Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
June 3, 2000-Issue 11


Origin of Disease and Medicine
Provided by Tonia Williams at Cherokee.org transcribed from James Mooney, 1890, Myths and Legends of the Cherokee

The old ones tell us that at one time, the animals, fish, insects and plants could all talk. Together with the people, they were at peace and had a great friendship. As time went on, the numbers of people grew so much that their settlements spread over the whole earth, and the animals found themselves cramped for space. To make things worse, the people invented bows, knives, blowguns, spears, and hooks, and they began to hunt and kill the larger animals, birds and fish only for their hides. The smaller creatures, like the frogs and worms, were stepped upon and crushed without thought, out of carelessness, and sometimes even contempt. The animals decided to meet in a council to agree on measures for their safety.

The bears were the first ones to meet in a council, at Mulberry Place, or Kuwahi mountain. The old White Bear Chief led the council. After each one had his turn of complaining about the way people killed their friends, ate their flesh, and used their skins for his own purposes, they decided to begin a war at once against man. One of the bears asked what kind of weapons the people used to destroy them. "Bows and arrows!" exclaimed all the Bears together. "What are they made of?" was the next question. "The bow is made of wood, and the string is made of our entrails," replied one of the Bears. They then decided they would make a bow and see if they could use the same type of weapon the people were using. One of the Bears got a nice piece of locust wood, and another bear sacrificed himself for the good and betterment of his brothers of sisters. He offered to let his entrails be used for the string of the bow. When everything was ready, a Bear found that in letting the arrow fly after drawing the string, his long claws got in the way and his shot was ruined. He was very frustrated, but someone suggested they clip his claws. After this, it was found that the arrow went straight to the mark. But, the Chief White Bear objected, saying they must not trim their claws as they needed them to climb trees. "One of us already gave his life, and if we cut off our claws, then we must all starve together. I think we should trust and use the teeth and claws the Creator gave us, and it is plain that the people's weapons were not made for us."

They could not think of a better plan, so the chief White Bear dismissed council and the Bears dispersed throughout the woods without having come up with a way to protect themselves. Had they come up with such a way, we would not be at war with the Bears, but the way it is today, the hunter does not even ask the Bear's pardon when he kills one.

The Deer held the next council, under their Chief Little Deer. They decided they would send arthritis to every hunter who kills one of them, unless he made sure to ask their pardon for the offense. They sent out a notice of their decision to the nearest settlement of Cherokees and told them how they could avoid this. Now, whenever a hunter shoots a Deer, Little Deer, who is swift as the wind and cannot be harmed, goes quickly to the spot and asks the spirit of the Deer if it has heard the prayer of the hunter, asking for pardon. If the spirit replies yes, everything is in balance. If the reply is no, Little Deer follows the trail of the hunter, and when resting in his home, Little Deer enters invisibly and strikes the hunter with arthritis. No hunter who regards his own health ever fails to ask pardon of the Deer for killing it.

Next, the Fish and Reptiles held their own council. They decided to make their victims dream of snakes climbing about them, and blowing stinky breath in their faces. They also dream of decaying fish, so that they would lose their appetites and die of hunger.

Finally, the Birds, Insects and smaller animals came together for their own council. The Grubworm was the Chief of the council. They decided that each should give his opinion, and then they would vote as to whether or not the people were guilty. Seven votes would be enough for a guilty verdict. One after another, they complained about man's cruelty and disrespect.

The Frog spoke first, saying, "We must do something to slow down how fast they are multiplying! Otherwise, we will disappear from the face of the earth through extinction!" The Frog continued, "They have kicked me about because they say I am ugly and now my back is covered with sores." He showed them the spots on his back.

Next, the Bird condemned people because, "They burn off my feet in the barbecue!" Others followed with their own complaints.

The Groundsquirrel was the only one to say something in the people's defense, because he was so small he did not endure the hunting and disrespect. The others became so angry at him, the swooped on him and tore him with their claws. The stripes are on his back until this day.

They began to name so many new diseases, one after another. The Grubworm was more and more pleased as all these new names were being called off.

Then the Plants, who were friendly to man, heard about all these things the animals were doing to the people. Each tree, shrub, and herb, agreed to furnish a cure for some of the diseases. Each said, "I will appear and help the people when they call upon me." This is how the medicines came to be. Every plant has a use, if only we would learn it and remember it. They have furnished the remedy to counteract the diseases brought on by the revengeful animals. Even weeds were made for some good purpose. You must ask, and learn for yourself. When a doctor does not know which medicine to use, the spirit of the plant will tell the sick person.


*Note: Cultural information may vary from clan to clan, location to location, family to family, and from differing opinions and experiences. Information provided here is not 'etched in stone'.

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