SilentFeathers Sacred Pathways

The Heart, Mind, Body, Soul, and Spirit of the True Human Being

Cherokee Plant Lore by James Mooney

The Cherokee have always been an agricultural people, and their old country is a region of luxuriant flora, with tall trees and tangled undergrowth on the slopes and ridges, and myriad bright-tinted blossoms and sweet wild fruits along the running streams. The vegetable kingdom consequently holds a far more important place in the mythology and ceremonial of the tribe than it does among the Indians of the treeless plains and arid sage deserts of the West, most of the beliefs and customs in this connection centering around the practice of medicine, as expounded by the priests and doctors in every settlement. In general it is held that the plant world is friendly to the human species, and constantly at the willing service of the doctors to counteract the jealous hostility of the animals. The sacred formulas contain many curious instructions for the gathering and preparation of the medicinal roots and barks, which are selected chiefly in accordance with the theory of correspondences.

The Indians are close observers, and some of their plant names are peculiarly apt. Thus the mistletoe, which never grows alone, but is found always with its roots fixed in the bark of some supporting tree or shrub from which it draws its sustenance, is called by a name which signifies "4 it is married" (uda'`lï). The violet is still called by a plural name, dinda'skwate'skï, "they pull each other's heads off," showing that the Cherokee children have discovered a game not unknown among our own. The bear-grass (Eryngium), with its long, slender leaves like diminutive blades of corn, is called sälikwâ'yï, "greensnake," and the larger grass known as Job's tears, on account of its glossy, rounded grains, which the Indian children use for necklaces, is called sel-utsï' "the mother of corn." The black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) of our children is the "deer-eye" (a`wï'-aktä') of the Cherokee, and our lady-slipper (Cypripedium) is their "partridge moccasin" (gügwë'-ulasu'la). The May-apple (Podophyllum), with its umbrella-shaped top, is called u'niskwetu'`gï, meaning "it wears a hat," while the white puff ball fungus

is näkwïsï'-usdi' "the little star," and the common rock lichen bears the musical, if rather unpoetic, name of utsäle'ta, "pot scrapings." Some plants are named from their real or supposed place in the animal economy, as the wild rose, tsist-uni'gistï, "the rabbits eat it"--referring to the seed berries--and the shield fern (Aspidum), yân-utse'stû, "the bear lies on it." Others, again, are named from their domestic or ceremonial uses, as the fleabane (Erigeron canadense), called atsil'-sûñ`tï, "fire maker," because its dried stalk was anciently employed in producing fire by friction, and the bugle weed (Lycopus virginicus), known as aniwani'skï, "talkers," because the chewed root, given to children to Swallow, or rubbed upon their lips, is supposed to endow them with the gift of eloquence. Some few, in addition to the ordinary term in use among the common people, have a sacred or symbolic name, used only by the priests and doctors in the prayer formulas. Thus ginseng, or "sang," as it is more often called by the white mountaineers, is known to the laity â'talï-gûlï', "the mountain climber," but is addressed in the formulas as Yûñwï Usdi', "Little Man," while selu (corn) is invoked under the. name of Agawe'la, "The Old Woman." One or two plant names have their origin in myths, as, for instance, that of Prosartes lanuginosa, which bears the curious name of walâs'-unûl'stï, "frogs fight with it," from a story that in the long ago--hïlahi'yu--two quarrelsome frogs once fought a duel, using its stalks as lances. In the locative form this was the name of a former Cherokee settlement in Georgia, called by the whites Fighting-town, from a misapprehension of the meaning of the word. Of the white clover, the Cherokee say that "it follows the white man."

The division of trees into evergreen and deciduous is accounted for by a myth, related elsewhere, according to which the loss of their leaves in winter time is a punishment visited upon the latter for their failure to endure an ordeal to the end. With the Cherokee, as with nearly all other tribes east and west, the cedar is held sacred above other trees. The reasons for this reverence are easily found in its ever-living green, its balsamic fragrance, and the beautiful color of its fine-grained wood, unwarping and practically undecaying. The small green twigs are thrown upon the fire as incense in certain ceremonies, particularly to counteract the effect of asgina dreams, as it is believed that the anisgi'na or malevolent ghosts can not endure the smell; but the wood itself is considered too sacred to be used as fuel. In the war dance, the scalp trophies, stretched on small hoops, were hung upon a cedar sapling trimmed and decorated for the occasion. According to a myth the red color comes originally from the blood of a wicked magician, whose severed head was hung at the top of a tall cedar. The story is now almost forgotten, but it was probably nearly identical with one still existing among the Yuchi, former neighbors of the Cherokee. According to the Yuchi myth, a malevolent magician disturbed the daily course of the sun until at last two brave warriors sought him out and killed him in his cave. They cut off his head and brought it home with them to show to the people, but it continued still alive. To make it die they were advised to tie it in the topmost branches of a tree. This they did, trying one tree after another, but each morning the head was found at the foot of the tree and still alive. At last they tied it in a cedar, and there the head remained until it was dead. while the blood slowly trickling down along the trunk gave the wood its red color, and henceforth the cedar was a "medicine" tree.[1]

