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: