Cherokee Stories Tell of Water's Wisdom
photograph by Emily Chaplin and Chris Council

The timbre of the telling is rich, mellow, surprisingly monotone, yet absolutely compelling:

“When the first man and first woman lived at Shining Rock, everything was available and easy to procure, and the Cherokee had all the food they could eat. The hunter went out every day for meat and said to his son, ‘Don’t follow me.’ But the child did, and while his father was washing the deer he had killed, a drop of blood fell into the river. The drop of blood became a child — a wild child — who played with the son, and one day said to the son, ‘If something happens to your father, we’ll starve to death. Where does he get his game? We should follow him.’

“So, the two boys did, to a cave. Every day, the hunter rolled away the stone at the entrance to the cave, and an animal would sprint out. The hunter would kill the animal, then roll the stone back over the entrance. ‘We can do that, too,’ said the wild child to the son. And so they followed the hunter to the cave, and watched as he rolled away the stone and rolled it back. While he was washing his kill, the children rolled away the stone. A deer ran out of the cave and they shot it with their arrows, but missed. Every type of game on the earth continued to run from the cave, and the boys used every arrow without killing a single animal. They tried to roll the stone back, but it wouldn’t budge. From that day forward, people have had to hunt for food.”

The voice belongs to Freeman Owle, the renowned storyteller for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who live in the Qualla Boundary in western North Carolina. Owle describes his repository of stories as just that — stories, rather than myths or fables — and in nearly every one, like in this parallel of Christianity’s Garden of Eden, a river runs through it.

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You can’t separate the Cherokee from Their rivers. “Holistic” is the word Dr. Barbara Duncan, education director for the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, uses to describe how, for the Cherokee, a river was at once a source of food, medicine, sport, celebration, cleansing, trade, and navigation. Protecting the river was vital to the health and well-being of the tribe.

Cherokee Stories Tell of Water's Wisdom

Artist and educator Freeman Owle pauses on the Oconaluftee River in Cherokee. photograph by Emily Chaplin and Chris Council

So, stories sprang up around this river knowledge, and in turn, those stories reinforced certain cultural codes of conduct. Duncan sees this dynamic at work in Owle’s creation tale: “The human child and the wild boy aren’t like the good and evil twin archetype,” she explains. “One acts the way people are meant to, and the other is a trickster. Violating the cultural norms means bad things happen.”

The wild child emerged from breaking a river taboo: a single drop of blood fallen into the clean river. To understand what made blood in river water taboo, it helps to know about the ritual called “going to water,” a cleansing practice performed every morning to start the day. Regardless of the season or weather, Cherokees would go to the river to pray and submerge themselves. In fact, the word for “going to water” in the Cherokee language is interchangeable with the words for bathing and submerging. (The daily ritual was also why the native people thought the Europeans, who didn’t bathe as frequently, were dirty.)

A ceremonial dip in the river was thought to wash away illness and bad thoughts. Cherokees bathed at the new moon, and upon returning from war, men would go to the water to purify themselves before re-entering the community. The practice was so sacred that it was considered taboo to spit or go to the bathroom in the river — or contaminate it with animal blood, as the hunter in Owle’s story accidentally did.

These bans were an eye-roller for missionaries and anthropologists, who considered them sheer superstition. But, Duncan points out, we now know that those instincts were sound. The Cherokee never suffered from typhoid or dysentery, diseases connected to poor water sanitation.

“The old Cherokees would wade out waist deep just after daybreak and throw the water over their heads and say, ‘Wash away anything that may hinder me from being closer to you, God.’ And then they would add their own intentions — for a good life, or for a good relationship with brothers or sisters. Seven times, they would throw the water over themselves. Or, they would duck in the water seven times. And when they got out of the water, they had to look into a crystal — likely a quartzite crystal found in geodes — and if it was inverted, pointing down, then they had to go back and do it all over again.”

Cherokee Stories Tell of Water's Wisdom

When the Cherokee talk about “the waters,” they aren’t talking about lakes, or the ocean. They’re speaking of rivers and the watershed as a whole. In western North Carolina, there were no lakes. Lake Lure, Fontana Lake, and Santeetlah Lake are all recent, man-made, hydroelectric lakes. Cherokee towns were situated by rivers, and always on the west side, because in the going-to-water ritual they faced east, and the names were inseparable from the river descriptions. Oconaluftee: “going really fast.” Tuckasegee: “the turtle place.” Antokiasdiyi (French Broad): “the place where they race,” because it was wide enough for canoes.

In some stories, monsters lived where certain rivers joined. The Cherokee still refer to Murphy, where the Valley and Hiawassee rivers come together, as “the place of the leech.” Versions vary, but all involve a leech, often as big as a house:

“Three leeches lived in the river at Murphy. And there was something so large in this deep hole that if you came around the edges of it, it would move and splash, so that waves would come out to the edge of the banks and wash animals and people into the water, and then it would eat them.”

River stories were (and still are) told simply, but they served as warnings, and explained the inexplicable. Children, listening at the feet of their elders, learned from these stories that the river could be dangerous and that they must respect its power.

“The Cherokee people believe in little people, spirit-type peoples, and some are associated with the water. In the rivers we have what are called cannibals, and a lot of Cherokee people don’t even like to talk about cannibals because it’s bad to mention them. These cannibals down in the low, watery areas, in deep holes, sometimes come out in the middle of the night and steal away the souls of people while they’re sleeping. In the morning, the person would look perfectly normal, but they wouldn’t wake up. So the old folk would say, ‘The cannibals took them away.’”

