Legends of the Cherokees

These are legendary in the sense that they are my own, brash interpretations of sacred traditions, drawn mainly from material collected and interpreted in the late 19th century by the anthropologist James Mooney.


Long Man dips his toes in the ocean and cracks his knuckles in the coves. He is the original “long drink of water;” when he climbs over the rocks, fish fall out of his hair. His skin is so translucent you can see the veins ticking beside each ear. Ball players always go to him for help, because weak as he sometimes appears, nothing in the world can hold out against him. He is never silent, though it takes a trained listener to distinguish his words from the ordinary drip & flow of events. Those are his wet footfalls just beyond the campfire’s circle of light.


To change into a bear or panther, go live among them & eat what they eat. Quite soon they start to look like people, how people would look if they weren’t so hairless & full of spite. Bear & panther can get everything they need with so little effort, who wouldn’t want to be like them? The name of their country is Always Enough. The only immigration requirement is a seven-day fast; it’s going back home that kills you, almost every time. The borders of our country & theirs make a perfect match, but here everything’s turned outside-in, like the fur in a hunter’s boots.


Shining Woman lives in the south & walks on a shining road. Her shining cloak opens wide, a house that expands to accommodate all visitors. She has the power to banish sorrows; she can exorcise despair. No one can travel her road & not lay down their burdens one by one, growing lighter with every step. Such happiness, they say, is contagious – the same as misery. But beware of her imitators here in the north, those with a small share of her magic who awaken only a restless itch to be elsewhere. Bar your door against these beautiful ones, unless you would turn as blue as a tree’s naked shadow on the snow.


The Ní»ñní«’hí¯ – Immortals – hide in plain view. They are no different from us, except that the eye of envy never comes among them. Their farms are disguised as wild forests, their homes as holes or mounds. Their invisible towns leave footprints on the highest mountains: bare, open spots where no trees grow. Sometimes their young women show up for dances, strangers circling with uncommon grace, their hair sweeping the ground. Love-struck boys who try to follow them home watch them turn sideways into a shimmer of air among the trees, where the road deteriorates into a rabbit track & disappears into a thicket. Lost hunters tell of hearing drums & flutes, a bewildering music that leads them in circles, unwitting dancers at a never-ending feast. Free of the fear of death, who wouldn’t dance?


The very first married couple in the world have their very first fight. What do they do? There’s no one to arbitrate, no story or proverb to point the way. The only road is the sun’s road, so the woman starts out on it, aiming for the sunrise – a fresh start. The sun, too, is a woman, & she minds everyone’s business. Her verdict can burn, but with the exception of one memorable incident, she always strives for balance, turns each small death into fuel for new growth. Do you want her back? she asks the husband, who trails mournfully behind. Yes! The sun makes a patch of huckleberries spring up in front of the woman, hoping to tempt her, but she walks right through it without a pause. Next comes a blackberry tangle, loaded with fruit: she walks around it. Pawpaws, service berries, peaches, all manner of fruit: nothing works. At last the sun thinks strawberries. Strawberries! The woman stops, her concentration broken. What fruit is this, the color of sunrise, of life itself? She tastes one, then another. She can’t stop eating them, can’t think of anything else. Then suddenly she remembers her husband. He would love these berries! she thinks. And he does. And they do.


Scoop the moon out of the river, mix it with red clay & your own saliva. Paint yourself red, red. Young women will see your skin & immediately feel an ache between their thighs. They will long for fullness, banishing the moon’s red cycle. The sun-living-in-the-night looks kindly on human beings, who never squint at him the way they do for the sun-living-in-the-day. Red & blue are the same to him. Everyone looks their best in his forgiving light.


The council of birds appoints the wren to go live among human beings and report back. Every time a baby is born, she twitters the news. If it’s a boy, she cries more arrows, more wounds! If it’s a girl, she sings more fields & bigger harvests! The six-legged tribe sends the cricket to spy. When a girl is born, he rubs his hollow belly & hops for joy.


The great horned serpent Uktena has a blazing diamond in the middle of his forehead, clear but for a red streak running through its heart. This jewel, called Ulí»ñsí»’tí® – Transparent – is the most valuable thing in the world, but also the most dangerous to obtain & the hardest to keep. The serpent uses it to hypnotize his prey. When a hunter sees it, he throws down his weapons & rushes forward to die. Only one hunter ever succeeded in killing an Uktena, and its Ulí»ñsí»’tí® still resides with the eastern band of the Cherokee, wrapped in a deerskin and hidden deep in a cave. It has the power to satisfy every desire – brings success in hunting, rain making, love – but if its owner forgets to feed it twice a year with fresh blood, it turns into a ball of fire, a vengeful meteor. Of all crystals it is the best at showing the shape of things to come, as clearly as reflections in still water. It sees the way a serpent sees: all warm-blooded beings are transparent except for the red streak running straight through their hearts.

CHEROKEE PRINCESS (ancient Anglo legend)

The Cherokee Princess lives in a wigwam palace & gives orders to an army of spirit helpers: friendly woodland creatures with sad brown eyes. Her buckskin gown reaches only partway down her dusky leg, & her cheek is in permanent blush. The Cherokee Princess never worries her pretty little head about war or diplomacy. She must come from a different stock entirely from the Beloved Women whose words used to carry so much weight among those who called themselves Tsalagi. She is such a slight thing, she might well be made of posterboard, or even celluloid. But a vast & clamorous tribe claims descent from those insubstantial hips. Her destiny reaches far into the Darkening Land. Side by side with her handsome blue soldier she rides into the sunset, shedding tears of joy.

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