Cherokee boys got their manliness with Thunder
by Rob Neufeld
When Thunder’s wife dumps a scrofulous boy out of a pot of boiling water into a spot in the river named “Pot-in-the-water,” we see the teller of the tale pointing to a specific place.
The teller is Swimmer, James Mooney’s primary Cherokee source for the folklore he collected, 1887-1890, for his book, “Myths of the Cherokee.”
We learn that scrofula, tuberculosis of the neck, resulting in sores, had been a feared affliction among the Cherokee in pre-Removal times.
The Lumbee Indians, down the mountains, used goldenseal—in tonic and salve forms—for sores. The plant grows in moist hardwood forests; and collectors harvest their roots.
Today, goldenseal ointments and supplements sell second best, among herbal medicines, to ginseng. Scientists have determined that it is an effective cure for canker sores. United Plant Savers has made the plant, now “at risk,” its poster child, and established a sanctuary for it in the Appalachian foothills of Ohio.
In the Cherokee story, Thunder is a great doctor. The boy’s mother had sent the boy to him because, she’d revealed, Thunder was the boy’s father. Thunder had several children throughout the region, which he visited grumbling.
When his wife had boiled the water, as instructed, “he put in (the pot) some roots, then took the boy and put him in with them.”
Upon his arrival in Thunder’s village, the boy had first encountered Untsaiyi’ (also spelled Vtsayi), the gambler, who’d challenged the boy to a game of gatayusti—spearing a rolling stone doughnut with a stick.
The boy had said he had nothing to bet.
“That’s all right” Untsaiyi’ taunted, “we’ll play for your pretty spots.”
The Cherokee had been familiar with hustlers.
“Sometimes he (the gambler) would lose,” Swimmer’s story notes, “and then he would bet all that he had…but the winner got nothing for his trouble, for Untsaiyi’ knew how to take on different shapes, so that he always got away.”
Thunder helped the boy defeat Unsaiyi’, but first the boy had to play ball with Thunder’s two older sons, who lived in “the Darkening Land.”
As big game animals diminished, over the ages, Cherokee men had maintained their roles in society through warfare and games.
“Play ball” means “fight” in Swimmer’s tale.
In another tale about the Thunder family, collected by John Witthoft in 1946 from Moses Owl, long-time custodian of the Cherokee Museum in Cherokee, stickball is the game of choice, and infatuation is the sickness that leads a young man into Thunder’s lair.
“Once a young man fell in love with a strange girl at a dance,” the story goes. He follows her up into the mountains, and engages in a tradition to prove himself worthy of tribal inclusion.
He mounts a giant snake from Thunder’s stable and rides to a ballground. Thunder’s sons toss up “a human skull as a ball.” It comes flying toward the suitor “with its jaws agape.”
As practiced today, Michael Zogry writes in his book, “Anetso, the Cherokee Ball Game,” “the ceremonial complex has changed, but it has not disappeared.”
Two teams meet at the center of the field, shout defiance, and wait for the ball to be thrown up. “They close, the sticks rattle, they crowd to seize” the ball. “The fortunate seizer… snatches it up, and runs off with it (until) he is…thrown to the ground.” Twelve goals win.
The game had been for centuries part of the Green Corn ceremony, a harvest-time occasion for ritual purification, sport, food, and dance. It attracted distant cousins and allies, who traded goods not found in these mountains.
Many a boy and girl found their love spark at the ceremony, just as Baptist and Methodist youths found prospective brides at camp meetings in pioneer mountain communities.
At Green Corn ceremonies, dancing took place the night before ball-playing, creating good frames of mind for victory. The losing team’s members, Major John Norton wrote in 1809 during a visit to the Cherokee, “only blamed themselves for having been too negligent in preparing for the contest.”
Cover of “Anetso, the Cherokee Ball Game,” Cherokee stickball tournament, Cherokee, 2001, photo by R.C. Haile.