The Bird Tribes
A Cherokee Legend
Winged creatures of all kinds are classed under the generic term of aninâ'hilidâ'hï (flyers). Birds are called, alike in the singular and plural, tsi'skwa, the term being generally held to exclude the domestic fowls introduced by the whites.
When it is necessary to make the distinction they are mentioned, respectively, as inägëhï (living in the woods), and uluñni'ta (tame). The robin is called tsiskwa'gwä, a name which can not be analyzed, while the little sparrow is called tsikwâ'yä (the real or principal bird), perhaps, in accord with a principle in Indian nomenclature, on account of its wide distribution.
As in other languages, many of the bird names are onomatopes, as wa`huhu' (the screech owl), u'guku' (the hooting owl), wagulï' (the whippoorwill), kâgû (the crow), gügwë' (the quail), huhu (the yellow mocking-bird), tsï'kïlï' (the chickadee), sa'sa' (the goose). The turtledove is called gulë'-diska`nihï' (it cries for acorns), on account of the resemblance of' it cry to the sound of the word for acorn. (gulë')
The meadowlark is called näkwïsï' (star), on account of the appearance of its tail when spread out as it soars. The nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) is called tsulie'na (deaf), and is supposed to be without bearing, possibly on account of its fearless disregard for man's presence. Certain diseases are diagnosed by the doctors as due to birds, either revengeful bird ghosts, bird feathers about the house, or bird shadows falling upon the patient from overhead.
The eagle (awâ'hïlï) is the great sacred bird of the Cherokee, as of nearly all our native tribes, and figures prominently in their ceremonial ritual, especially in all things relating to war. The particular species prized was the golden or war eagle (Aquila chrsætus), called by the Cherokee the "pretty-feathered eagle," on account of its beautiful tail feathers, white, tipped with black, which were in such great demand for decorative and ceremonial purposes that among the western tribes a single tail was often rated as equal in value to a horse.
Among the Cherokee in the old times the killing of an eagle was an event which concerned the whole settlement, and could be undertaken only by the professional eagle killer, regularly chosen for the purpose on account of his knowledge of the prescribed forms and the prayers to be said afterwards in order to obtain pardon for the necessary sacrilege, and thus ward off vengeance from the tribe.
It is told of one man upon the reservation that having deliberately killed an eagle in defiance of the ordinances he was constantly haunted by dreams of fierce eagles swooping down upon him, until the nightmare was finally exercised after a long course of priestly treatment. In 1890 there was but one eagle killer remaining among the East Cherokee. It does not appear that the eagle was ever captured alive as among the plains tribes.
The eagle must be killed only in the winter or late fall after the crops were gathered and the snakes had retired to their dens. If killed in the summertime a frost would come to destroy the corn, while the songs of the Eagle dance, when the feathers were brought home, would so anger the snakes that they would become doubly dangerous. Consequently the Eagle songs were never sung until after the snakes had gone to sleep for the winter.
When the people of a town had decided upon an Eagle dance the eagle killer was called in, frequently from a distant settlement, to procure the feathers for the occasion. He was paid for his services from offerings made later at the dance, and as the few professionals guarded their secrets carefully from outsiders their business was a quite profitable one.
After some preliminary preparation the eagle killer sets out alone for the mountains, taking with him his gun or bow and arrows. Having reached the mountains, he goes through a vigil of prayer and fasting, possibly lasting four days, after which he hunts until he succeeds in killing a deer. Then, placing the body in a convenient exposed situation upon one of the highest cliffs, he conceals himself near by and begins to sing in a low undertone the songs to call down the eagles from the sky.
When the eagle alights upon the carcass, which will be almost immediately if the singer understands his business, he shoots it, and then standing over the dead bird, he addresses to it a prayer in which he begs it not to seek vengeance upon his tribe, because it is not a Cherokee, but a Spaniard (Askwa'nï) that has done the deed. The selection of such a vicarious victim of revenge is evidence at once of the antiquity of the prayer in its present form and of the enduring impression which the cruelties of the early Spanish adventurers made upon the natives.
