Imagining the life of a Woodland Cherokee girl
by Rob Neufeld
“Let me carry you on my back, let me carry you on my back,” Mother Bear sings to her cubs.
“Upstream, upstream you must go,”
Such are the words a baby Cherokee girl had heard 2,000 years ago, as her mother entered the mind of a bear in flight from hunters. It was sung as a lullaby, and on treks.
"The Mother Bear’s Song” comes to us via James Mooney’s “Myths of the Cherokee.”
Once, on a trip to what is now Murphy, two Cherokee women came to the ledge where the Hiwassee and Valley Rivers meet, another Mooney-collected tale goes.
“There are fish there and I’m going to have some; I’m tired of this fat meat,” one of the women said, and she took her daughter off her back and laid her on the rock.
She “was preparing line when the water suddenly rose and swept over the ledge, and would have carried off the child but the mother ran in time to save it.”
This was proof that “the great leech of Tlanusi’yi” still roiled at the bottom of the pool.
The ominpresence of the wilderness in the days of the earliest agricultural Cherokee villages created a way of being and thinking just one step removed from the days when people could communicate with animals.
Fat meat had been a Woodland era staple. In the days before the European introduction of hogs, the sacred source of fat—and a dozen other useful gifts—had been the bear.
“When you yourselves are hungry,” a Cherokee youth tells stay-behind villagers as he and his family forsake village life to become bears in “Origin of the Bear,” “come into the woods and call us and we shall come to give you our flesh.”
Bear stories persist.
“There was a bear that lived in an old hollow tree in the mountains,” Caroline Teesateskie related in an interview for the 1991 “Fading Voices” issue of “The Journal of Cherokee Studies.” The bear had Rabbit over for dinner.
“When the bear decided it was time to find something to season the butter beans with, he sliced a slab of fat from his own fat and dropped it in the butter beans.”
Beans had entered Cherokee cultivation a thousand years ago, a thousand years after corn and the beginning of Woodland Indian settlement. .
Rabbit wanted to reciprocate Bear’s hospitality, and prepared a field pea supper of his own. “When it was time to add the seasoning,” Teesateskie continued, “the rabbit slashed his stomach open and out spilled his intestines because he was so skinny.” Bear patched him up and contributed his own reserves to the cooking pot.
Prehistoric Woodland life does not mean simple life. Aside from all there was to learn from nature; and aside from skilled crafts; and aside from Cherokee verbs, which had multiple forms based on their relationships with liquid, flexible, animate, solid, and rigid objects, there were quirky people. Cherokee tales involving the trickster rabbit and other creatures reveal a comedy of manners as unpredictable as “Pride and Prejudice.”
Boys and girls—by home fires; and out romping, gathering food, or visiting distant relations—reveled in the fear of the worst that humans could become. Topping the list was a scaly woman named Spearfinger.
An oft-told Cherokee tale has her descending on children picking strawberries, hiding her stony, lethal digit, which she used to extract the delicacy of kiddie livers.
Strawberries, an early Spring treat, grew in special places, often far from home.
William Bartram, the famed Philadelphia botanist, came across such a place in 1775, on a trip down to Cowee (around present-day Franklin).
Having gained a summit, he and his men viewed “a vast expanse of green meadows and strawberry fields,” turkeys strolling, deer prancing, and “companies of young innocent Cherokee virgins, some busy gathering the rich fragrant fruit, others, having already filled their baskets,” reclining under floriferous bowers or chasing their companions, “staining their lips and cheeks with the rich fruit.”
In the Cherokee tale, “Origin of Strawberries,” a woman leaves her husband after a quarrel. Hiking past familiar berries that Une’lanun’hi, the great Apportioner (the Sun) puts before her, she only stops when she finds “the first strawberries,” the sweet taste of which made her think of sharing them with her husband.
Getting a husband was always on a girl’s mind, and she got plenty of advice, such as what Bessie Jumper (included in “Fading Voices) said her elders had told her.
“They gave us advice about marrying—who would provide the needs of the family and not to go for his charm or good looks.”
