu'hwag, or "people of Ktu'hwa," an ancient settlement on Tuckasegee river and apparently the original nucleus of the tribe. Among the western Cherokee this name has been adopted by a secret society recruited from the full-blood element and pledged to resist the advances of the white man's civilization. Under the various forms of Cuttawa, Gattochwa, Kittuwa, etc., as spelled by different authors, it was also used by several northern Algonquian tribes as a synonym for Cherokee.

Cherokee, the name by which they are commonly known, has no meaning in their own language, and seems to be of foreign origin. As used among themselves the form is Tsa'lg' or Tsa'rg'. It first appears as Chalaque in the Portuguese narrative of De Soto's expedition, published originally in 1557, while we find Cheraqui in a French document of 1699, and Cherokee as an English form as early, at least, as 1708. The name has thus an authentic history of 360 years. There is evidence that it is derived from the Choctaw word choluk or chiluk, signifying a pit or cave, and comes to us through the so-called Mobilian trade language, a corrupted Choctaw jargon formerly used as the medium of communication among all the tribes of the Gulf states, as far north as the mouth of the Ohio (2). Within this area many of the tribes were commonly known under Choctaw names, even though of widely differing linguistic stocks, and if such a name existed for the Cherokee it must undoubtedly have been communicated to the first Spanish explorers by De Soto's interpreters. This theory is borne out by their Iroquois (Mohawk) name, Oyata'ge'ronon', as given by Hewitt, signifying "inhabitants of the cave country," the Allegheny region being peculiarly a cave country, in which "rock shelters," containing numerous traces of Indian occupancy, are of frequent occurrence. Their Catawba name also, Mañterañ, as given by Gatschet, signifying "coming out of the ground," seems to contain the same reference. Adair's attempt to connect the name Cherokee with their word for fire, atsila, is an error founded upon imperfect knowledge of the language.

Among other synonyms for the tribe are Rickahockan, or Recnahecrian, the ancient Powhatan name, and Tallige', or Tallige'wi, the ancient name used in the Walam Olum chronicle of the Lenape'. Concerning both the application and the etymology of this last name there has been much dispute, but there seems no reasonable doubt as to the identity of the people.

Linguistically the Cherokee belong to the Iroquoian stock, the relationship having been suspected by Barton over a century ago, and by Gallatin and Hale at a later period, and definitely established by Hewitt in 1887. While there can now be no question of the connection, the marked lexical and grammatical differences indicate that the separation must have occurred at a very early period. As is usually the case with a large tribe occupying an extensive territory, the language is spoken in several dialects, the principal of which may, for want of other names, be conveniently designated as the Eastern, Middle, and Western. Adair's classification into "Ayrate" (e'ladi), or low, and "Ottare" (â'tali), or mountainous, must be rejected as imperfect.

The Eastern dialect, formerly often called the Lower Cherokee dialect, was originally spoken in all the towns upon the waters of the Keowee and Tugaloo, head-streams of Savannah river, in South Carolina and the adjacent portion of Georgia. Its chief peculiarity is a rolling r, which takes the place of the l of the other dialects. In this dialect the tribal name is Tsa'ragi', which the English settlers of Carolina corrupted to Cherokee, while the Spaniards, advancing from the south, became better familiar with the other form, which they wrote as Chalaque. Owing to their exposed frontier position, adjoining the white settlements of Carolina, the Cherokee of this division were the first to feel the shock of war in the campaigns of 1760 and 1776, with the result that before the close of the Revolution they had been completely extirpated from their original territory and scattered as refugees among the more western towns of the tribe. The consequence was that they lost their distinctive dialect, which is now practically extinct. In 1888 it was spoken by but one man on the reservation in North Carolina.

The Middle dialect, which might properly be designated the Kituhwa dialect, was originally spoken in the towns on the Tuckasegee and the headwaters of the Little Tennessee, in the very heart of the Cherokee country, and is still spoken by the great majority of those now living on the Qualla reservation. In some of its phonetic forms it agrees with the Eastern dialect, but resembles the Western in having the l sound.

The Western dialect was spoken in most of the towns of east Tennessee and upper Georgia and upon Hiwassee and Cheowa rivers in North Carolina. It is the softest and most musical of all the dialects of this musical language, having a frequent liquid l and eliding many of the harsher consonants found in the other forms. It is also the literary dialect, and is spoken by most of those now constituting the Cherokee Nation in the West.

Scattered among the other Cherokee are individuals whose pronunciation and occasional peculiar terms for familiar objects give indication of a fourth and perhaps a fifth dialect, which can not now be localized. It is possible that these differences may come from foreign admixture, as of Natchez, Taskigi, or Shawano blood. There is some reason for believing that the people living on Nantahala river differed dialectically from their neighbors on either side (3).


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Myths of the Cherokee 3.9 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 11 reviews.
Sweet-Ole-Bob More than 1 year ago
I am extremely interested in the first few chapters of this book for the history that it presents of the Native Americans that lived in the south eastern United States. It focuses on the Cherokee but brings in the Spanish incursion into the area starting in 1540, and other indigineous tribes. I found that the local trading and especially eating habits most interesting.
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