The linn or basswood (Tilia) is believed never to be struck by lightning. and the hunter caught in one of the frequent thunderstorms of the southern mountains always seeks its shelter. From its stringy bark are twisted the hunting belts worn about the waist. Sourwood (Oxydendrum) is used by the hunters for barbecue sticks to roast meat before the fire, on account of the acid flavor of the wood, which they believe to be thus communicated to the meat. Spoons and combs are also carved from the wood, but it is never burned, from all idea that lye made from the ashes will bring sickness to those who use it in preparing their food. It is said also that if one should sleep beside a fire containing sourwood sticks the sourwood "will barbecue him." which may possibly mean that he will have hot or feverish pains thereafter.

The laurel, in its two varieties, large and small (Rhododendron and Kalmia, or "ivy"), is much used for spoons and combs, on account of its close grain, as also in medicine, but is never burned, as it is believed that this would bring on cold weather, and would furthermore destroy the medicinal virtues of the whole species. The reason given is that the leaves, when burning, make a hissing sound suggestive of winter winds and falling snow. When the doctor is making up a compound in which any part of the laurel is an ingredient, great precautions are taken to prevent any of the leaves or twigs being swept into the fire, as this would render the decoction worthless. Sassafras is tabued as fuel among the Cherokee, as also among their white neighbors, perhaps for the practical reason that it is apt to pop out of the fire when heated and might thus set the house on fire.

Pounded walnut bark is thrown into small streams to stupefy the fish, so that they may be easily dipped out in baskets as they float on the surface of the water. Should a pregnant woman wade into the stream at the time, its effect is nullified, unless she has first taken the precaution to tie a strip of the bark about her toe. A fire of post-oak and the wood of the telûn'lätï or summer grape (Vitis æstivalis) is believed to bring a spell of warm weather even in the coldest winter season.

Mysterious properties attach to the wood of a tree which has been struck by lightning, especially when the tree itself still lives, and such wood enters largely into the secret compounds of the conjurers. An ordinary person of the laity will not touch it, for fear of having cracks come upon his hands and feet, nor is it burned for fuel, for fear that lye made from the ashes will cause consumption. In preparing ballplayers, for the contest, the medicine-man sometimes burns splinters of it to coal, which he gives to the players to paint themselves with in order that they may be able to strike their opponents with all the force of a thunderbolt. Bark or wood from a tree struck by lightning, but still green, is beaten up and put into the water in which seeds are soaked before planting, to insure a good crop, but, on the other hand, any lightning-struck wood thrown into the field will cause the crop to wither, and it is believed to have a bad effect even to go into the field immediately after having been near such a tree.

Among all vegetables the one which holds first place in the household economy and ceremonial observance of the tribe is selu, "corn," invoked in the, sacred formulas under the name of Agawe'la, "The Old Woman," in allusion to its mythic origin from the blood of an old woman killed by her disobedient sons (see number 3, "Kana'tï and Selu"). In former times the annual thanksgiving ceremony of the Green-corn dance, preliminary to eating the first new corn, was the most solemn tribal function, a propitiation and expiation for the sins of the past year, an amnesty for public criminals, and a prayer for happiness and prosperity for the year to come. Only those who had properly prepared themselves by prayer, fasting, and purification were allowed to take part in this ceremony, and no one dared to taste the new corn until then. Seven ears from the last year's crop were always put carefully aside, in order to attract the corn until the new crop was ripened and it was time for the dance, when they were eaten with the rest. In eating the first new corn after the Green Corn dance, care was observed not to blow upon it to cool it, for fear of causing a wind storm to beat down the standing crop in the field.