“Boys,” she said, “were told, ‘Be sure she will be a good housewife. Don’t fall for her beauty either. It’s not worth it.”
“When Babies Are Born,” another Cherokee tale, describes the way wrens spread newborn news. If the babe is a boy, they sing, “Alas! The whistle of the arrow! My shins will burn!” If a girl, they sing, “Thanks! The sound of the pestle!”
“When my grand ma was making baskets she showed me how to make them,” Aggie Ross Lossiah, great granddaughter of Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross, related in “The Story of My Life as Far Back as I can Remember,” published in the Journal of Cherokee Studies, Fall 1984.
She had written her account in 1960, when she’d been 80.
“With a history extending back almost ten thousand years, basketry was an integral part of Cherokee life,” Anna Fariello writes in her book, “Cherokee Basketry: From the Hands of Our Elders.” “By 1540, when Hernando de Soto encountered the Cherokee, they were living in settled communities where baskets were part of their everyday life.”
Baskets and other perishable items do not survive well over the millennia, but Jefferson Chapman, director of the Frank H. McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee, has reported “impressions of simple twined basketry and netting” on 8,000-year-old hearths.
We can imagine girls watching grandmas at work in the Woodland period, 2,000 years ago.
Lossiah continues her narration. When her grandma “got her a load of baskets made we went to peddle…I took my few baskets that I had made and I had enough to buy me a cotton dress.”
“I was just eight years old” Martha Wachacha testified in an interview published in the 1989 “Fading Voices” issue of the “Journal of Cherokee Studies,” when she’d gotten initiated into basket-making. She’d watched her aunt split white oak and scrape the splints. “What they threw away I picked up. I wanted to make some baskets, too, because the baskets were so beautiful.”
Eight years old was about the time of the passage to becoming a big girl. Getting a dress was a part of that change.
Cherokee girls’ homes were with their mother’s clan. In Woodland days, the homes looked out on a cleared area with several other homes, garden plots, and, in some places, raised temples.
“The early explorers,” Thomas Lewis and Madeline Kneberg write in “Tribes that Slumber,” “described the temples as having carved and painted wooden pillars, and walls hung with colorfully patterned mats. And they were particularly impressed by sculpted wooden figures—human, eagles, serpents, and other symbolic forms—that graced the fronts and roofs of temples and served as tribal emblems.”
When not attending to her elders around the villlage, plowing fields, or grinding corn, Woodland girls left their village and headed out to collect forest products, sometimes walking a couple of days. It could get scary.
When they went out in the fall “to burn the leaves off from the mountains in order to get the chestnuts on the ground,” James Mooney recorded in the Cherokee myth titled, “U’tlun’ta, the Spear-Finger,” “they were never safe.” When the old witch with the awl-like finger “saw the smoke rise she knew there were Indians there and sneaked up to try to surprise one alone.”
Most associations with things in the woods were not dire. Every plant and animal had stories to highlight their distinctive qualities: why the Possum’s tail is bare; how the Redbird got his color; and so on.
The redbird got his redness from a wolf who rewarded it with paint from a rock after the bird had pecked plaster from his eyes placed there by a trickster raccoon.
The redbird is also associated with the daughter of the Sun, who escaped in the form of a bird from a coffin carrying her back from the darkening land. A rattlesnake had killed the girl, mistaking her for the Sun, which had been causing a drought in the land.
When the redbird’s call— “kwish! kwish! kwish!”—had been heard by Woodland girls, they might have thought of the Cherokee myth, “The Daughter of the Sun: Origin of Death.” The escape of the Sun’s daughter had prevented her rescuers from going back to Ghost Country to bring back other dead souls.
Girls were intimately familiar with death, for they were sometimes called upon to attend to dying community members, as Lossiah had had to do once.
A neighbor’s wife was sick and on her death bed, “and he had to hire someone to stay right by her all the time to keep the flies off her face…about two weeks she passed away.”
As Woodland girls approached puberty, a livelier preoccupation entered their minds—beaus, the subject of next week’s column.
