Cherokees and rivers: Water a centerpiece of Cherokee culture
Just like Haywood County’s watershed, fed by springs that all have their start inside county borders, Cherokee mythology surrounding places in Haywood is all about beginnings.
“All of the Cherokee myths and legends here in Haywood County are about origins,” Barbara Duncan, education director of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, told the crowd gathered at Haywood Waterways Association’s end-of-year banquet last week. “This is a fascinating parallel to me with the geography.”
For instance, there’s the place now known as Shining Rock, where Kanati and Selu, the first Cherokee man and woman, supposedly spent their lives. Haywood County is home to the origin of game, the origin of corn, and even to the origin of strawberries.
To the Cherokee, water is about more than just the flow of stories, Duncan said. It’s about the flow of life.
“A river is described as a long man with his head in the mountains and his feet in the sea, and so they have a concept of a watershed,” Duncan said. “This long man was the source of drinking water and food and medicine. The rivers were a way of organizing towns, travel by dugout canoe and a way of navigating, but also the source of legends about gateways to other worlds.”
That “long man,” Gunahita Asgaya, was a revered figure among the Cherokee.
“The river was highly respected because it saves all life,” said Jerry Wolfe, a Cherokee beloved man and part-time museum worker. “Because if we didn’t have water, everything would die — plants, animals, people, all things would be gone.”
The Cherokee often drew upon the power of that force.
“The Long Man was called upon for strength, for cleansing, for washing away sadness, for ailments,” Wolfe said. “The water was used in so many ways.”
Because water was so important, the Cherokee lived by certain taboos to show their respect for it. It was forbidden to spit, pee, defecate or throw trash in the water because that was the body of the long man.
Saying it that way might frame the Cherokee as a superstitious people, but in reality the practice was right on when it comes to environmental stewardship, Duncan said.
“The results were clean water, clean fish, clean plants,” she told the Haywood Waterways crowd. “If people had this superstition today, your work would be much easier, wouldn’t it?”
Environmental quality was important to the Cherokee’s daily life. They used water to navigate, as transportation and as a food source. They’d construct v-shaped fish weirs — many of which are still standing today, a thousand years later — through which they’d drive fish living upstream into waiting nets and baskets.
But the life-giving qualities of water were spiritual as well as physical. Towns were always built on the west side of a river so that, as the morning sun rose above the trees, the people could turn east to face it across the river. The ritual was a physical and spiritual cleansing to start the day.
Water was such a vital force, in fact, that past tense is probably not the most appropriate way to describe the Cherokees’ relationship to it.
“The powers of the river are still considered to be important,” Duncan said.
A good example is the often-violent game of stickball, which, true to its name, involves a stick that’s used to hit other players. The game can get pretty physical and easily incite anger. But after the game is over — as well as before it starts — the players go down to the water.
“Any bad feelings — anger, grudges —are supposed to be left at that time, and they go back into their community with a good feeling,” Duncan said.
Water can also be a refuge, such as in the story about a bear pursued by a hunter. According to the story, the bear jumped into a magic lake and was made whole again. Some people say that “magic lake” is the sight of low clouds filling the mountain valleys, Duncan said, while others say there’s an actual location hidden deep within the Qualla Boundary. The place is a body of water where three streams converge, but only one flows out.
Whatever the truth is, it’s hard to argue that the Cherokee stories, though ancient, contain some lasting truths about water and its vital importance.
“The thing about oral traditions is that, I think, a lot of scientific and very profound truths are encapsulated in a lyrical way,” Duncan said.
Haywood’s water quality heroes get recognition
It takes a village to protect a watershed, and last week Haywood Waterways Association recognized some of the people and organizations that have done the most to support its mission during the past year and beyond.
The Smoky Mountain News took home the Big Creek Award for Partner of the Year, recognizing the paper’s years of environmental coverage supporting Haywood Waterways’ cause. In addition to helping readers understand the issues that affect water quality — not just in Haywood, but throughout Western North Carolina — the paper has helped promote Haywood Waterways’ events and accomplishments through stories, press releases and ads, as well displaying a commitment to make Haywood County a better place to live.
“Success in today’s world is dependent on forming effective partnerships,” said Bill Eaker, a Waterways board member. “Without them, we would not have been able to achieve much.”