The prayer ended, he leaves the dead eagle where it fell and makes all haste to the settlement, where the people are anxiously expecting his return. On meeting the first warriors he says simply, "A snowbird has died," and passes on at once to his own quarters, his work being now finished. The announcement is made in this form in order to insure against the vengeance of any eagles that might overhear, the little snowbird being considered too insignificant a creature to be dreaded.
Having waited four days to allow time for the insect parasites to leave the body, the hunters delegated for the purpose go out to bring in the feathers. On arriving at the place they strip the body of the large tail and wing feathers, which they wrap in a fresh deerskin brought with them, and then return to the settlement, leaving the body of the dead eagle upon the ground, together with that of the slain deer, the latter being intended as a sacrifice to the eagle spirits.
On reaching the settlement, the feathers, still wrapped in the deerskin, are hung up in a small, round hut built for this special purpose near the edge of the dance ground (detsänûñ'lï) and known as the place "where the feathers are kept," or feather house. Some settlements had two such feather houses, one at each end of the dance ground.
The Eagle dance was held on the night of the same day on which the feathers were brought in, all the necessary arrangements having been made beforehand. In the meantime, as the feathers were supposed to be hungry after their journey, a dish of venison and corn was set upon the ground below them and they were invited to eat. The body of a flax bird or scarlet tanager (Piranga rubra) was also hung up with the feathers for the same purpose. The food thus given to the feathers was disposed of after the dance, as described in another place.
The eagle being regarded as a great ada'wehï, only the greatest warriors and those versed in the sacred ordinances would dare to wear the feathers or to carry them in the dance. Should any person in the settlement dream of eagles or eagle feathers he must arrange for an Eagle dance, with the usual vigil and fasting, at the first opportunity; otherwise some one of his family will die. Should the insect parasites which infest the feathers of the bird in life get upon a man they will breed a skin disease which is sure to develop, even though it may be latent for years. It is for this reason that the body of the eagle is allowed to remain four days upon the ground before being brought into the settlement.
The raven (kâ'länû) is occasionally seen in the mountains, but is not prominent in folk belief, excepting in connection with the gruesome tales of the Raven Mocker (q. v.). In former times its name was sometimes assumed as a war title. The crow, so prominent in other tribal mythologies, does not seem to appear in that of the Cherokee.
Three varieties of owls are recognized, each under a different name, viz: tskïlï', the dusky horned owl (Bubo virginianus saturatus); u'guku', the barred or hooting owl (Syrnium nebulosum), and wa`huhu', the screech owl (Megascops asio). The first of these names signifies a witch, the others being onomatopes. Owls and other night-crying birds are believed to be embodied ghosts or disguised witches, and their cry is dreaded as a sound of evil omen. If the eyes of a child be bathed with water in which one of the long wing or tail feathers of an owl has been soaked, the child will be able to keep awake all night.
The feather must be found by chance, and not procured intentionally for the purpose. On the other hand, an application of water in which the feather of a blue jay, procured in the same way, has been soaked will make the child an early riser.
The buzzard (sulï') is said to have had a part in shaping the Earth, as was narrated in the genesis myth. It is reputed to be a doctor among birds, and is respected accordingly, although its feathers are never worn by ball players, for fear of becoming bald. Its own baldness is accounted for by a vulgar story. As it thrives upon carrion and decay, it is held to be immune from sickness, especially of a contagious character, and a small quantity of its flesh eaten, or of the soup used as a wash, is believed to be a sure preventive of smallpox, and was used for this purpose during the smallpox epidemic among the East Cherokee in 1866.
According to the Wahnenauhi manuscript, it is said also that a buzzard feather placed over the cabin door will keep out witches. In treating gunshot wounds, the medicine is blown into the wound through a tube cut from a buzzard quill and some of the buzzard's down is afterwards laid over the spot.
There is very little concerning hawks, excepting as regards the great mythic hawk, the Tlä'nuwä'. The tlä'nuwä' usdi', or "little tlä'nuwä,") is described as a bird about as large as a turkey and of a grayish blue color, which used to follow the flocks of wild pigeons, flying overhead and darting down occasionally upon a victim, which it struck and killed with its sharp breast and ate upon the wing, without alighting. It is probably the goshawk (Astur atricapillus).
