Brandon Hobson on Recovering Cherokee Myths from His Grandfather’s Notebook

"This notebook has become my passion. Discovering it has changed my life."

“Why do you question what you see?” she said, taking my hand and placing it on her face. “Can’t you feel me? Who are you, young boy? Go and look at your reflection in the stream.”

I went to the stream but could not see myself. I tossed a rock into the quivering water, then turned back to the girl, but she was gone. I called for her but she didn’t reply. I looked up at a high tree branch and saw a spotted owl, which was watching me. Frightened, I turned and ran, carrying my sack over my shoulder. I had heard elders talk about people turning themselves into owls and doing evil things to people in the middle of the night. I was more afraid of owls than rattlesnakes. Yet I was not hurt or injured. It was at that same place where I met my wife many years later.

That area too was where I met a man from Talking Rock Creek who told me about a giant frog living near the Chestatee River who was believed to be an angry spirit returned from the grave. The spirit frog was once a hunter who witnessed the transformation of a cornstalk into a beautiful woman, fell in love with her, but died of disease from drinking from the creek, which was filled with snakes and frogs. Her drops of blood in the ground sprang into corn, which he ate so often he became fatter and fatter. I thought about those stories, about fate, life, and death. Thanks to the wisdom of Dragging Canoe, I was fascinated by a hawk that circled in the sky. A bird of prey, the large hawk (tla’ nuwa) was never eaten. I saw the hawk as a strong, powerful creature. The hawk, as Dragging Canoe told me, was princely and contributed liberally to the support of the bald eagle.

I helped Dragging Canoe and his son take the fleshy side of enemy scalps and paint them red and tie them to poles for the scalp dances. At one of these dances one night I met a man named Dasi’giya’gi whose war medicine was an uktena’s shedded skin and burned turtle shell, which he used to smear on his face and body for protection from enemies. He had never been wounded because of wearing this war medicine. He warned me of the seventh hell we were living in, and soon I had dreams of the blood and destruction—a prophetic vision. Dragging Canoe told me: “You will be a visionary with prophetic gifts. You must learn to understand this.” Tecumseh had visions too. He warned us of the soldiers coming, warned of the removal from our land, but he did not warn me of my death or, worse, of my son’s death. As a child I dreamed of words written on the leaves that I could not read. I stood beside the gristmill my father built for grinding corn and watched the leaves scatter in the wind.

Vision, so many visions—and why? I saw other visions too. Nun-Yunu-Wi, the Stone Man, gave me a reddish-brown rock and told me to figure out what to do with it. For three days I looked at that rock in my hands and saw nothing special about it. It was only when I saw the red on my fingertips that I knew what to do. I broke the rock and used the red color to paint my face to hunt rabbits. I was very observant and fascinated by nature as a boy. One summer I swam in Ataga-Hi, the Enchanted Lake, and caught fish with my bare hands. Cherokees believed bodies of water were ways to the underworld, and I listened to my father’s family tell stories about the dangers of bodies of water whenever they visited. Many of these stories were frightening, about owls and bears, evil spirits and rattlesnakes; one in particular was told to me about the Great Leech of Tlanyusi’yi (“The Leech Place”), which is where the Valley River joins the Hiwassee. The Valley River has a rock you can walk across like a bridge to fish in the valley, but when people started fishing they began dying. They started noticing a long red leech that kept itself rolled into a ball until it sensed the presence of a human. Then it unrolled itself and leapt out of the water. Their bodies were found along the bank with their eyes and noses eaten from their faces. One person said these dead people had no tongues. This story frightened me, especially the story of a brave boy who was determined to fight the leech. He set off happily singing a song:

Tlanu’ si’ gune’ ga digi’gage
Dakwa’ nitlaste’ sfi!

I will tie red leech skins
On my legs for garters!

But when he got to the rock, the water began to boil and foam, and the leech leapt up and carried him down underwater, and he was never seen again. This story was told to young people many times when the winters ended and we started swimming in streams and rivers. The question always remained in my head: was there any truth to these stories? Around this time there was also a group of little people who were believed to be spirits, the Yunwi Tsunsdi, who lived in the mountains. Some nights you could hear music and drumming coming from the caves in the mountains, which was believed to come from these spirits, as they were quite fond of music and dancing. In the time of the smallpox epidemic, a hunter in the middle of a snowy winter afternoon found small footprints leading to the mountains, which he believed were the footprints of children. Afraid that these children were freezing to death, he followed the footprints to a cave.

People searched for him and thought he had been eaten by wolves or a bear, but when he returned a few weeks later, he told them he had become ill with smallpox and that the Yunwi Tsunsdi people had taken care of him until he was feeling well enough to leave. They were no taller than his waist, he said. Their hands and eyes were fire. They were night travelers and did not wish to be seen. Their teeth were crooked, but they swallowed the sun. Our people say if you hear music and drumming coming from the mountains at night, it is likely the Yunwi Tsunsdi. But we do not know why they are so secretive. Is their secretive nature to be helpful, or is there some other motive? We are not sure, but we hear them in the mountains.

