The Cherokee people believe in "little people" who dwell in the woods, and assist them whenever they are in trouble. According to a myth, two of these "little people" transformed into a Copperhead snake and Rattlesnake, respectively. As a result, the Cherokee revere reptiles to this day.
Included by the 19th century colonists in the list of the "Five Civilized Tribes", the Cherokee are Native American tribal people. They are known to have migrated from the Great Lakes region of northeastern North America and settled in the southeastern parts of the United States, primarily in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and East Tennessee. Today, the Cherokee is the largest federally recognized Native American tribe in the United States and boasts of being one of the first, major non-European ethnic groups to have acquired an American citizenship.
Owing to their long history, the Cherokee people have a plethora of spiritual traditions, beliefs, and myths. One such mythological tale of the Cherokee is their creation myth, which concerns the creation of the Earth and all its life forms.
The Cherokee Creation Myth
Before the beginning of time, only two entities existed in the universe―the solid, rocky sky vault (Gälûñ'lätï), and an immense expanse of water that covered everything. Everything that was alive and animate, back then, resided in Gälûñ'lätï. Owing to this, Gälûñ'lätï was so crowded that there was hardly any space left; animals couldn't even move or breathe freely.
The residents of Gälûñ'lätï were desperately in need of more space to live. So, they asked Dâyuni'sï (Beaver's Grandchild), a small Water Beetle, to see if there was any solid land on which they could settle. Dâyuni'sï scurried hastily over the surface of the sea, but failed to find even a small patch of solid ground. Determined not to give up, he decided to dive underneath the surface of the ocean to see if he could find anything there. Even this time, Dâyuni'sï couldn't find anything concrete, except mud at the bottom of the ocean.
Dâyuni'sï then brought some of this mud with him to the surface and spread it out so that it became an island. The Beetle then returned home. It was now important to make this island float on the surface of the water, and not let it sink. The Great Spirit (Unelanuhi) then fastened the island to the Gälûñ'lätï by four cords made of rawhide, which held the island at four cardinal directions. Thus, it was ensured that the island remained on the surface of the water.
However, the Earth was still damp and muddy, and too soft to allow any kind of habitation. The Unelanuhi then sent the Great Buzzard, in order to check if the Earth had begun to dry. After searching for a long period of time, the Buzzard finally found a spot, which had begun to dry. This was the place that would later become the Cherokee country. Excited, the bird joyfully flapped his wings, which brushed the semi-dried mud and gave rise to mountains, valleys, and other landforms.
Finally, when the Earth dried and became hard enough, all the animals descended from the Gälûñ'lätï to their new home. Soon, they realized that there was no light in their new home, and bothered by the darkness, they decided to pull Sister Sun, down from the sky realm. Sister Sun was then assigned a regular path that she was supposed to follow each day.
Unelanuhi also sent all the plants to the Earth, along with the animals, and asked them to stay wide awake for a period of seven days. While most plants and animals failed to stay awake and fell asleep before the eighth day, a few of them did manage and were, thus, bestowed with special powers. The owl and panther succeeded among animals. Thus, they received the power to be able to see and prey at night. Among plants, pine, holly, laurel, etc., were allowed to retain their leaves all through the winter, while other plants that failed were ordered to shed their leaves every winter.
After all the plants and animals settled down on the Earth, it was time for the Unelanuhi to make human beings. He first made only one man and one woman. The man then pushed a fish against the woman and impregnated her, such that she gave birth to a child every seven days. Owing to this, very soon, there were too many people on Earth, and nobody seemed to know who their real parents were. So, Unelanuhi took matters in His hands once again and regulated things such that a woman could reproduce only once in a year. This was how the world and mankind were created, and it has continued to remain so ever since.
The Cherokee people believe that the Earth is still held by the heavenly cords. When it will grow old, the cords will break and the Earth will sink to the depths of the ocean.
This is, by far, the most popular version of the Cherokee myth with regards to the creation of the Earth. However, there is also another lesser-known version of the creation myth, which has been less documented than the one given above, and has always found voice through the Cherokee oral traditions. This is how it goes:
The Lady Sky was in her father's (Gälûñ'lätï's) garden, when she heard a weird, drumming sound from underneath a tree. Curious to know where it was coming from, she dug a deep hole at the base of the tree, and while peeping through it, fell inside. She spun towards the Earth, which was then covered with primeval waters, and though the earthly creatures could move around and feel, they lacked the deep consciousness and understanding.
Worried by his daughter's great fall, Gälûñ'lätï called upon the winds and ordered them to make all the creatures on the Earth to help her. The Turtle suggested that his back could be a good landing place for Lady Sky, to which the winds agreed. But the Turtle's back was too hard, owing to which it would be impossible for Lady Sky to land on it without getting hurt. So, all the other animals were asked to dive to the depths of the ocean and bring something soft that could be placed on the Turtle's back. The Water Spider brought some soft mud from the bottom of the ocean and, with great effort, placed it on the Turtle's back and died.
The earth that was placed on the Turtle's back began expanding, and the Buzzard (an earthly creature in this myth) flapped its wings forcefully to create the various landforms. Soon, Lady Sky landed on the Turtle's back, and from her body, rivers, corn, beans, and other plants immediately sprang up. But most importantly, she gave a spark of consciousness to all the earthly creatures, which is, even today, symbolized by the Cherokee sacred fire.
The sacred fire forms a very important element of all the Cherokee ceremonies, wherein it is always kept alive.
Symbolism of the Myth
Essentially, the creation myth(s) of the Cherokee people is based on the idea of mutual cooperation, thus, producing harmony.
It is from this myth(s) that the role of plants, animals, and minerals is ascertained.
Notably enough, the Cherokee people respect and revere all plants and animals, except the Bear, which is believed to be a lower form of human beings.
Turtle is one of the important totem figures of the Cherokees, which symbolizes wisdom and the Earth itself.
Moreover, the concepts of Lady Sky and Sister Sun portray the presence of matrilineality in the Cherokee society.
Their animistic beliefs are depicted through the portrayal of Lady Earth, who produces all the necessities of life from her body.
It is essential to note that because the Cherokee speak an Iroquoian language and originally resided in the northeastern woodlands of North America, their creation myths do have an influence like those of the other Algonquian and Iroquoian people. What makes them stand out, however, is their long history, and the manner in which they have assimilated themselves into the modern culture.