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Mythic History

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

Tribes, such as the Cherokee, Creek, and allied nations, with settled towns and elaborate institutions are certain to show some development of the historical sense. It is true that the Cherokee have no such wealth of historic tradition as have their northern cousins, the peoples of the Iroquois Confederacy; but at the same time they possess a considerable lore dealing with their past. Hero tales, narrating the deeds of redoubtable warriors of former days, and incidentally keeping alive the memory of the tribes with whom the Cherokee were at war in early days, naturally form the chief portion of such traditions; but there are also fabulous stories of abandoned towns, ancient mounds, and strange peoples formerly encountered.

In one particular the Cherokee are distinguished above all other tribes. In the first years of the nineteenth century Sequoya, having observed the utility of the white man's art of writing, invented the Cherokee alphabet, still employed for the native literature. He submitted his syllabary to the chief men of the nation; it was adopted, and in a few months thou-sands of the Cherokee had learned its use. Nevertheless, this innovation was not made without antagonism; and the opponents, to make strong their case, told a tale of how, when Indian and white man were created, the Indian, who was the elder, received a book, while the white was given bow and arrows. But since the Indian was neglectful of his book, the white man stole it, leaving the bow in its place, so that thence-forth the book belonged legitimately to the white man, while hunting with the bow was the Indian's rightful life. A similar tale makes the white man's first gift a stone, and the Indian's a piece of silver, these gifts becoming exchanged; while an-other story tells how the negro invented the locomotive, which the white man, after killing the negro, took from him.

To an entirely different stratum of historical myth belongs the story of the massacre of the Anikutani. These were a priestly clan having hereditary supervision of all religious ceremonies among the Cherokee. They abused their powers, taking advantage of the awe in which they were held, to over-ride the most sacred rights of their fellow tribesmen, until finally, after one of the Anikutani had violated the wife of a young brave, the people rose in wrath and extirpated the clan. In later versions it is a natural calamity which is made responsible for the destruction of the wicked priests; so that here we seem to have a tale which records not only a radical change in the religious institutions of the tribe, but which is well on the way toward the formation of a story of divine retribution.'

The Creek "Migration Legend," edited by Gatschet, and recorded from a speech delivered in 1735 by Chekilli, head chief of the Creek, is a much more comprehensive historical myth than anything preserved for us by the kindred tribes. The legend begins with the account of how the Cussitaw (the Creek) came forth from the Earth in the far West; how they crossed a river of blood, and came to a singing mountain where they learned the use of fire and received their mysteries and laws. After this the related nations disputed as to which was the eldest, and the Cussitaw, having been the first to cover their scalp-pole with scalps, were given the place of honour. Since a huge blue bird was devouring the folk, the people gave it a clay woman to propitiate it and to induce it to cease its depredations. By this woman the bird became the father of a red rat, which gnawed its parent's bowstring. Thus the bird was unable to defend itself, and the people slew it, though they regarded it as a king among birds, like the eagle. They came to a white path, and thence to the town of Coosaw, where they dwelt four years. A man-eating lion preyed upon the people of this town. "The Cussitaws said they would try to kill the beast. They digged a pit and stretched over it a net made of hickory bark. They then laid a number of branches crosswise, so that the lion could not follow them, and going to the place where he lay they threw a rattle into his den. The lion rushed forth in great anger and pursued them through the branches. Then they thought it better that one should die rather than all, so they took a motherless child and threw it before the lion as he came near the pit. The lion rushed at it, and fell in the pit, over which they threw the net, and killed him with blazing pinewood. His bones, however, they keep to this day; on one side they are red, on the other blue. The lion used to come every seventh day to kill the people. Therefore, they remained there seven days after they had killed him. In remembrance of him, when they prepare for war they fast six days and start on the seventh. If they take his bones with them they have good fortune." After this, the tribe continued its journey, seeking the people who had made the white path. They passed several rivers, and came to various towns; but when they shot white arrows into these towns, as a sign of peace, the inhabitants shot back red arrows. Sometimes the Cussitaw went on without fighting, sometimes they fought and destroyed the hostile people. Finally, "they came again to the white path, and saw the smoke of a town, and thought that this must be the people they had so long been seeking. This is the place where now the tribe of Palachucolas live. The Palachucolas gave them black drink, as a sign of friendship, and said to them: Our hearts are white and yours must be white, and you must lay down the bloody tomahawk, and show your bodies, as a proof that they shall be white." The two tribes were united under a common chief. "Nevertheless, as the Cussitaws first saw the red smoke and the red fire and made bloody towns, they cannot yet leave their red hearts, which are, however, white on one side and red on the other. They now know that the white path was the best for them.

Such is the migration-legend of the Creek, altogether similar to other tales of tribal wandering both in the New World and the Old. Partly it is a mythical genesis; partly it is an exodus from a primitive land of tribulation and war into a land of peace; partly it is historical reminiscence, the tale of a conquering tribe journeying in search of richer fields. The sojourn by the mountain of marvels whence came the talismanic pole, as well as knowledge of the law and the mysteries, recalls the story of Sinai, while the white path and the search for the land of peace suggest the promise of Canaan. The episodes of the man-devouring bird and the man-eating lion possess many mythic parallels, while both seem to hark back to a time when human sacrifice was a recognized rite. Doubtless the whole tale is a complex of fact and ritual, partly veritable recollection of the historic past, partly a fanciful account of the beginnings of the rites and practices of the nation. Last of all, comes the bit of psychological analysis represented by the allegory of the parti-coloured heart of the Red Man who knows the better way, but, because of his divided nature, is not wholly capable of following it. This gives to the whole myth an aetiological rationality and a dramatically appropriate finish. The fall of man is narrated; his redemption remains to be accomplished.

Unquestionably many myths of the type of this Creek legend have been lost, for it is only by rare chance that such heroic tales survive the vicissitudes of time.

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