Native American Legends
The Nunne'hi and other Spirit Folk
A Cherokee Legend
The Nûñnë'hï or immortals, the "people
who live anywhere," were a race of spirit people who lived
in the highlands of the old Cherokee country and had a great many
townhouses, especially in the bald mountains.
They had large townhouses in Pilot knob and under the old Nikwasi'
mound in North Carolina, and another under Blood mountain, at the
head of Nottely river, in Georgia. They were invisible excepting
when they wanted to be seen, and then they looked and poke just
like other Indians. They were very fond of music and dancing, and
hunters in the mountains would often hear the dance, songs and the
drum beating in some invisible townhouse, but when they went toward
the sound it would shift about and they would hear it behind them
or away in some other direction, so that they could never find the
place where the dance was.
They were a friendly people, too, and often brought lost wanderers
to their townhouses under the mountains and cared for them there
until they were rested and then guided them back to their home .
More than once, also, when the Cherokee were hard pressed by the
enemy, the Nûñnë'hï warriors have come out,
as they did at old Nikwasi', and have saved them from defeat. Some
people have thought that they are the same as the Yûñwï
Tsunsdi', the "Little People"; but these are fairies,
no larger in size than children.
There was a man in Nottely town who had been with the Nûñnë'hï
when he was a boy, and he told Wafford all about it. He was a truthful,
hard-headed man, and Wafford had heard the story so often from other
people that he asked this man to tell it. It was in this way:
When he was about 10 or 12 years old he was playing one day near
the river, shooting at a mark with his how and arrows, until he
became tired, and started to build a fish trap in the water. While
he was piling up the stones in two long walls a man came and stood
on the bank and asked him what he was doing. The boy told him, and
the man said, "Well, that's pretty hard work and you ought
to rest a while. Come and take a walk up the river."
The boy said, "No"; that he was going home to dinner
"Come right up to my house," said the stranger, and I'll
give you a good dinner there and bring you home again in the morning."
So the boy went with him up the river until they came to a house,
when they went in, and the man's wife and the other people there
were very glad to see him, and gave him a fine dinner, and were
very kind to him. While they were eating a man that the boy knew
very well came in and spoke to him, so that he felt quite at home.
After dinner he played with the other children and slept there
that night, and in the morning, after breakfast, the man got ready
to take him home. They went down a path that had a cornfield on
one side and a peach orchard fenced in on the other, until they
came to another trail, and the man said, "Go along this trail
across that ridge and you will come to the river road that will
bring you straight to your home, and now I'll go back to the house."
So the man went back to the house and the boy went on along the
trail, but when he had gone a little way he looked back, and there
was no cornfield or orchard or fence or house; nothing but trees
on the mountain side.
He thought it very queer, but somehow he was not frightened, and
went on until he came to the river trail in sight of his home. There
were a great many people standing about talking, and when they saw
him they ran toward him shouting, "Here he is! He is not drowned
or killed in the mountains!" They told him they had been hunting
him ever since yesterday noon, and asked him where he had been.
"A man took me over to his house just across the ridge, and
I had a fine dinner and a good time with the children," said
the boy, "I thought Udsi'skalä here"--that was the
name of the man he had seen at dinner--"would tell you where
But Udsi'skalä said, "I haven't seen you. I was out all
day in my canoe hunting you. It was one of the Nûñnë'hï
that made himself look like me."
Then his mother said, "You say you had dinner there?"
"Yes, and I had plenty, too," said the boy; but his mother
answered, "There is no house there--only trees and rocks--but
we hear a drum sometimes in the big bald above. The people you saw
were the Nûñnë'hï."
Once four Nûñnë'hï women came, to a dance
at Nottely town, and danced half the night with the young men there,
and nobody knew that they were Nûñnë'hï,
but thought them visitors from another settlement. About midnight
they left to go home, and some men who had come out from the townhouse
to cool off watched to see which way they went. They saw the women
go down the trail to the river ford, but just as they came to the
water they disappeared, although it was a plain trail, with no place
where they could hide.
Then the watchers knew they were Nûñnë'hï
women. Several men saw this happen, and one of them was Wafford's
father-in-law, who was known for an honest man. At another time
a man named Burnt-tobacco was crossing over the ridge from Nottely
to Hemptown in Georgia and heard a drum and the songs of dancers
in the hills on one side of the trail.
He rode over to see who could be dancing in such a place, but when
he reached the spot the drum and the songs were behind him, and
he was so frightened that he hurried back to the trail and rode
all the way to Hemptown as hard as he could to tell the story. He
was a truthful man, and they believed what he said.
There must have been a good many of the Nûñnë'hï
living in that neighborhood, because the drumming wits often heard
in the high balds almost up to the time of the Removal.
On a small upper branch of Nottely, running nearly due north from
Blood maintain, there was also a hole, like a small well or chimney,
in the ground, from which there came up a warm vapor that heated
all the air around. People said that this was because the Nûñnë'hï
had a townhouse and a fire under the mountain. Sometimes in cold
weather hunters would stop there to warm the selves, but they were
afraid to stay long. This was more than sixty years ago, but the
hole is probably there yet.
Close to the old trading path from South Carolina up to the Cherokee
Nation, somewhere near the head of Tugaloo, there was formerly a
noted circular depression about the size of a townhouse, and waist
deep. Inside it was always clean as though swept by unknown hands.