Years later, in 1838, when I was a man with a wife and two children, I took my family to hide in a cave in those same mountains. We believed strongly in Tecumseh’s warning of the soldiers coming to remove us from our land, and nobody wanted to leave. We were frightened but ready to defend the land. Our people would refuse to leave even though we were tricked by the government with their fraudulent treaty. We did not trust them and knew how crucial this time would be. I told our village in the Cherokee language: What we do will affect our people for years to come. One of the wives hiding in the cave was so afraid for her new baby that one night she came running out into the summer rain with a tomahawk, yelling, “Kill! Kill!” I was not there, but they told me she felt the presence of a spirit’s strength so powerful she threw the tomahawk into the night sky, in the rain, and it never came down again, was never found anywhere. That night it hailed large ice pellets.

Our people would refuse to leave even though we were tricked by the government with their fraudulent treaty. We did not trust them and knew how crucial this time would be. I told our village in the Cherokee language: What we do will affect our people for years to come.

Some of the men introduced us to the Christianity religion and read from the book of Matthew as it had been translated by one of the men from New Echota. We discussed peace and sacrifice. We also talked about the treaty and our humility.

[Compiler’s note: I have to wonder about the reference to religion here, as the widely known “Great Spirit” could very well have resulted from the need for Native Americans to compare certain characters from ritual and creation stories to a Christian god. While many Native Americans practice Christianity today, there is no doubt an entire Native American Christianity based on creation stories/mythology is still practiced and is likely unknown to many non-native people. One has to wonder whether Tsala’s stories here reflect this belief.]

Soon our children’s fears passed! One night I woke to the drumming of spirits, or so I thought, and walked outside to look to the trees. The drumming stopped and I saw nothing. I thought of the Yunwi Tsunsdi living far off in the darkening lands, singing their songs and drumming, heeding a warning for all of us. It is coming, they would sing. I looked to the sky: there I saw the great blacksnake, the screech owl, the horned owl, and a group of people walking—they were all moving toward a giant tree in the sky. The tree was on fire and burning so fiercely I could feel the stinging in my eyes as I watched, then smoke began to cover them and the ashes fell from the sky like falling stars and I had to cover my eyes and go back inside the cave, where I lay awake until dawn. My wife said this was a strong vision of what was coming our way. All the pain and suffering. All the walking, the deaths. My wife is my guide even in moments like this, as she knew I had visions like Dragging Canoe.

And the next night the soldiers arrived. The ones who swarmed on our land like a pack of wolves began firing their weapons. Now there was a great misery upon us. The soldiers were ordered to be civil but they ignored the order and destroyed our cabins and barns. They slaughtered our chickens  and hogs and cattle. They prodded our wives and elders with bayonets as they forced them out of their homes and to stockades. Many of our people had nothing but their clothes—everything else was gone. Soldiers dug into graves to steal the gold from our dead, never bothered by the stench of corpses that filled the air. Though we were safe in seclusion, two other men and I couldn’t stand that we were not helping our people, so we set out. My brave son, nearly a man, came with us.

We attacked and fought, but there were too many of them. They surrounded us. One of them hit my son with a shovel and I lunged at him with my knife, cutting his arm. The other soldiers pulled me off and held me down. They tied us with rope. I told them I wanted to die before my son, but they did not agree. I closed my eyes and lowered my head as they pointed their rifles at us. I begged my son not to open his eyes, even when they told him to.


This gift I inherited from my forefathers brings visions, prophecies. I saw a man who had been executed with his son, and I knew his spirit would become either an eagle or a hawk. He was in the third form of our ancient deities, and his name was Tsali.
–Cherokee spiritual leader, speaking of a vision, 1803

My beloved family: time among the dead is mysterious, therefore I do not understand the reason why I awoke when I did. Time among the dead may not exist at all the way humans experience it during life. Time may be felt: u-di-tle-gi, u-hyv-dla! (It is hot, it is cold!). My wife and daughter had adorned us in gold and jewelry and buried us. Adornment is important in death, as it is in life, and those from the Long Hair Clan made it known that we were beautiful, even absent of our spirits. In my death, in darkness, I felt the aching of my wife’s suffering. In death, as we slept beneath the earth, with the worms and the cold mud and rocks, to the soulful howl of the coyotes and the drumming of our people, as we slept beneath the feet of our people who stomped the ground and shook the heavens, I felt my wife’s suffering.

So strange how I could feel her suffering as if it were my own. The suffering was so great, in fact, that I felt my spirit move restlessly in an unfathomable darkness. How long was I dead? Surely not long! I crawled out of the earth like a beast in the night, with necklaces made of bear claws and gold, with wet mud and worms matted to my hair, which hung to my chest. I crawled out of the grave and felt as strong and mighty as a horse, even though I knew I had died. I could see for miles. Most of our people were at stockades without their homes, waiting to be moved west. Our people were being forced out of our land, this I knew, but I could not understand why. My thoughts were cloudy and confused as they can be in sleep. I tried to remember my name but I fell into a strange loss of thought.

The question that seemed most apparent: for what reason did I awake?

Brandon Hobson
Brandon Hobson
Brandon Hobson is the author of the novel Where the Dead Sit Talking, a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction, and other books. He has won a Pushcart Prize, and his work has appeared in magazines such as The Believer, The Paris Review Daily, Conjunctions, NOON, Post Road, and in many other places. He is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation Tribe of Oklahoma and is a faculty member of the low-res MFA program at Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, OR.

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