Much ceremony accompanied the planting and tending of the crop. Seven grains, the sacred number, were put into each hill, and these were not afterward thinned out. After the last working of the crop, the priest and an assistant-generally the owner of the field-went into the field and built a small inclosure (detsänûñ'lï) in the center. Then entering it, they seated themselves upon the ground, with heads bent down, and while the assistant kept perfect silence the priest, with rattle in band, sang songs of invocation to the spirit of the corn. Soon, according to the orthodox belief, a loud rustling would be heard outside, which they would know was caused by the "Old Woman" bringing the corn into the field, but neither must look up until the song was finished. This ceremony was repeated on four successive nights, after which no one entered the field for seven other nights, when the priest himself went in, and, if all the sacred regulations had been properly observed, was rewarded by finding young ears upon the stalks. The corn ceremonies could be performed by the owner of the field himself, provided he was willing to pay a sufficient fee to the priest in order to learn the songs and ritual. Care was always taken to keep a clean trail from the field to the house, so that the corn might be encouraged to stay at home and not go wandering elsewhere. Most of these customs have now fallen into disuse excepting among the old people, by many of whom they are still religiously observed.

Another curious ceremony, of which even the memory is now almost forgotten, was enacted after the first working of the corn, when the, owner or priest stood in succession at each of the four corners of the field and wept and wailed loudly. Even the priests are now unable to give a reason for this performance, which may have been a lament for the bloody death of Selu, as the women of Byblos were wont to weep for Adonis.

Next to corn, the bean (tuya) is the most important food plant of the Cherokee and other southern Indians, with whom it is probably native, but there does not appear to be much special ceremony or folklore in connection with it. Beans which crack open in cooking are sometimes rubbed by mothers on the lips of their children in order to make them look smiling and good-tempered. The association of ideas seems to be the same as that which in Ireland causes a fat mealy potato, which cracks open in boiling, to be called a "laughing" potato. Melons and squashes must not be counted or examined too closely, while still growing upon the vine, or they will cease to thrive; neither must one step over the vine, or it will wither before the fruit ripens. One who has eaten a May-apple must not come near the vines under any circumstances, as this plant withers and dries up very quickly, and its presence would make the melons wither in the same way.

Tobacco was used as a sacred incense or as the guarantee of a solemn oath in nearly every important function--in binding the warrior to take up the hatchet against the enemy, in ratifying the treaty of peace, in confirming sales or other engagements, in seeking omens for the hunter, in driving away witches or evil spirits, and in regular medical practice. It was either smoked in the pipe or sprinkled upon the fire, never rolled into cigarettes, as among the tribes of the Southwest, neither was it ever smoked for the mere pleasure of the sensation. Of late years white neighbors have taught the Indians to chew it, but the habit is not aboriginal. It is called tsâlû, a name which has lost its meaning in the Cherokee language, but is explained from the cognate Tuscarora, in which charhû', "tobacco," can still be analyzed as "fire to hold in the mouth," showing that the use is as old as the knowledge of the plant. The tobacco originally in use among the Cherokee, Iroquois, and other eastern tribes was not the common tobacco of commerce (Nicotiana tabacum), which has been introduced from the West Indies, but the Nicotiana rustica, or wild tobacco, now distinguished by the Cherokee as tsâl-agäyûñ'lï, "old tobacco," and by the Iroquois as "real tobacco." Its various uses in ritual and medicine are better described under other headings. For the myth of its loss and recovery see number 6, "How They Brought Back the Tobacco." The cardinal flower (Lobelia), mullein (Verbascum), and one or two related species are called "like tobacco," on account of their general resemblance to it in appearance, but they were never used in the same way.

The poisonous wild parsnip (Peucedanum) bears an unpleasant reputation on account of its frequent use in evil spells, especially those intended to destroy the life of the victim. In one of these conjurations seven pieces of the root are laid upon one hand and rubbed gently with the other, the omen being taken from the position of the pieces when the hand is removed. It is said also that poisoners mix it secretly with the food of their intended victim, when, if he eats, he soon becomes drowsy, and, unless kept in motion until the effect wears off, falls asleep, never to wake again. Suicides are said to eat it to procure death. Before starting on a journey a small piece of the root is sometimes chewed and blown upon the body to prevent sickness, but the remedy is almost as bad as the disease, for the snakes are said to resent the offensive smell by biting the one who carries it. In spite of its poisonous qualities, a decoction of the root is much used for steaming patients in the sweat bath, the idea seeming to be that the smell drives away the disease spirits.

The poison oak or poison ivy (Rhus radicans), so abundant in the damp eastern forests, is feared as much by Indians as by whites. When obliged to approach it or work in its vicinity, the Cherokee strives to conciliate it by addressing it as "My friend" (hi'gïnaliï). If poisoned by it, he rubs upon the affected part the beaten flesh of a crawfish.

One variety of brier (Smilax) is called di`nû'skï, "the breeder," from a belief that a thorn of it, if allowed to remain in the flesh, will breed others in a day or two.

