These stories are best shared outside, surrounded by friends and family.
Illustrated by Brittany Norris
In today’s fast-paced, content-stuffed world, stories are everywhere. But generally, they’re brief and easy, structured for entertainment and quick consumption. Rarely is there an opportunity to experience narratives that trace back thousands of years. More than campfire stories, these legends speak to the origin and ways of things, setting intentions and values for seven generations to come. And so it is with great gratitude that we share selections from two talented storytellers of the Atsila Anotasgi Cultural Specialists of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.
The Pleiades and The Pine
As told by Nola Teesatuskie of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
(Shared orally, edited for readability)
A long time ago, there were seven boys and they were playing a game called chunkey. The way that chunkey works is you take a quartzite stone shaped like a round wheel and you roll it. You also have a spear and you can use three steps (or you don’t have to) to throw the spear and either knock the stone over or land closest to the stone. Whoever lands closest (and usually you play in groups of two) gets to run up, pick up the stone, and roll it again.
These seven boys are playing this game from the time the sun came up to the time it was starting to get dark. Their chores are being neglected and they’re not helping out around the house. Their seven mothers get together and complain about their sons. They say, “Oh, we’re so behind on getting all of the corn ready so we can grind it up in the corn mill. My son’s not helping out, I’m having to do all of his extra chores.” And another mom pipes up saying, “I’m also having to do all this stuff. He’s no help. He’s supposed to be teaching his little brother and he’s not doing it.”
And so they say, “We have to figure out a way to get these boys to stop playing chunkey. What are we going to do?”
One of the moms suggests, “Oh, we’ll take all their quartzite stones and we’ll take their sticks and we’ll break them and throw their stones in the water and they’ll never be able to play again.” Another mom pipes up. “No. We’re going to make them stand outside and hold these stones until their arms get tired and they don’t ever want to pick them up again.” And the moms are going back and forth, complaining and trying to figure out what to do.
Finally, one mom says, “No, I have a great idea. These boys are out playing all day long. And by the time the night comes, they’re starving and they’re really hungry. We’re going to make them this huge stew and it’s going to have all of their favorite foods in it. And we’re going to crush up all of the chunkey stones and we’re going to mix it into their stew and then that way, when they take a bite, they’re going to be so disgusted that they’re eating chunkey stones, they’ll never want to play it.”
All the moms agree, “Yeah, that’s a great idea. We’re going to do that.” And they go into the kitchen of one house and they cook a huge stew for all of their sons who are still out playing.
As night falls and the sun goes down, the sons come rushing in. They can smell the stew from outside and they’re begging their moms, “Mom, we’re starving. We’re so hungry. Where’s the food at?”
The moms respond, “Calm down. Just sit and it’ll be ready soon.” So the moms are still stirring it and all the boys are sitting down saying, “Oh, we’re so hungry. Please hurry. We’re starving. We haven’t eaten all day. We’re so tired and hungry.”
The moms say, “Okay. We’re going to fill up your bowls but none of you can eat until everybody’s bowl is filled and then you can all eat together.”
All the boys at the same time dig their spoons in. They go to take big mouthfuls of stew and they start biting down and trying to chew and they crack their teeth on the chunkey stones. They spit all the chunkey stones out and all of them are holding their jaws, crying, “Oh, what was that? Oh, my jaw hurts.”
And other ones are talking and saying, “Oh, my teeth. My teeth hurt so bad. I think they’re broken.” The boys are going back and forth and the moms are laughing because this is what their sons get. The boys wail, “Oh, what was in that stew? What was that?”
The moms tell them, “It’s chunkey stones. We took chunkey stones and we crushed them up because we’re sick and tired of you boys not helping out. We’re falling behind in all of our chores.”
And the boys cry, “Oh, you don’t understand.” They all stand up and go running out the door. The moms are all laughing, saying, “That was a really good idea.” The boys are walking out and they’re so angry. They’re angry at their moms and they talk amongst each other and say, “Oh, our moms don’t understand. This game is so important.”
