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Cherokee Stories and the Birth of a New World: The First Fire

The eternal flame is a breath of life that is never ending, an inextinguishable warmth, or a symbol of an undying identity. For, even though a flame can be put out, with just the smallest of whisps, it can reignite, sometimes stronger. Around the globe, the eternal fire can be found in the crevices of a multitude of cultures. Some for honor, others for worship, and for the ᎠᏂᏣᎳᎩ (anitsalagi, Cherokee people), a symbol of remembrance and sacrifice of those who came before.

In 1831, during the long march, the tearful march of five great Nations, legend holds that a humble amber was carried from the traditional homeland to the New World of Oklahoma. The amber, the ᎠᏓᏅᏙ (adanhto, heart) of the fire, was placed in the ᏣᎳᎩ ᎠᏰᏟ (tsalagi ayetli, Cherokee Nation) and a new fire was formed with the remnants of the past, a past of ᎠᎵ (ali, sweat), ᎩᎦ (giga, blood) and ᎠᎾᎰᎯᎲ (anahohihv, tears). Most of all, the flame is a reminder that the Cherokee heart still beats, that the flame still pushes and pulls.

However, this is a legend for the new fire and the ᎢᏤ ᏣᎳᎩ ᎠᏰᏟ (itse tsalagi ayetli, New Cherokee Nation), and in order to understand our present, we must understand our past and origins. So, let's turn the clock back to a time when humans were few and others were many. To a time when the whispers of the winds, trees, and animals could be sung and heard. Today's story is about the most unlikely of creatures, a humble and giving creature who sacrificed and brought light to the ᎠᏂᏣᎳᎩ (anitsalagi, Cherokee people), the ᎧᎾᏁᏍᎩ ᎠᎹᏰᎯ (kananesgi amayehi, Water Spider).


In the beginning there was no fire, and the world was cold, until the ᎠᏂᎯᏳᏂᏘᏆᎳᏍᎩ (Ani′-Hyûñ′tĭkwălâ′skĭ, Thunders), who lived up in ᎦᎸᏂᎳᏗ (Gălûñ′lătĭ), sent their lightning and put fire into the bottom of a hollow sycamore tree which grew on an island. The animals knew it was there, because they could see the smoke coming out at the top, but they could not get to it on account of the water, so they held a council to decide what to do. This was a long time ago. Every animal that could fly or swim was anxious to go after the fire. The Raven offered, and because he was so large and strong they thought he could surely do the work, so he was sent first. He flew high and far across the water and alighted o,n the sycamore tree, but while he was wondering what to do next, the heat had scorched all his feathers black, and he was frightened and came back without the fire. The little ᏩᎱ (Wa′huhu′ , Screech-owl) volunteered to go, and reached the place safely, but while he was looking down into the hollow tree a blast of hot air came up and nearly burned out his eyes. He managed to fly home as best he could, but it was a long time before he could see well, and his eyes are red to this day. Then the ᎤᎫᎫ (U′guku′ , Hooting Owl) and the ᏥᏍᎩᎵ (Tskĭlĭ′ , Horned Owl) went, but by the time they got to the hollow tree the fire was burning so fiercely that the smoke nearly blinded them, and the ashes carried up by the wind made white rings about their eyes. They had to come home again without the fire, but with all their rubbing, they were never able to get rid of the white rings. Now no more of the birds would venture, and so the little Uksu′hĭ snake, the black racer, said he would go through the water and bring back some fire. He swam across to the island and crawled through the grass to the tree, and went in by a small hole at the bottom. The heat and smoke were too much for him, too, and after dodging about blindly over the hot ashes until he was almost on fire himself, he managed by good luck to get out again at the same hole, but his body had been scorched black, and he has ever since had the habit of darting and doubling on his track as if trying to escape from close quarters. He came back, and the great ᎫᎴᎩ (Gûle′gĭ , blacksnake) “The Climber,” offered to go for fire. He swam over to the island and climbed up the tree on the outside, as the blacksnake always does, but when he put his head down into the hole the smoke choked him so that he fell into the burning stump, and before he could climb out again he was as black as the ᎤᎫᏑᎯ (Uksu′hĭ). Now they held another council, for still there was no fire, and the world was cold, but birds, snakes, and four-footed animals, all had some excuse for not going, because they were all afraid to venture near the burning sycamore, until at last ᎧᎾᏁᏍᎩ ᎠᎹᏰᎯ (Kănăne′skĭ Amai′yĕhĭ, the Water Spider) said she would go. This is not the water spider that looks like a mosquito, but the other one, with black downy hair and red stripes on her body. She can run on top of the water or dive to the bottom, so there would be no trouble to get over to the island, but the question was, How could she bring back the fire? “I’ll manage that,” said the ᎧᎾᏁᏍᎩ ᎠᎹᏰᎯ (Kănăne′skĭ Amai′yĕhĭ, the Water Spider); so she spun a thread from her body and wove it into a ᏧᏍᏗ (tusti) bowl, which she fastened on her back. Then she crossed over to the island and through the grass to where the fire was still burning. She put one little coal of fire into her bowl, and came back with it, and ever since we have had fire, and the ᎧᎾᏁᏍᎩ ᎠᎹᏰᎯ (Kănăne′skĭ Amai′yĕhĭ, the Water Spider) still keeps her ᏧᏍᏗ (tusti) bowl.

Story by James Mooney: Myths of the Cherokees


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