Guest Author - Phyllis Doyle Burns
The Great Smoky Mountains are a legend in themselves. They are the oldest mountains in America. Yet, if we peer into the deep forests and beyond the mists we find places that are filled with legends of mystery and myths that come from ages past.
A Cherokee legend tells the story of a giant buzzard that survived the great flood centuries ago. When the buzzard became exhausted from circling endlessly to find a place to land, he finally fell to Earth. This is how the Great Smoky Mountains were formed -- and his gigantic wings created the valleys.
The Cherokee peoples have many stories and legends from these beautiful Appalachian mountains. One of the oldest legends is about the Nunnehi, "Immortals" or "Spirit People". They were an otherworldly race that lived in the highlands of Old Cherokee Country. One of their places was on Blood Mountain. Their homes were townhouses. The Nunnehi were kind and friendly. If a hunter was lost, the Nunnehi cared for them till the hunter was rested then they guided him back to his own home.
The Black Bear, which roams free in the Smokies, is seen by Cherokee people as a spiritual guide and elder. They see similar traits that people have, such as standing upright, using their fore legs and paws to gesture or eat, and have a similar diet. So, the bear is a spiritual connection to the Cherokee ancestors.
It does happen that sometimes a Black Bear is born with a genetic mutation that gives them white fur. These bears are held very sacred by the Cherokee peoples and are referred to as "Great White Bear" who rules the spirit world.
Another legend of the Black Bear is of a young boy of the Ani Tsa'gu hi clan often disappeared into the forest. Each time he came back home, he had more hair on his body. The elders questioned him one day and the boy told them that he loves spending time with the bears and eating with them. He liked learning their way of life. The bears, he said, had more than enough food to supply the whole clan. The people decided to join the boy and become part of the bear clan. Before they left for the forest, they told other clans to not fear or kill them when they become bears. It is believed by some that there are still descendants of the Black Bear Ani Tsa'gu hi clan.
Deep within the mountains is a hidden lake that only the ancestors knew of, where healing waters flowed. It is no longer accessible to people, only the Great Bear.
James Mooney, an anthropologist, lived with the Cherokee people of Appalachia for several years. There is the legend of the Shawnee Medicine man who went in search of the Horned Serpent, which the Cherokee call Uktena. To even see Uktena asleep causes death to the beholder. Mooney wrote in his book, Myths of the Cherokee (1900) that:
"Those who know say the Uktena is a great snake, as large around as a tree trunk, with horns on its head, and a bright blazing crest like a diamond on its forehead, and scales glowing like sparks of fire."
Gregory Bald, one of the mountains within the range, is referred to by the Cherokee as Tsitsuyi, which means "rabbit place", for it is the home of the Great Rabbit, who is a trickster in many legends.
When the Cherokee first migrated south to what is now called the Great Smoky Mountains many centuries ago, they were intrigued by the bluish mist and believed that it contained both good and evil spirits. They believed that many magical creatures lived within the deep woods.