Book Review: Myths of the Cherokee

I grew up in the mountains of North Carolina, which is clearly within the bounds of the traditional Cherokee lands. When we found knapped arrowheads on our walks growing up, my mom would tell us they belonged to the Cherokee, and that has always stimulated an interest in me. Though I’ve read a good amount about Cherokee history post-colonization, I wanted to see what was available about pre-colonial history.

It’s not an easy subject to research from your couch, but this is what I’ve found.

The Book

Myths of the Cherokee
Author: James Mooney
Project Gutenberg Link

This book is actually a government-sponsored work and part of an annual report of the “Bureau of American Ethnology,” which has since been subsumed into the Smithsonian’s “Office of Anthropology.” It is rightly paired with and often references the section of the 1891 ethnology report, The Sacred Formulas of the Cherokee, by the same author. As far as I can tell, this is probably the most complete collection of mythological tales available to crackers like me who haven’t been to Cherokee, North Carolina since they’ve been in high school. If you have come across other important works about pre-columbian Cherokee, let me know!

Non-Spoiler Review

This book was incredible, but I think serious readers should know about a couple caveats before diving in. The biggest caveat is the myths take up only about half the book, whereas the other half is Cherokee history (some pre-columbian, some not). While I found all of it fascinating, the book does not focus entirely on the myths. You can easily skip to those parts, though, because the table of contents is pretty good for an academic work.

First, and what I found most interesting about the book, Mooney focuses his work on native individuals and actions. Rather than talk around Cherokee individuals or actors by following a trail of mostly white informants and information, Mooney actually gives us names, places, and activities of native people. He talks, for instance, about a chief named Groundhog-sausage who signed a treaty with the Iroquois. Though the records were taken by the English in this specific case, none of the actors in the story were white. ALL of the other books I’ve read about Native Americans have a focus on “and then the white people did this to an unnamed person or small group” and don’t find the voices of the oppressed. Though Mooney does include many passages recorded by whites, especially from the eras before the Cherokee writing system was invented, he includes a lot more native voices than I anticipated coming in.

Despite Mooney’s overall dispassionate, academic tone, he does manage to clearly get across that what whites perpetrated against indigenous peoples was an atrocity. Remember, though, the word “genocide” wasn’t invented until 1944, so I really can’t judge Mooney for not going far enough. There is one (fairly boring, to be honest) section wherein he details a string of treaties that were broken in quick succession. It’s bloody and horrifying. It leaves one feeling raw and angry at the blatant missteps and horrible racism.

Once we’re through the history, though, we get to the myths themselves. What surprised me the most was the narrative feel of them wasn’t the same as we’d expect from a modern, Western viewpoint. Sometimes a story would end at what felt like the middle, and sometimes an animal or person would get senselessly punished and that’d be the end. There was no sense of recompense or fairness for the characters, and several stories were very abrupt. Because animals featured so highly in Cherokee mythology, many of the myths felt a lot like Kipling’s Just So Stories, which I haven’t read since I was very little.

Now, that out of the way: yes, the book was great. It was informative, academic, and praised the original sources of material – all of them Cherokee keepers of oral history – appropriately. That being said, the book was written in 1902 and the voice contains some of the viewpoints of the day. Though Mooney seems to do pretty well when containing or heading off racism, he does perpetrate what I considered a cardinal sin within the work: he censored his subjects, even if ever so slightly. The myth “Origin of the Groundhog Dance: The Groundhog’s Head” is primarily about the Groundhog finagling his way out of getting eaten by the wolves, only to lose his tail in the process. A second myth in the section, however, reads in its entirety:

The unpleasant smell of the Groundhog’s head was given it by the other animals to punish an insulting remark made by him in council. The story is a vulgar one, without wit enough to make it worth recording.

How dare he judge the value of the work that way? Victorian sensibilities may have prevented it from being published, but “not worth recording” is a different level. I assume it is kept in his notes and stored somewhere in the Smithsonian, but what a shame to lose it – even if it is vulgar. I assume the other animals pooped on Groundhog’s head. It makes one wonder if Mooney did, perhaps, judge other stories unworthy.

5/5 Discoball Snowcones

Next week:

I’m absolutely stoked about the December reads! Stay tuned!

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Myths of the Cherokee

  1. Alexander Elliott says:

    I’m considering a future book in my Gladstone series that may focus on a Navajo character, so I find this review intriguing. I’d like to find some stories regarding wolves or people that shape shift into wolves in the Navaho legends. Not sure where to look for such a thing…

    • H.R.R. Gorman says:

      I see where you’re coming from. I’d definitely not dive into doing that character without significant research – I think it’d be too easy to accidentally seem like you’re tokenizing, even if you’re not. The Cherokee myths did have some transformations, but they were more grand and mythic than just “something some people could do.” Mooney also did some work with the Kiowa and with the Ghost Dance tradition, but I don’t think he did Navajo/Dine. Though I absolutely despised her book “Trail of Lightning” from a “trying to read it” perspective, you could try looking up Rebecca Roanhorse for an authentic Navajo/Dine voice. She may have written some learning resources somewhere.

      I found the Mooney book suggested on the Cherokee museum website, and from that citation found it on Gutenberg. You may be able to look up official reservation information, too, in order to get a good next step. The Navajo, being a western tribe, will probably have way more information preserved than would any of the eastern tribes, so that’s pretty awesome.

      Good luck! Hope these tips helped.

  2. D. Wallace Peach says:

    I can imagine that these books are hard to find, HRR. So your review was a treat. I’ve been fascinated with the culture of the First Nation people since reading Bury my Heart in Wounded Knee as a teen, and you’re right that there’s very little available for reading that isn’t about white people in some way, good or bad. Thanks for the review!

    • H.R.R. Gorman says:

      I think “Bury my Heart in Wounded Knee” sounds like a book I might enjoy, and I’m glad you’ve reminded me of its existence! I have a lot of good reads on my TBR, but I think I might add that one.

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