Passing traders would throw logs and rocks into it, but would always,
on their return, find them thrown far out from the hole. The Indians
said it was a Nunne'hi townhouse, and never liked to go near the
place or even to talk about it, until at last some logs thrown in
by the traders were allowed to remain there, and then they concluded
that the Nunne'hi, annoyed by the persecution of the white men,
had abandoned their townhouse forever.
There is another race of spirits, the Yûñwï Tsunsdi',
or "Little People," who live in rock eaves on the mountain
side. They are little fellows, hardly reaching up to a man's knee,
but well shaped and handsome, with long hair falling almost to the
ground. They are great wonder workers and are very fond of music,
spending half their time drumming and dancing.
They are helpful and kind-hearted, and often when people have been
lost in the mountains, especially children who have strayed away
from their parents, the Yûñwï Tsunsdi' have found
them and taken care of them and brought them back to their homes.
Sometimes their drum is heard in lonely places in the mountains,
but it is not safe to follow it, because the Little People do not
like to be disturbed at home, and they throw a spell over the stranger
so that he is bewildered and loses his way, and even if he does
at last get back to the settlement he is like one dazed ever after.
Sometimes, also, they come near a house at night and the people
inside hear them talking, but they must not go out, and in the morning
they find the corn gathered or the field cleared as if a whole force
of men had been at work. If anyone should go out to watch, he would
die. When a hunter finds anything in the woods, such as a knife
or a trinket, he must say, "Little People, I want to take this,"
because it may belong to them, and if he does not ask their permission
they will throw stones at him as he goes home.
Once a hunter in winter found tracks in the snow like the tracks
of little children. He wondered how they could have come there and
followed them until they led him to a cave, which was full of Little
People, young and old, men, women, and children. They brought him
in and were kind to him, and he was with them some time; but when
he left they warned him that he must not tell or he would die.
He went back to the settlement and his friends were all anxious
to know where he had been. For a long time he refused to say, until
at last he could not hold out any longer, but told the story, and
in a few days he died. Only a few years ago two hunters from Raventown,
going behind the high fall near the head of Oconaluftee on the East
Cherokee reservation, found there a cave with fresh footprints of
the Little People all over the floor.
During the smallpox among the East Cherokee just after the war
one sick man wandered off, and his friends searched, but could not
find him. After several weeks he came back and said that the Little
People had found him and taken him to one of their eaves and tended
him until he was cured.
About twenty-five years ago a man named Tsantäwû' was
lost in the mountains on the head of Oconaluftee. It was winter
time and very cold and his friends thought he must be dead, but
after sixteen days he came back and said that the Little People
had found him and taken him to their cave, where he had been well
treated, and given plenty of everything to eat except bread. This
was in large loaves, but when he took them in his hand to eat they
seemed to shrink into small cakes so light and crumbly that though
he might eat all day he would not be satisfied.
After he was well rested they had brought him a part of the way
home until they came to a small creek, about knee deep, when they
told him to wade across to reach the main trail on the other side.
He waded across and turned to look back, but the Little People were
gone and the creek was a deep river. When he reached home his legs
were frozen to the knees and he lived only a few days.
Once the Yûñwï Tsunsdi' had been very kind to
the people of a certain settlement, helping them at night with their
work and taking good care of any lost children, until something
happened to offend them and they made up their minds to leave the
neighborhood. Those who were watching at the time saw the whole
company of Little People come down to the ford of the river and
cross over and disappear into the mouth of a large cave on the other
side. They were never heard of near the settlement again.
There are other fairies, the Yûñwï Amai'yïnë'hï,
or Water-dwellers, who live in the water, and fishermen pray to
them for help. Other friendly spirits live in people's houses, although
no one can see them, and so long as they are there to protect the
house no witch can come near to do mischief.
Tsäwa'sï and Tsäga'sï are the names of two
small fairies, who are mischievous enough, but yet often help the
hunter who prays to them. Tsäwa'sï, or Tsäwa'sï
Usdi'ga (Little Tsäwa'sï), is a tiny fellow, very handsome,
with long hair falling down to his feet, who lives in grassy patches
on the hillsides and has great power over the game.
To the deer hunter who prays to him he gives skill to slip up on
the deer through the long grass without being seen. Tsäga'sï
is another of the spirits invoked by the hunter and is very helpful,
but when someone trips and falls, we know that it is Tsäga'sï
who has caused it. There are several other of these fairies with
names, all good-natured, but more or less tricky.
Then there is De'tsätä. De'tsätä was once a
boy who ran away to the woods to avoid a scratching and tries to
keep himself invisible ever since. He is a handsome little fellow
and spends his whole time hunting birds with blowgun and arrow.
He has a great many children who are all just like him and have
the same name. When a flock of birds flies up suddenly as if frightened
it is because De'tsätä is chasing them.
He is mischievous and sometimes hides an arrow from the bird hunter,
who may have shot it off into a perfectly clear space, but looks
and looks without finding it. Then the hunter says, "De'tsätä,
you have my arrow, and if you don't give it up I'll scratch you,"
and when he looks again he finds it.
There is one spirit that goes about at night with a light. The
Cherokee call it Atsil'-dihye'gï, "The Fire-carrier,"
and they are all afraid of it, because they think it dangerous,
although they do not know much about it. They do not even know exactly
what it looks like, because they are afraid to stop when they see
it. It may be a witch instead of a spirit.
Wafford's mother saw the "Fire-carrier" once when she
was a young woman, as she was coming home at night from a trading
post in South Carolina. It seemed to be following her from behind,
and. she was frightened and whipped up her horse until she got away
from it and never saw it again.
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