USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘cherokee’
Legends
Narrative

The Little People

The informant for this piece is my aunt, who worked for the Cherokee Government for several years and is still heavily involved in the organization. She grew up in Tulsa, OK, but has also lived extensively in Tahlequah, OK.

In this piece, my aunt talks to me about the legend of the Little People in Cherokee folklore.

AJ: There was another story I’ll tell you. It’s about the Little People. Have you heard of them?

Me: I don’t think so, no.

AJ: Again, your Mimi, and therefore your mom and I, weren’t told many stories about Cherokee folklore growing up. Some people felt that it was in competition with religion and Christianity, so they didn’t tell their kids.

Me: Right.

AJ: Well, the Little People are this race of spirits who live in caves. They’re about the height of your knees, and are supposedly very pretty and handsome. Their hair is so long it almost touches the ground. They’re helpful, kind, and great workers. They love music and spend their times singing and dancing. They’re kind of like you: they’re very nice and sweet, but don’t like to be disturbed.

Me: That is like me.

AJ: [laughs] My mom told me that sometimes you will hear the Little People drumming but that it is not safe to follow the sound because they don’t want to be disturbed at home. If you bother them, they’ll throw a spell on you so that they become confused and get lost. They like to do things for people, but they don’t like to be watched. Supposedly, you could hear them whispering outside of their house, but that you weren’t allowed to go outside. In the morning, you would wake up and find that corn had been gathered and set outside of your home.

Me: That’s nice.

AJ: I know. I wish I had the Little People clean my house at night.

Me: It would be a good service, huh?

AJ: One last thing about the Little People is that if you find something in the woods you have to say “Little People, I would like to take this” and then you’d say whatever it is you found.

Me: Why do you have to say that?

AJ: Because it may belong to one of them. If you don’t ask permission, the Little People will throw stones at you.

Me: I guess that makes sense.

AJ: So next time you’re out in the woods of California, make sure and say hi to the Little People.

Me: I will.

I personally really like this, and I know my aunt likes it to because she enjoys the idea of these people in a way looking out for the Cherokee people. I like it because it reminds me a lot of myself: I like helping people, but I don’t want any recognition or people to observe me trying to help someone. I would much rather not get any praise. My aunt is very similar to me in that fashion, so in a way we feel a connection to the Little People. I think a lot of the traditions with the Little People, such as asking for their permission to take something in the woods, is a practice that makes life a little more interesting. I don’t think my Aunt believes in the Little People, but she still likes to do the act. In a way, I think it connects her with our ancestors, and in another way, I think it’s just a little thing to do that keeps life interesting.

Myths
Narrative

Cherokee Myth of Fire

The informant for this piece is my aunt, who worked for the Cherokee Government for several years and is still heavily involved in the organization. She grew up in Tulsa, OK, but has also lived extensively in Tahlequah, OK.

In this piece, my aunt discusses the Cherokee myth of where fire came from. The story also explains why certain animals look the way they do.

AJ: Growing up, especially in your grandmother’s day, we didn’t really share stories from the old days. A lot of your ancestors saw those stories as going against the word of God.

Me: Because they had converted to Christianity.

AJ: Right, so those stories didn’t get passed around as much. I remember a couple. One of them was a story on how fire was made.

Me: Can you tell it to me?

AJ: Yes. I looked it up to make sure I was remembering correctly. Okay, so in the beginning there was no fire and the world was dark and cold. Then, the Thunders sent lightning and put fire in the bottom of a sycamore tree. This tree was located on an island in the middle of water, and the animals could not get to it, so they held a council to decide what to do. The White Raven offered to go, but when he landed on the sycamore tree, the heat of the fire scorched his feathers black so he returned without fire… so that’s how ravens became black, too.

Me: Interesting.

AJ: Okay… so the raven came back without fire. Next, the screech owl went, but when he looked down into the tree, a burst of hot air shot up and burned his eyes, which are red to this day. The hoot and horned owls went next, but the smoke blinded them and the ashes caused white rings to form around their eyes.

Me: So this is sort of the story of how we got fire and how animals came to look the way they did.

AJ: Yes! Isn’t it creative?

Me: Very.

AJ: The black racer and the black snake both tried but where both burned black for their efforts. Finally, the little water spider spun a tusti bowl on her back, and crossed the water to the island, and put one coal in her bowl and brought fire back to the animals. Isn’t that cool?

Me: Yeah. You’re right, it was very inventive. So, did Mimi tell you that?

AJ: Yes. I think I asked her about a story one time and that was one of the few she knew. Like I said, she didn’t learn many growing up, but I guess a few slipped out every now and then. We kind of hold on to them tightly since we have so little.

I think the major reason my aunt loves this story is the creativity involved in it. The way the story explains why some animals are the color that they are did not have to be included, but she appreciates that it was. I also think she likes it because it’s part of our heritage, and it makes her feel connected to her past that she tells this story. She might not feel as if she is as connected as she could be due to what she mentioned about how the stories were not passed down at one point, so knowing this story is extremely important to her. Personally, I think the story is very creative and it makes me proud to think that my ancestors were really great at telling stories, because that exactly what I want to do in my life.

