Native American Legends
Origin of Disease and Medicine
A Cherokee Legend
In the old days the beasts, birds, fishes, insects, and plants
could all talk, and they and the people lived together in peace
and friendship. But as time went on the people increased so rapidly
that their settlements spread over the whole earth, and the poor
animals found themselves beginning to be cramped for room. This
was bad enough, but to make it worse Man invented bows, knives,
blowguns, spears, and hooks, and began to slaughter the larger animals,
birds, and fishes for their flesh or their skins, while the smaller
creatures, such as the frogs and worms, were crushed and trodden
upon without thought, out of pure carelessness or contempt. So the
animals resolved to consult upon measures for their common safety.
The Bears were the first to meet in council in their townhouse
under Kuwâ'hï mountain, the "Mulberry place," and the
old White Bear chief presided. After each in turn had complained
of the way in which Man killed their friends, ate their flesh, and
used their skins for his own purposes, it was decided to begin war
at once against him. Some one asked what weapons Man used to destroy
them. "Bows and arrows, of course, cried all the Bears in chorus.
"And what are they made of?" was the next question.
"The bow of wood, and the string of our entrails," replied one
of the Bears.
It was then proposed that they make a bow and some arrows and see
if they, could not use the same weapons against Man himself. So
one Bear got a nice piece of locust wood and another sacrificed
himself for the good of the rest in order to furnish a piece of
his entrails for the string. But when everything was ready and the
first Bear stepped up to make the trial, it was found that in letting
the arrow fly after drawing back the bow, his long claws caught
the string and spoiled the shot. This was annoying, but some one
suggested that they might trim his claws, which was accordingly
done, and on a second trial it was found that the arrow went straight
to the mark. But here the chief, the old White Bear, objected, saying
it was necessary that they should have long claws in order to be
able to climb trees. "One of us has already died to furnish the
bowstring, and if we now cut off our claws we must all starve together.
It is better to trust to the teeth and claws that nature gave us,
for it is plain that man's weapons were not intended for us."
No one could think of any better plan, so the old chief dismissed
the council and the Bears dispersed to the woods and thickets without
having concerted any way to prevent the increase of the human race.
Had the result of the council been otherwise, we should now be at
war with the Bears, but as it is, the hunter does not even ask the
Bear's pardon when he kills one.
The Deer next held a council under their chief, the Little Deer,
and after some talk decided to send rheumatism to every hunter who
should kill one of them unless he took care to ask their pardon
for the offense. They sent notice of their decision to the nearest
settlement of Indians and told them at the same time what to do
when necessity forced them to kill one of the Deer tribe. Now, whenever
the hunter shoots a Deer, the Little Deer, who is swift as the wind
and can not be wounded, runs quickly up to the spot and, bending
over the blood-stains, asks the spirit of the Deer if it has heard
the prayer of the hunter for pardon. If the reply be "Yes," all
is well, and the Little Deer goes on his way; but if the reply be
"No," he follows on the trail of the hunter, guided by the drops
of blood on the ground, until he arrives at his cabin in the settlement,
when the Little Deer enters invisibly and strikes the hunter with
rheumatism, so that he becomes at once a helpless cripple. No hunter
who has regard for his health ever fails to ask pardon of the Deer
for killing it, although some hunters who have not learned the prayer
may try to turn aside the Little Deer from his pursuit by building
a fire behind them in the trail.
Next came the Fishes and Reptiles, who had their own complaints
against Man. They held their council together and determined to
make their victims dream of snakes twining about them in slimy folds
and blowing foul breath in their faces, or to make them dream of
eating raw or decaying fish, so that they would lose appetite, sicken,
and die. This is why people dream about snakes and fish.
Finally the Birds, Insects, and smaller animals came together for
the same purpose, and the Grubworm was chief of the council. It
was decided that each in turn should give an opinion, and then they
would vote on the question as to whether or not Man was guilty.
Seven votes should be enough to condemn him. One after another denounced
Man's cruelty and injustice toward the other animals and voted in
favor of his death. The Frog spoke first, saying: "We must do something
to check the increase of the race, or people will become so numerous
that we shall be crowded from off the earth. See how they have kicked
me about because I'm ugly, as they say, until my back is covered
with sores;" and here he showed the spots on his skin. Next came
the Bird--no one remembers now which one it was--who condemned Man
"because he burns my feet off," meaning the way in which the hunter
barbecues birds by impaling them on a stick set over the fire, so
that their feathers and tender feet are singed off. Others followed
in the same strain. The Ground-squirrel alone ventured to say a
good word for Man, who seldom hurt him because he was so small,
but this made the others so angry that they fell upon the Ground-squirrel
and tore him with their claws, and the stripes are on his back to
They began then to devise and name so many new diseases, one after
another, that had not their invention at last failed them, no one
of the human race would have been able to survive. The Grubworm
grew constantly more pleased as the name of each disease was called
off, until at last they reached the end of the list, when some one
proposed to make menstruation sometimes fatal to women. On this
he rose-up in his place and cried: "Wadâñ'!
[Thanks!] I'm glad some more of them will die, for they are getting
so thick that they tread on me." The thought fairly made him shake
with joy, so that he fell over backward and could not get on his
feet again, but had to wriggle off on his back, as the Grub-worm
has done ever since.
When the Plants, who were friendly to Man, heard what had been
done by the animals, they determined to defeat the latter's evil
designs. Each Tree, Shrub, and Herb, down even to the Grasses and
Mosses, agreed to furnish a cure for some one of the diseases named,
and each said: "I shall appear to help Man when he calls upon me
in his need." Thus came medicine; and the plants, every one of which
has its use if we only knew it, furnish the remedy to counteract
the evil wrought by the revengeful animals. Even weeds were made
for some good purpose, which we must find out for ourselves. When
the doctor does not know what medicine to use for a sick man the
spirit of the plant tells him.
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