“It is folly to punish your neighbor by fire when you live next door” – Publilius Syrus
An old Cherokee adage observes, “When the white man discovered this country, Indians were running it. No taxes, no debt, women did all the work. White man thought he could improve on a system like this”. Sadly, we also brought along European sensibilities regarding how to interact with the preternatural. You know, torch wielding mobs, stakes through the heart, silver bullets. Oh sure, there was a Celtic notion that Seelie court fairy pranksters were a merry lot and on average managed to be relatively agreeable, but mostly various species of paranormal critter were targeted for extermination over the years, from werewolves to giants. The Cherokee had a different approach with a race of supernatural shape-shifters called the Nunne’hi (alternatively translated as “People Who Live Anywhere” or “People Who Live Forever”). They partied with them, and in return the Nunne’hi had their backs for a while when things got rough.
Unfortunately, peaceful coexistence with strange neighbors is the exception rather than the rule, and in fact the fundamental building block for civilization is deciding which monkey troop to run with, and which to administer summary beatings to. It pays to have some theological justification, which is why everyone hates everyone else’s gods. As Aleister Crowley sagaciously observed (when he could spare time from leading humanity into the “Aeon of Horus”, which sounds a little uncomfortable to me; I suspect it chafes), “The supreme satisfaction is to be able to despise one’s neighbor and this fact goes far to account for religious intolerance. It is evidently consoling to reflect that the people next door are headed for hell”. Other people’s gods are decidedly liminal, since their existence or non-existence calls my god’s into question. It’s like Highlander. There can be only one. Or one pantheon, that is. Or gods and demons, and your god is a demon, as opposed to my happy celestial headman. Luckily, if we wanted to paint our impression of Native American theologies as understood post-European contact, they were a little more ambivalent about the relative balance of goodness vs. evil in their mythological bestiary. That of course leaves a little room for negotiation. You don’t necessarily have to kill the neighborhood monster. Invite him over for lunch. See what his deal is. Maybe he’s got cool stuff you can borrow. Maybe you both like Seinfeld.
Now, the Cherokee undeniably have a lot to be pissed off about, from the 1739 smallpox epidemic that decimated their tribe (courtesy of Europe) to the Trail of Tears resulting from the 1830’s Indian Removal Act to countless broken treaties to their 19th century segregation during Reconstruction in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, but one oft heard regret from the Cherokee following their forced migration West to reservations in the Arkansas Territory from their traditional homelands in North Carolina and Georgia was that it had separated them from their ancient allies and bosom buddies, the Nunne’hi, and that they were also forced to leave behind many Cherokee who had opted to live among these strange creatures.
The Nunne’hi or immortals, the ‘people who live anywhere’ were a race of spirit people who lived in the highlands of the old Cherokee country and had a great many townhouses, especially in the Bald Mountains, the high peaks on which no timber ever grows. They had large townhouses in Pilot Knob and under the old Nikwasi mound in North Carolina, and another under Blood Mountain, at the head of Nottely River, in Georgia. They were invisible excepting when they wanted to be seen, and then they looked and spoke just like other Indians. They were very fond of music and dancing, and hunters in the mountains would often hear the dance songs and the drum beating in some invisible townhouse, but when they went toward the sound it would shift about and they would hear it behind them or away in some other direction, so that they could never find the place where the dance was. They were a friendly people, too, and often brought lost wanderers to their townhouses under the mountains and cared for them there until they were rested and then guided them back to their homes. More than once, also, when the Cherokee were hard pressed by their enemies, the Nunne’hi warriors have come out, as they did at old Nikwasi, and have saved them from defeat (Mooney, 1902, p32-33).
Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the New World, folklore was generally orally transmitted among most Native American tribes, passed from generation to generation by word of mouth, but the Cherokee saw the utility in written language, and in one of the few instances of a pre-literate people creating an original, effective writing system, around 1810 a Cherokee silversmith name Sequoyah invented the Cherokee syllabary, and it was rapidly adopted by the Cherokee Nation so quickly that their literacy far exceeded that of the surrounding European settlers by 1825.