Here is a website that also tells the myth: http://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/TheFirstFire-Cherokee.html

Folk Beliefs
Signs

Some Cherokee beliefs about incoming storms

When my friend told me she was part Cherokee Indian, I was curious to hear what kinds of traditions and pieces of wisdom were passed down to her. The following is what she had to say.

“So, my grandma, her mom is a Cherokee Indian, and some sayings that she passed down that my grandma always says is that, if the pine tree has a bunch of [pine]cones at the top of the tree, then that means it’s gonna be a really tough winter, and if animals have really thick pelts, then that also means its gonna be real hard because the animals have to fatten up I guess. And if you see the backs of the leaves, then that means a storm’s coming.”

I have heard several folk beliefs about when people think there might be a storm coming, or other types of natural occurrences. Native Americans seem to be particularly in tune with nature, and my friend told me that she thinks the above folk beliefs are true because so far she’s witnessed them to be true.

Foodways

Cherokee Yam Cakes

The informant (D) is a married father of two now adult children. D grew up in various parts of southern California, but spent his high school years in Chino, California, in the same house that his mother now lives. He and his wife shared the cooking responsibility about 50/50 while their children were still in the house but now that they have both gone off to college, he has taken over more of the responsibility. D’s father came from Oklahoma many decades ago, before my father was born, and claimed to be “part Cherokee,” though that was never formally proven. I asked D about the so-called “Cherokee yam cakes” that he makes every Thanksgiving. Cherokee yam cakes are best described as yam stir-n-roll (non-flaky) biscuits. He emailed me the recipe when I asked about the cakes.

The recipe is (copied from email):

“2 cups flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 T. sugar
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup oil
1/2 cup milk
1 cup mashed yams

Mix oil, milk, & yams.
Add to sifted dry ingredients.
Mix lightly until it holds together.
Knead gently (about 12 times) until smooth
Roll out 1/2″ thick.
Cut into circles.
Bake on greased sheet, 425 F, 10-12 min.

I have always used whole wheat flour, my mom used all purpose flour.
I usually make a double batch.”

I also asked him several questions about the yam cakes. The interview below is verbatim via email.

Me: Where and when did you learn the recipe?
D: When I moved out of my mom’s house, I asked to copy the recipe. I moved out in 1983, back in in ’85, and back out in 1990 when [my wife and I] got married. I may not have got the recipe until 1990 but I don’t remember.
Me: Do you know where she got the recipe?
D: I never asked where she got the recipe. I assumed it was from my dad, but never asked [my mom] about that.  I know it was the one “add-on” to a Thanksgiving menu we had every year:

Rock Cornish game hens
Wild Rice dressing
asparagus
mashed potatoes and gravy
He got the menu from Playboy magazine!
Me: For what occasions do you make the yam cakes now?

D: Thanksgiving, though I made some also around Christmas last year, for the first time ever.  I think we missed Thanksgiving actually too for the first time but made some later, [my son] asked for them. I like to make a large batch so I can keep eating them for a few days.

Me: Why do you continue to make these yam cakes instead of something else for those occasions?

D: I don’t know of anything else like them- they’re so mellow and satisfying. They seem to settle your stomach if you overindulge in rich foods. Will and I used to credit them with making it possible to eat more after you thought you were full.

Me: What do the yam cakes mean to you?
D: Makes me remember my family  and family holidays when I was a kid, makes me proud of my unconfirmed  (1/32?) Cherokee heritage, makes me proud to have a good yummy recipe that nobody else makes and everyone always seems to like. Plus I think they’re pretty healthy and they’re easy to digest.
The fact that D calls them “Cherokee” yam cakes instead of just “yam cakes” tells me that small detail really does mean a lot. I have known D literally since I was born and do not remember him ever NOT saying “Cherokee yam cakes” when he was talking about them. As he mentions, the Cherokee ancestry has not been verified. I think this remains to be so important because being Native American (even a teeny bit) would connect him to the earth in a different way than the rest of his immigrant ancestry does (his mother is from Friesland, a Dutch province). The yam cakes really are unique and do settle an over-full stomach and are good hot or cold. It seems that though the naming is highly symbolic, the practical reasons to eat them are also important.
Additionally, the nostalgia factors into the importance of these cakes, both for D and his children.
Myths
Narrative

Cherokee Creation Myth

Adopted by parents of Native American descent, my informant has no Native American “blood” in him but still values the traditions and stories of his family. This is the creation myth his grandpa told him.

“So, basically, all the animals are living in this land in the sky, and it starts to get crowded. So the water beetle gets sent down to swim around in the water and try to find land. And it doesn’t find any at first, but then it swims deeper until it comes against something solid, which is mud. And it brings up to the surface and the mud spreads out, like all across the earth until a third of it is covered. Then there were four strings made to attach the land to the sky. After that, the great buzzard flew down to check if the land was dry. And when it got too close to the land, the flaps of its wings created mountains and valleys. That’s how the world was created.”

My informant, though he doesn’t believe the story, says it’s important to him because it links him to his parents and family, making him feel like he belongs with them because they wanted to share their culture with him, since he is adopted.

I think the story’s interesting because of the way animals existed before humans did. This gives animals a kind of mystical quality and exalts them to an extent. Native American culture does tend to give animals more respect than modern Western culture, so this makes sense. The story also shows how our world is supported by strings, which could be taken to mean existence is fragile.

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