It is well-known that Native American cultures are characterized by their unbreakable connection with nature and peculiar spirituality which differs profoundly from that of Christians and other newcomers to the New World. The Cherokee and Iroquois tribes are distinguished by quite unusual and interesting perceptions of the world, origins of humans and morality, and these perceptions are embodies in Native oral traditions, cosmology and legends handed down from one generation to another. As Parker notes, “the creation story is for every group and for every person some form of coming to an awareness of their own existence, their world and their place in the world: (Parker 36). Creation myths of these two tribes are of particular interest for deeper understanding of their culture, laws of social relationships, gender roles, attitude towards nature and community.
The fact that Iroquois and Cherokee creation myths originate from tribal oral traditions justifies variability and differences in versions of these myths. However, both tribal traditions have a common ‘carcass’ of the creation story. The creation story of the Cherokee nation implies that the world was “all water” originally, while all animals and living beings created by the Great Spirit lived in the sky. As the sky was overcrowded, a water beetle was sent to explore the ocean beneath them and find out if dry land can be formed there. Eventually, mud from the ocean floor formed the earth which was fixed to the sky with four strings. While mud was still moist, the Grandfather Buzzard flew there above the future Cherokee land. Tired of flying, he flapped his wings and formed mountains and valleys, whereas animals moving to the dry land decided to summon the Sister Sun from the sky to illuminate it. Later, the Great Spirit also known as “Someone Powerful” created plants, animals and humans – a man and a woman, his sister. As the man poked his sister with a fish, she gave birth to a child.
The Iroquois creation legend also states that everything began in the sky when the world beneath was all water. The Tree of Life growing at the entrance to the world below was untouchable, but the Sky Woman was so curious that ask her brother to unroot the tree and fell into the hole. Cradled on the turtle’s back, the Sky Woman waited until birds collected mud from the ocean floor to form land for her to live on; and she gave birth to her daughter on that growing Turtle Island. Later, the daughter married to the West Wind gave birth to Twins who became the opposite creative powers of the earthly world. The Sky Woman, in turn, became the Grandmother Moon after her death.
Although these summaries of the myths are rather brief, it is obvious that both illustrate Cherokee and Iroquois’ deep connections with the natural world. For instance, the principal staples of the Iroquois people are state to have grown on the grave of the Sky Woman’s daughter: beans, corn, tobacco, potatoes and squash (Nash & Strobel 34). Moreover, production of edible plants from the body of the woman expresses “the animistic sense of the spiritual nature of all things” (Leeming 81). Considering the creation myths, both tribes are characterized by animistic worldview which explains their overall respectful attitude towards the world around them and all living beings including animals and plants.
Interestingly, Cherokee creation myths have two main versions, with the myths about the Sky woman existing in this culture as well (Leeming 80). At the same time, the cited myths show that, like other Native American tribes, Cherokee and Iroquois tend to believe that the world did not come into existence out of nothing; their myths begin with some kind of world already existing (Nash & Strobel 32). In both cases, it is the dichotomy of the Sky World and the ‘lower’ world covered with water. At the same time, the Cherokee creation myth fosters the tribe’s spiritual connection to their homeland and especially to the Appalachian Mountains (as they are believed to be the Buzzard’s creation).
Although Cherokee and Iroquois seem to have no distinctive perception of linear time (as some scholars conclude from their myths), they believe that the humans who came into existence in the old times were not like them. At the same time, these creators falling from the sky – or created already in the earthy world – produce humans that are similar to the Iroquois or Cherokee people in ‘form’. Moreover, it is significant that each tribal myths projects the creation story on themselves and their lands (northeast for Iroquois and southeast for Cherokee), perceiving themselves as the ‘chosen’ people and, hence, their deep bonds with the spiritual world and nature. However, humans are not the crown of creation in both cultures are, therefore, are taught to treat other beings of the world with respect as those having animate spirit in them (Nash & Strobel 35).
The creation myths of Cherokee and Iroquois both suggest matrilineal traditions and a powerful position held by women. Along with strong bond based on family relations and clans, the myths show power women possess as contrasted to the position granted to women in European cultures. While in the Cherokee myths one can see the image of the female Sun giving light and warmth to all living beings in the world and the image of the first man’s sister possessing immense power for procreation; the Iroquois myth shows the Sky Woman as a ‘creator’ from the Sky World who gave birth to human being and possessed great power both in her primary form and as the Grandmother Moon. Thus, it is not surprising that the mother’s line determines the Cherokees’ clan membership.
The creation myths of Cherokee and Iroquois nations demonstrate the essence of these Native cultures and their worldviews determining their social and gender relations, attitudes towards other living beings and nature, and the unique spiritual mindset these people absorb from one generation to another. Being rather different from European cultures, Iroquois and Cherokee cultures are rather similar in their animistic perceptions of the world and perceived connections with the land they live in.
Leeming, David A. Creation Myths of the World: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO, 2010.
Nash, Alice N., & Christoph Strobel. Daily Life of Native Americans from Post-Columbian Through Nineteenth-century America. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006.
Parker, G. Keith. Seven Cherokee Myths: Creation, Fire, the Primordial Parents, the Nature of Evil, the Family, Universal Suffering, and Communal Obligation. McFarland, 2005.