This of course glosses over the many difficulties Sequoyah had convincing people that writing wasn’t sorcery. Much of the detailed knowledge we have about Cherokee folklore comes from a certain distinguished Cherokee gentleman and early adopter of Sequoyah’s syllabary named James D. Wafford (Cherokee name of Tsuskwanun’nawata, “Worn-Out Blanket” – hopefully this was an assumed pseudonym, rather than a name bestowed by his parents), born in 1806 in Clarkesville, Georgia near the center of the former Cherokee Nation. By 1891, at the tender age of 85 “his mind was still clear and his memory keen. Being of practical bent, he was concerned chiefly with tribal history, geography, linguistics, and every-day life and customs, on all of which subjects his knowledge was exact and detailed, but there were few myths for which he was not able to furnish confirmatory testimony” (Hodge, 1912, p889) and he was employed by the Bureau of American Ethnology in an effort to retain the precious contents of his memory. And he firmly believed in the Nunne’hi.
The Nunne’hi were very specifically distinguished from a host of other gods, nature spirits, monsters, and the Yunwi Tsunsdi (“Little People”), both friendly and malign, largely akin to the standard typology of Celtic faeries. Everyday relations between the Nunne’hi and Cherokee were almost always puzzling, but agreeable, caring for folks lost in the woods, offering meals, kicking their heels up at dance parties, and generally behaving as gracious hosts and guests. A tale related by Wafford and commonly told among the Cherokee highlighted both the kindness and mercurial nature of the Nunne’hi, not to mention their shapeshifting abilities and apparent interdimensional residence.
Once a boy was with the Nunnehi. When he was about ten or twelve years old, he was playing one day near the river, shooting at a mark with his bow and arrow. Then he started to build a fish trap in the water. While he was piling up the stones in two long walls, a man came and stood on the bank. The man said, “What are you doing?” The boy told him. The man said, “That’s pretty hard work. You ought to rest awhile. Come and take a walk up the river.” The boy said, “No. I am going to the lodge to get something to eat.” “Come to my lodge,” said the man. “I’ll give you good food and bring you home again in the morning.” So the boy went to the man’s lodge with him. They went up the river. The man’s wife and all the other people were glad to see him. They gave him plenty to eat. While he was eating, a man that the boy knew very well indeed came in and spoke to him. So he did not feel strange. Afterwards he played with the other children and slept there that night. In the morning, their father took him down the trail. They went down a trail that had a cornfield on one side and a peach orchard on the other, until they came to a cross trail. Then the man said, “Go along this trail across that ridge and you will come to the river road that will take you straight to your home.” So he went back to his house. The boy went down the trail, but soon he turned and looked back. There was no cornfield there; there were no peach trees or house — nothing but trees on the mountain side. Still he was not frightened. He went on until he came to the river trail in sight of his home. He saw many people standing about talking. When they saw him, they ran towards him shouting, “Here he is! He is not drowned or killed in the mountains!” Then they said, “Where have you been? We have been looking for you ever since yesterday noon.” “A man took me over to his house, just across the ridge,” said the boy. “I thought Udsi-skala would tell you where I was.” Udsi-skala said, “I have not seen you. I was out all day in my canoe looking for you. It was one of the Nunnehi who made himself look like me.” His mother said, “You say you had plenty to eat there?”“Yes,” said the boy. “There is no house there,” his mother answered. “There is nothing there but trees and rocks, but we hear a drum sometimes in the big bald peak above. The people you saw were the Nunnehi” (Judson, 1914, p207-209)
With our modern mindsets, paranoia that everyone is out to kidnap our children, and the current spate of phantom clown sightings, most of us probably thought this tale was headed in a creepy direction, but inviting people over for a nice dinner and helping them find their way home was just how the supernatural Nunne’hi rolled. Heck, they even have somebody shapeshift into a familiar face, just so you don’t feel too weirded out. That’s some serious manners. In a curious analogue to Celtic fairy lore, accepting food from the Nunne’hi is in occasional instances thought to trap you in their Magonian netherworld, although in their usual amicable way, they do let you regularly visit your relatives.