“Ugh, I can’t believe our moms would do that. Why would they ever do that?”
“They know how important it is.”
One of the boys suggests, “Ah, you know what? I’m just going to go dance off all of this anger because I can’t with our moms right now.” So they go up and they start to dance, and it’s said they were doing the Eagle dance. They put all of their anger into the dance. They danced around in a circle, speeding up and getting faster.
And as they get faster, the boys start slowly rising up in the air. When the moms come out to check on their sons, they look off in the distance and see their sons dancing and slowly making their way up into the air. All seven moms bolt towards their sons but by the time they get there, most of them are out of reach. The moms are jumping up trying to grab their sons but they can’t grab them.
One boy was dancing a little bit slower than the rest and was lot closer to the ground. His mom jumped up and held onto his feet. She pulled and pulled and pulled on his feet but the boy was still dancing, not even paying attention.
The rest of the boys are slowly rising up into the sky. The six of them make their place in the sky as the Pleiades constellation. The last mom, she’s holding onto her son’s feet and she’s pulling as hard as she can. Tears are running down her face and she’s crying, apologizing for serving her son chunkey stones and making him so angry. Finally, she gets one big burst of strength and pulls him down really hard, so hard the Earth opens up and swallows him. She drops to her knees, crying her eyes out, her tears wetting the place where the earth had swallowed her son.
She came to this place for many days afterward and would sit and cry because the rest of the moms got to see their sons in the sky, but she’s never going to see her son because the Earth swallowed him. And after many days, a little green sprout pops up. She comes back to this place and keeps crying and the sprout keeps getting bigger and bigger until it grows into a huge pine tree.
And that is how we get our Pleiades and our pine trees.
The Great Game
A tale of kindness and lacrosse as told by Jarrett Wildcatt of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
(Shared orally, edited for readability)
This one is actually about stickball and animals. This story starts out between the four-leggeds and the winged animals. The leader of the four-leggeds was the bear. The leader of the winged animals was the eagle. For a long time these two factions were arguing about who’s more dominant, who’s the more superior species, and all this and that. It got to the point where it got very tiring. They were tired of arguing. They were tired of fighting. They didn’t want to go to war, there was no need for it. So they came up with the game of stickball or “anetsa,” the little brother of war.
They developed the system of how they’re going to train, how the game’s going to go, how they’re going to prepare for it, all these different things. Going to water is one of those things, for stickball. For today’s time, we go after practice and after the game. And you ingest a black drink to cleanse yourself because the way to prepare for stickball is very similar to the way we prepare for war.
We go through different, as they say, scratching ceremonies. I can’t explain what we use exactly, but we use certain plants or certain animal claws for that. The weakness leaving your body is the blood that spills after you’ve been scratched. In that process though, it involves water, it involves plants, so I guess plants are involved in this story. But anyway, the animals come up with all these different things.
The bear had his team made up of the panther and the tortoise. They had the fox. He had all these different animals, the otter, all these different creatures. And the birds, there was the eagle, the hawk, the raven, the blue jay, the cardinal, the hummingbird, all these different birds.
While practice is going on, there’s this one little animal, one little four-legged creature that wants to play for the four-leggeds, and that was the mouse. The mouse went up to the bear, and asked, “Can I please play for you guys? It would mean so much to me. I would really appreciate it.”
And the bear says, “No, you can’t play for us. You’re too weak. You’re too small. You would only slow us down.”
But the mouse kept begging him, “Please let me play, please.” And the bear just swats him away, all the way across the field. And he flew over to the fort of the winged animals, the birds. The eagle picked up the mouse, asking him if he was all right and dusting him off. The mouse was so embarrassed, he didn’t want to look at the eagle.
He said, “I don’t, I can’t … I don’t want to tell you what happened, it’s too embarrassing.”
The eagle asked, “Please, what happened? I want to know, please. I want to help you.”
The mouse responds, “I wanted to play for the animals, but they wouldn’t let me. They said I was too weak. They said I was too small. There was no place for me.”