The teen years
If you read the Cherokee myths recorded by James Mooney, you come to see that finding a good mate had been one of the top things on a girl’s mind when she became a woman centuries ago.
Once upon a time, a girl went down to a spring to collect water, and heard a voice sing, “A bullfrog will marry you, a bullfrog will marry you.”
On subsequent trips, the invisible courtship continued until one day the bullfrog revealed itself and turned into a man. The girl took him back to her family, who suspected him. They noticed that he often turned away from them or explained his strange-looking mouth by saying he had a toothache.
Ridiculed, he fled.
It seems that a girl had a lot of choice in choosing her husband, though the family exercised influence.
“A long time ago a widow lived with her one daughter at the old town of Kanuga on Pigeon River,” the tale about “Tsul‘kalu, the Slant-Eyed Giant,” begins.
The girl reached marrying age, and her mother advised that she find a man who was a good hunter.
The girl was sleeping in the osi—a distant outbuilding that was used to house women when they menstruated or gave birth—thus, in the myth, a symbol of new womanhood.
One night, a stranger came to the osi, asking to marry her, with assurances that he was a great hunter. In proof, he brought deer.
When the girl’s mother said, “Bring wood,” he brought trees. The mother insisted on seeing him, and was directed to the osi, where she saw “a great giant, with long slanting eyes, lying doubled up on the floor, with his head against the rafters” in one corner and “his toes scraping the roof” in another.
“Utga’se’ti’yu!”—very terrible!—the mother screamed, repelling the visitor, who went back to his country. In this case, the girl followed.
A famous example in recorded history of a Cherokee woman making her own choices is Nanyehi—whom the English called Nancy Ward—and who was also named “giga agehyuh,” Beloved Woman.
At age 14, she married Kingfisher, and had children. When he went to war against the Creeks, allies of the French, in 1755, she went with him.
“You should make your wife stay at home,” Nanyehi’s cousin, Dragging Canoe, tells Kingfisher in Robert Conley’s historical novel, “Cherokee Dragon.”
“You know that a man can’t make his wife do anything against her wishes,” Kingfisher responds. “If I dared to try such a thing, she might throw me out of her house.”
In Cherokee society, women held sway over home and farm. Men hunted and fought. Both governed.
When Kingfisher was killed in the battle at Taliwa, Nanyehi replaced him on the field, rallying the Cherokee to victory. Afterward, she married Bryant Ward, an English trader. He left her to return to South Carolina; she continued to exert her influence in maintaining diplomacy with white settlers.
When in 1776, Dragging Canoe staged a surprise attack against the Watauga settlement in east Tennessee, Nancy Ward warned the settlers.
“It is possible,” Conley writes in his “A Cherokee Encyclopedia,” that “Dragging Canoe should not have led the raids without the approval of Nancy Ward as representative of the women.”
With the growth of the American republic, gender roles were under pressure to change from what a Woodland girl would have expected. That girl would have looked forward to fulfilling the role of Selu, who’d given her life, in the legendary past, to introduce agriculture to the Cherokee, an event that marks the beginning of the Woodland period.
“The crops that took root in the earth had a clear cosmological association with women through Selu, whose blood soaked the ground and germinated corn,” Theda Perdue writes in her 1998 book, “Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835.”
“Men had no such mythical connection to the land: when Kana’ti discovered his wife’s death, he became a wanderer who never returned to his homeland.”
English ideas of private land ownership and male government coincided with the loss of hunting and warring opportunities for Cherokee men. Leading women had to assert their role as decision-makers with the new American powers, Virginia Moore Carney points out in her book, “Eastern Band Cherokee Women.”
When American colonists continued to depredate Cherokee lands in 1787, Beloved Woman Katteuha sent Benjamin Franklin a letter.
“Brother,” she wrote him in words that would resonate with a Woodland girl’s heart, “I am in hopes if you Rightly consider it that woman is the mother of All…and I have Taken the privelage to Speak with you as my own Children.”
“Keep the path clear & straight,” she said. “Keep the path clear & white,” which meant, “Keep the peace if you respect motherhood.”