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The term “Beloved Man” (and Beloved Woman) was a title given to warriors who had become too old to fight, but because they had lived lives of service and had impeccable character, their word was trusted. Beloved Men were sought out for advice by tribal members and attended treaty negotiations with colonial governors. The high honor hadn’t been used since 1801, but the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Tribal Council approved a resolution to name Jerry Wolfe as a Beloved Man in 2013.

Wolfe is that rare individual: a full-blooded Cherokee. Like Cherokee children of his generation, he attended boarding school only steps from the Oconaluftee River. At 18, he enlisted in the Navy and fought in the invasion of Normandy.

Cherokee Stories Tell of Water's Wisdom

Cherokee storyteller Jerry Wolfe was given the title “Beloved Man” by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Tribal Council in 2013, a high honor last bestowed more than 200 years ago. photograph by Emily Chaplin and Chris Council

Today, Wolfe is 92 years old. His voice is reedy. As he speaks, he looks straight ahead, and in a single sentence, words cascade like the rivers he reveres: “The beginning of water is just a very small trickle in the very tops of the Great Smokies, and as it rushes down the mountain valleys it meets up with other little trickles, and the waters grow from a creek to a branch, and then to a small stream, and then it continues on and on, adding on and adding on, and the rivers go through the mountains, through Chattanooga, connect up with the Ohio River and the Mississippi, and it winds up in the Gulf of Mexico.”

For Wolfe, a special importance of rivers centers on stickball, a Cherokee sport and a rehearsal for battle, known as “Little Brother to War.” An early cousin to lacrosse, stickball contests in the 1830s could include as many as 600 people, and combatants died in these fierce, bare-chested, man-to-man tournaments.

River stories go back thousands of years, and in the telling and retelling, time has worn them smooth and mysterious.

Wolfe’s voice is steady as he recalls stickball’s go-to-water rituals: “The old medicine man or conjure man helped the ball teams, and danced all night. But during the dances all night long, the players were taken to the river seven times, from the beginning of night until daybreak. For power. You took your ball sticks to the river with you. And he would go through rituals and prayers, and he’d say” — here, Wolfe continues the narration in Cherokee, a language that sounds both guttural and smooth to the untrained ear — “and everyone would dip their sticks in the river, always upriver, and then take a sip of water from the stick drippings. That connected you to the river. To give you strength.”

Duncan says going to water also served an interesting emotional purpose. “They go to water before the game, yes, and during the night to try and make bad things happen to the opposing team,” she says. “But it was considered bad form to get angry, so afterward they went to water again, to wash those feelings away. Grudges weren’t carried into the community.”

Women were involved as well, participating in the last dance ritual, right at daybreak. Women also played the sport until 1870, when they were banned because the game was thought to be too rough. In 2000 they began playing again.

“There was a young man who took good care of his elderly grandmother, and the other kids in the village began to get jealous because his grandmother bragged on him. They became really mean, so he decided he needed to go away for a while. And he left his grandmother.

“When he came back a few days later, he was different. She didn’t know how. He said, ‘I have to stay in one of the outside buildings tonight. I can’t come in the house. Don’t open this building for three days.’ She waited three days, and there was a huge, giant snake inside that building. It was all that was left of him, and it went into the river and disappeared. She waited for him, day after day, to come back. But he never did.

“And the people of the village made fun of her and said, ‘If you like him so much, why don’t you just join him?’ So she waded out into the waters and disappeared. If you go down at the right time of day or night, you might see the old lady sitting out on the rock in the middle of the river. Then, suddenly, she’ll disappear.”

Cherokee Stories Tell of Water's Wisdom

This strange story of the boy and his grandmother has many versions, but no one simple meaning, no easy takeaway wisdom for the modern listener. These river stories go back thousands of years, and in the telling and retelling, time has worn them smooth, rendering them mysterious, like runes. But they live on in the oral tradition of Cherokee storytellers and in the land itself.

Today, Interstates 40 and 26, and Highway 129 (known to motorcyclists as the Tail of the Dragon, which runs along the Little Tennessee River) follow the landscape of these stories — the same rivers and ridges the Cherokee used to navigate the Great Smokies 10,000 years ago. If you look carefully at mountain riverbeds, you might recognize the V-shaped placement of stones known as weirs, thousands of years old, which the Cherokee used to catch fish. According to Wolfe, “big brown trout, rainbow trout, speckled trout” all went into woven baskets. But never catfish, which are bottom-feeders. Bones from trout, brim, and redhorse have been discovered in artifacts, but no catfish bones. Even today, the Cherokee do not eat catfish.

Every spring the floods would come, yet the weirs stood fast. The enduring design is more than a testament to Cherokee engineering. It reflects an abiding acceptance of the river’s ways, its habits and temperament. Floods were part of nature, and the Cherokee never tried to dam, divert, or interfere with the river. Floods brought new, rich dirt for crops, as well as a new coating of sand for the dirt floors of their dwellings.

Tellingly, the Cherokee people do not interrupt. They don’t try to correct, whether it’s a river brimming its banks or a person sharing a story. Instead, they pay attention. They listen quietly. Like Wolfe and Owle’s stories, rivers have turns and twists, additions and branches. And in all cases, the rivers of the Cherokee cannot be interrupted.

“We may run into a stone, like death,” Owle says, “but that’s not the end, only the beginning. It’s only the end of the day, and more life will come the next day, on and on.”

Illustrations by Kyle T. Webster.

This story was published on

Kelly is a contributing editor at Our State. She is the author of By Accident and the novels Now You Know, The Last of Something, Even Now, and How Close We Come, winner of the Carolina Novel Award and an alternate selection of Book-of-the-Month Club. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and lives in Greensboro.