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Wednesday, 08 March 2006 00:00

Mountain lion lore

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I frequently hear from people who have spotted a mountain lion in Western North Carolina. Or at least they think that’s what they saw. I’d guess that about 95 percent of these sightings are of something else. But the other 5 percent seem to be pretty reliable.

Several years ago in this column, I noted my opinion that any mountain lions living in this region today probably aren’t descendents of the ones that were originally here. My supposition is that they are ones that have wandered into the eastern mountains from Florida or the western states; or, more likely, that they are ones trapped elsewhere (probably in the west) and deliberately released. Whatever the instance, I’m reasonably certain that we do have mountain lions in the Smokies region, although I’ve never seen one.

Panthers — also called mountain lions, panthers, and, in the Southern Appalachians, “painters” — can range anywhere between 70 and 105 inches long, including the tail, which averages about 32 inches in length. Their body weight ranges from 100 to 220 pounds. They were common enough well into the 19th century throughout Western North Carolina. According to Donald W. Linzey’s notes in Mammals of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (UNC Press, 1995), the last mountain lion killed in the Great Smokies was in the early winter of 1920.

My primary interest in this column lies in taking a look back at the panther in Cherokee lore. In Cherokee Fold Zoology: The Animal World of a Native American People, 1700-1838 (Garland Publishing, 1990), Arlene Fradkin noted that the animal they knew as “tlvdaji” was given “the power to see and be active at night” after it displayed the “ability to remain awake the first seven nights of creation.” Accordingly, it could easily “prey upon birds and mammals for sustenance.”

In one of their sacred formulas, the Cherokees sang a song for the cure of frostbite titled “This, Whenever Their Feet Are Frost Bitten, Is The Cure.” A translation in The Swimmer Manuscript: Cherokee Sacred Formulas and Medicinal Prescriptions (Government Printing Office, 1932) by James Mooney and Frans M. Olbrechts reads:

Thou art living, indeed. (Four times.)

There thou art living, indeed.

Thou art living, indeed. (Three times.)

Thou wizard, red Mountain Lion,

Thou art living, indeed.

The song was addressed to the panther because it supposedly had power over the ailment, its feet never being frostbitten. The “red” indicated power. The actual treatment consisted of the application of melted snow water to the patient’s frostbitten parts by the medicine men.

Deer were the panther’s primary prey, and, in one of the Cherokee myths a hunter and a panther collaborated in killing a buck. This story was collected in the late 1880’s in the Big Cove community of the Qualla Boundary (present-day Cherokee) by anthropologist James Mooney, who included it in his Myths of the Cherokee (Bureau of American Ethnology, 1900). Titled “The Underground Panthers,” it is, in my opinion, one of the most hauntingly beautiful of the ancient Cherokee stories.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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