Years ago, before the Revolution, Yahula was a prosperous stock trader among the Cherokees, and the tinkling of the bells, hung around the necks of his ponies, could be heard on every mountain trail. Once there was a great hunt, and all the warriors were out, but when it was over and they were ready to return to the settlement, Yahula was not with them. They waited and searched, but he could not be found, and at last they went back without him, and his friends grieved for him as for one dead. Sometime after, his people were surprised and delighted to have him walk in among them and sit down as they were at supper in the evening. To the questions which were asked him, Yahula replied that he had been lost in the mountains, and that the Nunnehi or Immortals, had taken him to the town in which they dwelt, and here he had been kept ever since, with the kindest care and treatment, until the longing to see his old friends had brought him back. Importuned to join them at supper, he said that it was now too late—he had tasted the fairy food and could never again eat with human kind, and for the same reason he could not stay with his family, but must go back to the Nunnehi. His wife and children and brother begged him to stay, but he said that he could not; it was either life with the Immortals or death with his own people, and he thereupon arose to go. They saw him as he sat talking to them and as he stood up, but the moment he stepped from the doorway he vanished as if he had never been. After this strange occurrence, he came back often to visit his people. They would see him first as he entered the door, and as he sat and talked he was quite himself in every way, but the instant he stepped across the threshold he was gone, though a hundred eyes might be watching. He came often, but at last the entreaties for him to remain at home became so urgent that the Nunnehi must have been offended, for he came no more (Knight, 1917, p617).
Apparently, Nunne’hi girls can’t resist a good party, constantly drumming and singing in the mountains, although the precise location can never be determined with any certainty. On occasion they would just crash a Cherokee party and hang out, disappearing mysteriously.
Once four Nunne’hi women came to a dance at Nottely town, and danced half the night with the young men there, and nobody knew that they were Nunne’hi, but thought them visitors from another settlement. About midnight they left to go home, and some men who had come out from the townhouse to cool off watched to see which way they went. They saw the women go down the trail to the river ford, but just as they came to the water they disappeared, although it was a plain trail, with no place where they could hide. Then the watchers knew they were Nunne’hi women. Several men saw this happen, and one of them was Wafford’s father-in-law, who was known for an honest man. At another time a man named Burnt-tobacco was crossing over the ridge from Nottely to Hemptown in Georgia and heard a drum and the songs of dancers in the hills on one side of the trail. He rode over to see who could be dancing in such a place, but when he reached the spot the drum and the songs were behind him, and he was so frightened that he hurried back to the trail and rode all the way to Hemptown as hard as he could to tell the story. He was a truthful man, and they believed what he said. There must have been a good many of the Nunne’hi living in that neighborhood, because the drumming was often heard in the high Balds almost up to the time of the Removal (Smithsonian, 1898, p332-333).
In many ways, it appears the Nunne’hi were mostly subterranean, establishing enclaves under mountains, in deep holes, and beneath circular depressions.
On a small upper branch of Nottely, running nearly due north from Blood Mountain, there was also a hole, like a small well or chimney, in the ground, from which there came up a warm vapor that heated all the air around. People said that this was because the Nunne’hi had a townhouse and a fire under the mountain. Sometimes in cold weather hunters would stop there to warm themselves, but they were afraid to stay long. This was more than sixty years ago, but the hole is probably there yet. Close to the old trading path from South Carolina up to the Cherokee Nation, somewhere near the head of Tugaloo, there was formerly a noted circular depression about the size of a townhouse, and waist deep. Inside it was always clean as though swept by unknown hands. Passing traders would throw logs and rocks into it, but would always, on their return, find them thrown far out from the hole. The Indians said it was a Nunne’hi townhouse, and never liked to go near the place or even to talk about it, until at last some logs thrown in by the traders were allowed to remain there, and then they concluded that the Nunne’hi, annoyed by the persecution of the white men, had abandoned their townhouse forever (Smithsonian, 1898, p332-333).
Just because the Nunne’hi were a friendly bunch, don’t think they couldn’t go all gangster when it was called for. Nikwasi was a major Cherokee settlement and spiritual center located in modern Franklin, North Carolina, where the Nikwasi mound still stands. The Nikwasi platform mound has been dated to 1000 A.D. (probably Mississippian culture), and when the Cherokee migrated to the area in the 16th Century they established a town on the existing site. It’s prime real estate, so it’s not surprising that they had to fight other Native Americans being pushed south for control of it, and since it was where they kept the Cherokee equivalent of the eternal flame, they were determined to hold on to it (and their friends the Nunne’hi are credited with some stunning victories at the location).