Ginseng, which is sold in large quantities to the local traders, as well as used in the native medical practice, is called âtalï-gûlï', "the mountain climber," but is addressed by the priests as Yûñwï Usdi', "Little Man," or Yûñwï Usdi'ga Ada'wehi'yu, "Little Man, Most Powerful Magician," the Cherokee sacred term, like the Chinese name, having its origin from the frequent resemblance of the root in shape to the body of a man. The beliefs and ceremonies in connection with its gathering and preparation are very numerous. The doctor speaks constantly of it as of a sentient being, and it is believed to be able to make itself invisible to those unworthy to gather it. In hunting it, the first three plants found are passed by. The fourth is taken, after a preliminary prayer, in which the doctor addresses it as the "Great Ada'wehï," and humbly asks permission to take a small piece of its flesh. On digging it from the ground, he drops into the hole a bead and covers it over, leaving it there, by way of payment to the plant spirit. After that he takes them as they come without further ceremony.

The catgut or devil's shoestring (Tephrosia) is called distai'yï, "they are tough," in allusion to its stringy roots, from which Cherokee women prepare a decoction with which to wash their hair in order to impart to it the strength and toughness of the plant, while a preparation of the leaves is used by ballplayers to wash themselves in order to toughen their limbs. To enable them to spring quickly to their feet if thrown to the ground, the players bathe their limbs also with a decoction of the small rush (Juncus tenuis) which they say, always recovers its erect position, no matter how often trampled down. The white seeds of the viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare) were formerly used in many important ceremonies of which the purpose was to look into the future, but have now been superseded by the ordinary glass beads of the traders. The culver root (Leptandra) is used in love conjurations, the omen being taken from the motion of the root when held in the hand. The campion (Silene stellata), locally known as "rattle snake's master," is called ganidawâ'skï, "it disjoints itself," because the dried stalk is said to break off by joints, beginning at the top. As among the white mountaineers, the juice is held to be a sovereign remedy for snake bites, and it is even believed that the deadliest snake will flee from one who carries a small portion of the root in his mouth.

Almost all varieties of burs, from the Spanish needle tip to the cocklebur and Jimsonweed, are classed together under the generic name of u'nistilûñ'istï, which may be freely rendered as "stickers." From their habit of holding fast to whatever object they may happen to touch, they are believed to have an occult power for improving the memory and inducing stability of character. Very soon after a child is born, one of the smaller species, preferably the Lespedeza repens, is beaten up and a portion is put into a bowl of water taken from a fall or cataract, where the stream makes a constant noise. This is given to the child to drink on four successive days, with the intention of making him quick to learn and retain in memory anything once heard. The noise of the cataract from which the water is taken is believed to be the voice of Yûñwï Gûnahi'ta, the "Long Man," or river god, teaching lessons which the child may understand, while the stream itself is revered for its power to seize and hold anything cast upon its surface. A somewhat similar ceremony is sometimes used for adults, but in this case the matter is altogether more difficult, as there are tabus for four or seven days, and the mind must be kept fixed upon the purpose of the rite throughout the whole period, while if the subject so far forgets himself as to lose his temper in that time he will remain of a quarrelsome disposition forever after.

A flowering vine ', known as nuniyu'stï, "potato-like," which grows in cultivated fields, and has a tuberous root somewhat resembling a potato, is used in hunting conjurations. The bruised root, from which a milky juice oozes, is rubbed upon the deer bleat, a`wï'-ahyeli'skï with which the hunter imitates the bleating of the fawn, under the idea that the doe, hearing it, will think that her offspring desires to suck, and will therefore come the sooner. The putty-root (Adam-and-Eve, Aplectrum hiemale), which is of an oily, mucilaginous nature, is carried by the deer hunter, who, on shooting a deer, puts a small piece of the chewed root into the wound, expecting as a necessary result to find the animal unusually fat when skinned. Infants which seem to pine and grow thin are bathed with a decoction of the same root in order to fatten them. The root of the rare plant known as Venus' flytrap (Dionæa), which has the remarkable property of catching and digesting insects which alight upon it, is chewed by the fisherman and spit upon the bait that no fish may escape him, and the plant is tied upon the fish trap for the same purpose.

The root of a plant called unatlûñwe' hitû, "having spirals," is used in conjurations designed to predispose strangers in favor of the subject. The priest "takes it to water"--i.e., says certain prayers over it while standing close to the running stream, then chews a small piece and rubs and blows it upon the body and arms of the patient, who is supposed to be about to start upon a journey, or to take part in a council, with the result that all who meet him or listen to his words are at once pleased with his manner and appearance, and disposed to give every assistance to his projects.

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