The eagle looked at the mouse and he said, “Well, I’m sorry to hear that. How about you play for us?”
The mouse was ecstatic, he was so happy. He was so excited and he said, “I would really appreciate that. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
The eagle then asked, he said, “Well, I do have a question and it’s important to know this, but do you know how to fly?”
The mouse was like, “I don’t know how to fly. I don’t have wings. Nobody ever taught me.”
“Well, if you’re going to play with us, you have to know how to fly.”
So the mouse says, “Okay, I’ll do whatever it takes. Whatever you want to teach me, I’ll learn.” The eagle, he grabs the mouse and he puts wings on him. He cuts out an old drum, a deer skin drum and he puts it on the mouse’s arms and makes wings out of them. They climb up to a very tall tree and the eagle says, “All right, this is how I taught my children to fly. I’m going to push you off this tree and you’re going to figure it out. I trust your instincts will tell you what to do.”
The mouse says, “I don’t know. I don’t think this is how it works. I’m not a bird, remember?” And the eagle’s like, “Don’t worry about it. Don’t worry. If you fall and can’t fly, I will catch you.” So the mouse is like, “All right, whatever you say.”
The eagle pushes him off the tree.
The mouse is just falling towards the ground, and he’s screaming, he’s hollering. The eagle thinks, “Ah, don’t worry about it. He’ll figure it out.” He looks down but the mouse is still falling. He’s like, “Oh, my God.” He flies down and catches the mouse. The mouse is breathing hard, he’s breathing heavy. And the eagle concedes, “Okay, we can’t do that so let’s try something else.”
He tries to think, what do I do whenever I fly out of a tree? He’s thinking and thinking and he finally says, “Okay, all right, let’s try this.” He tells the mouse, “When you fly off the tree, when you’re flying towards the ground, turn your body this way, turn your body that way, then start flapping your wings and then you’ll be flying.”
The mouse says, “Okay, I hope you’re not lying to me.” The eagle tells him, “No, I promise, this will work.” He pushes the mouse off the top of the tree once more and the mouse turns his body this way, he turns his body that way. Then he starts flapping his wings and sure enough, that mouse starts flying. He figures it out, he’s flying. That mouse was just so happy, he was so ecstatic. He thanked the eagle over and over.
The big game gets started. The birds are on one side, the animals are on the other. The game ball is thrown up. They get their sticks, they’re trying to catch the ball, they’re trying to grab it. They throw it into the goal. Some of them fly through the goal, some of the animals run through the goal, so it’s going back and forth, and back and forth. The game’s going on. The mouse, he’s so small, he’s not the best flyer. He’s trying to keep up with everybody.
The animals were much faster than him. The four-leggeds were much faster than him. They’re stronger than him. They’re bigger than him. Even though the hummingbird is the same size as him, the hummingbird knew how to fly, he was fast. This really made the mouse feel defeated. He said, “I really want to score a point. It would mean so much to me if I could. I’m trying my best out here, I really want to do this.” And the eagle, he’s listening, so the eagle says, “All right, let me help you, but I need your cooperation. I need you to believe in yourself. Just let me help you.”
Then the eagle tells him, “When the ball goes up, jump up as high as you can, grab the ball, I’ll do the rest.” The mouse asks, “What are you going to do?” The eagle responds, “Don’t worry about it. I’m going to help you, trust me.”
So the ball goes up one more time, the mouse jumps up as high as he can. He wraps his whole body around that ball, but now he couldn’t fly, so he’s falling back towards the ground. The eagle, he scoops him up with his stick. He flings him all the way across the field to the other goal, and scores the last point, for the winged animals.
And after that day, the winged animals, were the more dominant creatures of the sky, of this world, of the sky world as well. But also that mouse, he was gifted, he was blessed with wings of his own, also given fangs. He became the bat.
So with that, we learn for one thing, not treating people ugly. Don’t treat people like they don’t matter. In some way or another, we’re all made special, we’re all made differently, we’re all made unique.