One morning, just before the break of day, the spies saw the enemy approaching and at once gave the alarm. The Nikwasi men seized their arms and rushed out to meet the attack, but after a long, hard fight they found themselves overpowered and began to retreat, when suddenly a stranger stood among them and shouted to the chief to call off his men and he himself would drive the enemy back. From the dress and the language of the stranger the Nikwasi people thought him a chief who had come with reinforcements from Overhill settlements in Tennessee. They fell back along the trail, and as they came near the town-house they saw a great company of warriors coming out from the side of the mound as from an open doorway. Then they knew that their friends were the Nunnehi, the Immortals, although no one had ever heard that they lived under Nikwasi mound. The Nunnehi poured out by hundreds, armed and painted for the fight, and the most curious part of it all was that they became invisible as soon as they were fairly outside of the settlement, so that although the enemy saw the glancing arrow or the rushing tomahawk, and felt the stroke, he could not see who sent it. Before such an invisible foe the invaders had to retreat, going first south along the ridge to where joins the main ridge, which separates Tah-kee-os-tee (French Broad) from the Tuckaseigee, and then turning with it to the northeast. As they retreated they tried to shield themselves behind rocks and trees, but the Nunnehi arrows went around them and killed them from the other side, and they could find no hiding place. All along the ridge they fell, until when they reached the head of Tuckaseigee not more than half a dozen were left alive, and in their despair they sat down and cried out for mercy. The Nunnehi chief told them that they deserved their punishment for attacking a peaceful tribe, and he spared their lives and told them to go home and tell their people. It was the custom of the Indians to spare some to carry the news of battle and defeat. Then the Nunnehi went back to the mound, and have been there ever since. They are there now, for when a strong army of Federal troops came to surprise a handful of Confederates in the last war, they saw so many soldiers guarding the town that they were afraid and went away without making an attack (Jarrett, 1916, p190-191).
Sadly, the Nunne’hi weren’t as helpful when Nikwasi was sacked by the British in 1761 (as the Cherokee were allied with the French) or burned in 1776 by Colonial American troops (as the Cherokee were allied with the British). The Cherokee rebuilt the town, but by 1817, North Carolina had snapped it up. By the 1830’s the Cherokee were being forcibly relocated to the West, yet given the odd episode reported during the Civil War, we can assume the Nunne’hi lingered for at least a little while longer.
The neighborly relations between the Cherokee and Nunne’hi are illustrative of the fact that you don’t always have to hunt the monster down, poke at the ghost with an EMF meter, chase the elusive Sasquatch through the north woods, or exorcise that demon. Our Western notion that we are the masters of the natural world seems to compel us to round up supernatural and anomalistic beasties and bend them to our will, demanding they reveal themselves or provide a DNA sample. We treat the paranormal as a serious threat precisely because the existence of monsters would imply a certain absurdity afoot in the universe. But perhaps we should just tell them a good joke and extend a friendly hand, for as Ralph Waldo Emerson said “It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them”. Next time you bump up against a preternatural personality, invite them to a party. I hear they like to dance.
Hodge, Frederick Webb, 1864-1956. Handbook of American Indians, North of Mexico. Washington: Govt. Printing Office, 1912.
Jarrett, Robert Frank, b. 1864. Occoneechee: the Maid of the Mystic Lake. New York: The Shakespeare Press, 1916.
Judson, Katharine Berry. Myths and Legends of the Mississippi Valley and the Great Lakes. Chicago: A.C. McClurg and Company, 1914.
Knight, Lucian Lamar, 1868-1933. A Standard History of Georgia and Georgians. Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1917.
Lyback, Johanna R. M. Indian Legends. Chicago: Lyons and Carnahan, 1925.
Mooney, James, 1861-1921. Myths of the Cherokee. Washington: G.P.O., 1902.
Morris, Cora. Stories from Mythology, North American. Boston, MA: Marshall Jones Company, 1924.
Smithsonian Institution. Bureau of American Ethnology. Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution v19:1. Washington, D.C.: Govt. Printing Office, 1898.
Excellent article and thank you SOOO much for citing sources!!
Many thanks for reading it!