Beth and Andrew Causey were named Volunteers of the Year and accepted the Lake Junaluska Award. Since joining in on a Haywood Waterways cleanup of Lake Junaluska in 2013, the Causeys have become stalwart members. They’ve been regulars at stream cleanups and Kids on the Creek, an annual hands-on environmental education opportunity for Haywood County eighth-graders. They’ve worked through the Green Team at Waynesville United Methodist Church to get others involved in Waterways’ work and have taken the initiative to expand their knowledge by joining Waterways’ project assistant Christine O’Brien on a trip to collect sediment samples.
“They really wanted to know all they could about the streams of Haywood County, and Christine gave them that opportunity,” said Mark Ethridge, a Waterways board member.
Tim Richards was this year’s recipient of the Pigeon River Award, which honors a person or organization that has made significant contributions to protecting Haywood’s land and water resources.
“This year’s winner was a pretty easy decision,” Ethridge said.
Richards, senior program manager for the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, manages the Pigeon River Fund. The fund was created in 1996 to mitigate the environmental impacts of a hydropower dam that CP&L, the predecessor of Progress Energy, built on the Pigeon River, and since then has brought millions of dollars to Haywood County.
Richards, who is set to retire this year, has been in charge of awarding grants from the fund since 2004. Since then Waterways has received $645,000, which it used to leverage another $4.3 million in other grant dollars. The money, Ethridge said, means that Richards is partially responsible for every success Waterways has had — but it’s not just about the money.
“You’ve also been a great friend to Haywood Waterways and demonstrated deep concern for our well-being as well as the health of Haywood County’s waterways,” he said. “You’ve listened to us and helped us flush out ideas to make a solid project. You also weren’t shy to tell us when we were off our rocker.”
Haywood Waterways Highlight reel
From creek restoration to educational programming to cold-water cannonballing, it’s been an active year for Haywood Waterways Association. The watershed protection group’s list of accomplishments for 2015 includes:
• Eliminating as much as 36,000 gallons of untreated wastewater from Haywood County streams by helping to get failing septic systems repaired.
• Raising more than $25,000 for youth education programs through the Third Annual Polar Plunge, a February leap into the frigid waters of Lake Junaluska.
• Teaching nearly 12,000 eight-grade students about the importance of clean water during the 18th year of the Kids in the Creek program — and extending the opportunity to adults for the first time with the inaugural Leaders in the Creek program.
• Restoring the tributary to Shelton Branch running through East Street Park in Waynesville by stabilizing 240 linear feet of stream, with work still ongoing.
• Providing a new erosion and sediment control training for contractors, who are the first line of defense against erosion and sedimentation.
• Making greenway signs for the New Generation Leaders project to create a cohesive greenway system in Haywood County.
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Regarding waterways and Cherokee history, I'm curious to know the extent to which the
Cherokee are known to have done engineering with water power. When the settlers came,
did they find grist mills, or means for lifting water to fields for irrigation?
I read with interest about the fishing weirs. Very ingenious.
Did the 18th century tribal government sponsor any ferrys across frequently traveled streams?
Were there any bridges instead at spots over smaller stream widths?
I've read about the possibility of "fulling" of cloth in early history of water power
by using it to help stretch hand-made cloth into some desired shape. Anything like
that among the Cherokee?
Any evidence of man-made canals in Cherokee territory?
When the Anglos arrived, they began mining for special interest minerals, including
marble and copper as well as a continued interest in gold (panning happened in places
during Cherokee days there). Any evidence of Cherokee using water power for such
Modern Anglos use water for fish farms. Any evidence of stock tanks or ponds
created by Cherokee efforts?
It may be that the Cherokee were moved from the Carolinas too early in the transition
of life style for the men whose tradition previously was to be hunters. The tradition
being recommended by the Anglo culture would have been for men to become
practical entepreneurs, using private goods to pursue wealth. Hunting with a rifle
for deer to trade would have existed, but would an Indian be commercial enough to
operate his own general store next to the ferry crossing place on a river? If so,
what structures associated with the streams would have been left by the departing
Indians would have been evident to the arriving settlers in the 1840s?