Before the Europeans came, western North Carolina had no lakes, what we have now are manmade. You hear the Cherokee story tellers talk of “going to the water”, this is a ritual where every morning regardless of the season Cherokees would go to the river to pray and perform a ceremonial immersion.
“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.” The daily ritual was also why the native people thought the Europeans, who didn’t bathe as frequently, were dirty.
This story is told by 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.
To the tribe the rivers 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.
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.
We, the folks that live here now, could learn a lot by listening to them also. Thankfully, there is a place we can go to do just that. The Cherokee Bonfire, gathered around a roaring bonfire, the occasional spark shooting high into the night sky, as a strong but gentle voice begins a story you’ve never heard.
While you are here with us, visit the rivers and waterfalls, of which there are many. The lakes are fun but the natural beauty of the rivers, preserved so long ago is always breathtaking.
Thanks for spending a little time with us today and as always
WELCOME TO THE MOUNTAINS