Cherokee Legend – How the World Was Made

By Katharine Berry Judson in 1913

Standing at the Pool of Creation courtesy Guthrie Studios

Standing at the Pool of Creation courtesy Guthrie Studios.

The earth is a great floating island in a sea of water. At each of the four corners, there is a cord hanging down from the sky. The sky is of solid rock. When the world grows old and worn out, the cords will break, and then the earth will sink down into the ocean. Everything will be water again. All the people will be dead. The Indians are much afraid of this.

In the long time ago, when everything was all water, all the animals lived up above in Galun’lati, beyond the stone arch that made the sky. But it was very much crowded. All the animals wanted more room. The animals began to wonder what was below the water, and at last, Beaver’s grandchild, little Water Beetle, offered to go and find out. Water Beetle darted in every direction over the surface of the water, but it could find no place to rest.

There was no land at all. Then Water Beetle dived to the bottom of the water and brought up some soft mud. This began to grow and spread out on every side until it became the island which we call the earth. Afterward, this earth was fastened to the sky with four cords, but no one remembers who did this.

At first, the earth was flat and soft and wet. The animals were anxious to get down, and they sent out different birds to see if it was yet dry, but there was no place to alight, so the birds came back to Galun’lati. Then, at last, it seemed to be time again, so they sent out Buzzard; they told him to go and make ready for them. This was the Great Buzzard, the father of all the buzzards we see now.

Smoky Mountains National Park

View of North Carolina and Tennessee from Newfound Gap, Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

He flew all over the earth, low down near the ground, and it was still soft. When he reached the Cherokee country, he was very tired; his wings began to flap and strike the ground. There was a valley wherever they struck the earth; whenever the wings turned upwards again, there was a mountain. When the animals above saw this, they were afraid that the whole world would be mountains, so they called him back, but the Cherokee country remains full of mountains to this day. [This was the original home in North Carolina.]

When the earth was dry, and the animals came down, it was still dark. Therefore they got the sun and set it on a track to go every day across the island from east to west, just overhead. It was too hot this way. Red Crawfish had his shell scorched a bright red so that his meat was spoiled. Therefore, the Cherokee do not eat it.

Then the medicine men raised the sun a handsbreadth in the air, but it was still too hot. They raised it another time, and then another time; at last, they had raised it seven handsbreadths so that it was just under the sky arch. Then it was right, and they left it so. That is why the medicine men called the high place ” the seventh height.” Every day the sun goes along under this arch on the underside; it returns at night on the upper side of the arch to its starting place.

Underground Cave

Underground Cave

There is another world under this earth. It is like this one in every way. The animals, the plants, and the people are the same, but the seasons are different. The streams that come down from the mountains are the trails by which we reach this underworld. The springs at their head are the doorways by which we enter it. But to enter the other world, one must fast and then go to the water and have one of the underground people as a guide. We know that the seasons in the underground world are different because the water in the spring is always warmer in winter than the air in this world, and in summer, the water is cooler.

We do not know who made the first plants and animals. But when they were first made, they were told to watch and keep awake for seven nights. This is the way young men do now when they fast and pray to their medicine. They tried to do this. The first night, nearly all the animals stayed awake. The next night several of them dropped asleep. On the third night, still more went to sleep. At last, on the seventh night, only the owl, the panther, and one or two more were still awake. Therefore, these were given the power to see in the dark, go about as if it were day, and kill and eat the birds and animals that must sleep during the night.

Even some of the trees went to sleep. Only the cedar, the pine, the spruce, the holly, and the laurel were awake all seven nights. Therefore they are always green. They are also sacred trees. But to the other trees, it was said, ” Because you did not stay awake, therefore you shall lose your hair every winter.”

After the plants and the animals, men began to come to the earth. At first, there was only one man and one woman. He hit her with a fish. In seven days, a little child came down to the earth. So people came to the earth. They came so rapidly that for a time, it seemed as though the earth could not hold them all.

By Katharine Berry Judson, 1913. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, updated November 2021.

Myths and Legends of the Great PlainsAbout the Author: Excerpted from the book Myths and Legends of the Great Plains, by Katharine Berry Judson, 1913. Katharine Berry Judson published several books on the myths and legends of the Native Americans in the early part of the 20th Century. Judson was a professor of history at the University of Washington.

Also See:

Indian Proverbs & Wisdom

Legends, Myths & Tales of Native Americans

Old West Legends

Native American People

Native American Tribes