The common swamp gallinule, locally known as mud hen or didapper (Gallinula galeata), is called diga'gwanï' (lame or crippled), on account of its habit of flying only for a very short distance at a time. In the Diga'gwanï dance the performers sing the name of the bird and endeavor to imitate its halting movements.
The dagûl`kû, or white-fronted goose (Anser albifrons) appears in connection with the myth of the origin of tobacco. The feathers of the tskwâyï, the great white heron or American egret (Herodias egretta), are worn by ball players, and this bird probably the "swan" whose white wing was used as a peace emblem in ancient times.
A rare bird said to have been seen occasionally upon the reservation many years ago was called by the curious name of nûñdä-dikanï', "it looks at the sun," "sun-gazer." It is described as resembling a blue crane, and may possibly have been the Floridus cerulea, or little blue heron. Another infrequent visitor, which sometimes passed over the mountain country in company with flocks of wild geese, was the gu'wisguwï', so called from its cry.
It is described as resembling a large snipe, with yellow legs and feet unwebbed, and is thought to visit Indian Territory at intervals. It is chiefly notable from the fact that the celebrated chief John Ross derives his Indian name, Gu'wisguwï', from this bird, the name being perpetuated in Cooweescoowee district of the Cherokee Nation in the West.
Another chance visitant, concerning which there is much curious speculation among the older men of the East Cherokee, was called tsun'digwûntsu'`gï or tsun'digwûn'tskï, "forked," referring to the tail. It appeared but once, for a short season, about forty years ago, and has not been seen since. It is said to have been pale blue, with red in places, and nearly the size of a crow, and to have had a long forked tail like that of a fish.
It preyed upon hornets, which it took upon the wing, and also feasted upon the larva in the nests. Appearing unexpectedly and as suddenly disappearing, it was believed to be not a bird but a transformed red-horse fish (Moxostoma, Cherokee âligä'), a theory borne out by the red spots and the long, forked tail.
It is even maintained that about the time those birds first appeared some hunters on Oconaluftee saw seven of them sitting on the limb of a tree and they were still shaped like a red-horse, although they already had wings and feathers. It was undoubtedly the scissor-tail or swallow-tailed flycatcher (Milvulus forficatus), which belongs properly in Texas and the adjacent region, but strays occasionally into the eastern states.
On account of the red throat appendage of the turkey, somewhat resembling the goitrous growth known in the South as "kernels" (Cherokee, dule'tsï), the feathers of this bird are not worn by ball players, neither is the neck allowed to be eaten by children or sick persons, under the fear that a growth of "kernels" would be the result. The meat of the ruffed grouse, locally known as the pheasant (Bonasa umbellus), is taboo to a pregnant woman, because this bird hatches a large brood, but loses most of them before maturity. Under a stricter construction of the theory this meat is forbidden to a woman until she is past child bearing.
The redbird, tatsu'hwä, is believed to have been originally the daughter of the Sun (see the story). The huhu, or yellow mockingbird, occurs in several stories. It is regarded as something supernatural, possibly on account of its imitative powers, and its heart is given to children to make them quick to learn.
The chickadee (Parus carolinensis), and the tufted titmouse, (Parus bicolor), utsu'`gï, or u'stûtï, are both regarded as news bringers, but the one is venerated as a truth teller while the other is scoffed at as a lying messenger, for reasons which appear in the story of Nûñyunu'wï (q. v.).
When the tsïkïlilï' perches on a branch near the house and chirps its song it is taken as an omen that an absent friend will soon be heard from or that a secret enemy is plotting mischief. Many stories are told in confirmation of this belief, among which may be instanced that of Tom Starr, a former noted outlaw of the Cherokee Nation of the West, who, on one occasion, was about to walk unwittingly into an ambush prepared for him along a narrow trail, when he heard the warning note of the tsïkïlilï', and, turning abruptly, ran up the side of the ridge and succeeded in escaping with his life, although hotly pursued by his enemies.
Return to Cherokee Legends