Myths, legends, and stories are fundamental aspects of human society anywhere around the world. From the cradle of civilization to the cradles of our mothers, stories and fables have been passed down from one generation to another, allowing us to connect to our history, heritage, and ancestors.
Now, for many of us, we were exposed to a number of great literary and cinematic works, many of which derived from the celebrated compilation of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales from 1812. Such works today are easily recognizable, namely Rapunzel, a story about destiny, Hansel and Grethel, a message about trust, and a version of Cinderella, a remark on kindness and forgiveness.
No matter where we are on our adventure of life, there is always a lesson or two to be taken from the stories of our past, and for the Cherokee people, this is no exception. For the ᎠᏂᏴᏫᏯ (aniyvwiya, Native Americans), the ᎠᏂᏣᎳᎩ (anitsalagi, Cherokee people), stories are an integral part of cultural heritage. Unlike the western world, the written word was not introduced to the ᎠᏂᏣᎳᎩ until ᏏᏉᏯ (sequoyah) in 1821. The Cherokee people began a new age of compiling information and record-keeping, potentially starting a new stage in storytelling.
However, their achievements were short-lived for the ᎠᏂᏩᏯ (aniwaya), the ᎠᏂᏌᎰᏂ (anisahoni), the ᎠᏂᎩᎶᎯ (anigilohi), the ᎠᏂᏥᏍᏆ (anigisqua), the ᎠᏂᎠᏫ (aniawi), the ᎠᏂᎧᏗ (anikodi), the ᎠᏂᎪᏓᎨᏫ (anigodagewi), the seven people fell victim to the tearful march of 1831. A plethora of knowledge and information our ancestors acquired was lost and stolen, but in the end, we survived and we prevailed.
Now it is up to us to continue what our ancestors started and to help spread their stories and the messages they left behind. So, to start out, let’s visit the ancient thickets of the smokey mountain and follow a story of a creature we are all familiar with today, a mischievous, cunning little individual on the day of a gathering, ᏥᏍᏚ (tsisdu, Rabbit).
Rabbit is invited to a gathering held by all of the animals in the Smoky Mountains. The purpose of the meeting was to decide once and for all which critter had the most beautiful coat in the land. The front-runner for the contest was far away Otter, who was rumored to have a truly spectacular fur coat. Rabbit was jealous of Otter’s lovely fur, so he concocted a scheme to swipe the coveted coat. Before the gathering took place, Rabbit traveled to Otter’s home and offered to escort him to the meeting, since Otter lived far away and was unfamiliar with the area. Otter accepted Rabbit’s gracious offer, and the two animals set out on the trail. When nightfall came, Rabbit and Otter stopped beside a river, where they built a fire and found a spot to sleep. Glancing up at the sky, Rabbit warned his companion that they might be in for some unusual weather. Rabbit explained that they were camping at Di’tatlaski’yi, a place where it sometimes rains fire. In order to protect his fur from any molten precipitation, Rabbit encouraged Otter to take off his coat and hang it on a tree limb. Otter thanked Rabbit for his sage advice, removed his coat, and soon drifted off to sleep. With Otter fast asleep, Rabbit got to work. The cunning critter pulled out his knife and started carving a piece of unused firewood into a paddle. Then, Rabbit carefully placed a number of hot coals from the fire onto the paddle and proceeded to launch them towards Otter. As the chunks of coal fell down around him, Otter was roused from his sleep by Rabbit’s frantic screams of “It’s raining fire! It’s raining fire!” “Quick,” Rabbit urged him, “jump in the water, where it’s safe!” Otter plunged into the river and found relief from the fiery downpour. In fact, Otter liked the river so much that he decided to make his home in the water, and he continues to do so to this day. After Otter had swum away, Rabbit snatched his coat from the tree limb and draped it around himself. Catching his own reflection in the water, Rabbit was thrilled to see how marvelous he looked. Rabbit wanted the other animals to admire his stunning new coat, so he decided to attend their gathering to show off his getup. When he arrived at the meeting, however, Rabbit realized that he simply couldn’t stroll in wearing Otter’s coat without attracting suspicion. Instead, Rabbit pretended he was Otter by folding down his long ears and keeping his paws in front of his face, as if he was bashful. The ruse worked for a while, and the other critters complimented “Otter” for his gorgeous coat. As Rabbit basked in the admiration, Bear, one of the wisest animals in the Smokies, started to suspect that something was amiss. Bear lumbered over to “Otter” and pulled his paws from his face, revealing Rabbit’s famous split nose. “That’s not Otter, that’s Rabbit!” exclaimed one of the animals at the gathering. Now that he had been unmasked, Rabbit knew that the jig was up. Holding the coat close to his body, Rabbit tried to make a break for it before the angry animals descended on him. Bear grabbed onto Rabbit’s long tail with his claw, but Rabbit was moving so quickly that it was pulled right off. Rabbit escaped from the meeting and ran home to Tsistu’yi. Today, Rabbit still has a beautiful fur coat and a short, stubby tail.
Story by James Mooney: Myths of the Cherokees