Cherokee Folklore: The Strange Legend of Tsuwe’nähï and the Secret Town

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Pilot Mountain, North Carolina – Image Credit: Wahkeenah – Public Domain

In his book Myths of the Cherokee People (1902) the American ethnographer, James Mooney (1861-1921) compiled a large bank of folklore, legend, and mythology of the Cherokee people that provides a remarkable insight into how they viewed and made sense of the world around them.   Some of these legends tell of a secret or invisible tribe of Cherokees who live either inside Pilot Mountain or in some hidden valley only reached by passing a concealed entrance in the mountain’s side.  The following work is a rewrite of the legend called Tsuwe’nähï: A Legend of Pilot Knob from Mooney’s book that tells of these secret people and their hidden town.

Lazy Tsuwe’nähï

There was once a lazy man whose name was Tsuwe’nähï.  He lived in an old town called Känuga that was situated on the banks of the Pigeon River.  He was too lazy to build his own house so instead, he lived with friends and relatives moving frequently from one to another.   Although he liked to spend all of his time in the woods he never bothered to hunt to bring back game as thanks to those who kept him through their good nature.

At last the good nature of his friends and relatives ran thin and they tired of him living off their generosity and they told him so.  Tsuwe’nähï pleaded for a last chance and asked them to prepare some parched corn for him to take on a hunting trip.  He promised them he would bring back deer, or some other kind of game, telling them if he failed he would never bother them again.

So his friends and relatives gave him a pouch with enough corn to sustain him on his hunting trip and he headed off into the mountains.   Many days passed, and weeks turned to months but he did not return and everyone thought they would never see him again.  Then one day he appeared in the town with a strange tale to tell.

The Strange Tale of Tsuwe’nähï

He told his friends and relatives that he had followed the trail towards the mountains and as he passed across a ridge he had met a stranger.  They greeted each other in a friendly fashion and stopped to talk to each other.  The stranger asked him where he was going out in the wilds on his own.   Tsuwe’nähï told him that his friends had relatives had driven him out of their homes telling him he was lazy.  He told him that he must bring back game to share with them or they would not have him back and ruefully he explained he was not a very good hunter.  The stranger smiled at him and said, “Come and visit my town. It is not far and you will see that you have relatives and friends there.”

The Secret Town on Pilot Mountain

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Big Pinnacle of Pilot Mountain – Image Credit:AnDrew McKenzie – CC BY-SA 3.0

Tsuwe’nähï was very grateful for the offer.  He was ashamed about how he had lived off his family and friends for so long and did not want to return empty handed, so he accepted.  The stranger led him towards the mountain called Tsuwa`tel’da which is also known as Pilot Mountain or Pilot Knob.   Eventually, they came to a bare rock face and the stranger led him to a hidden cave and gestured and said, “Please follow me!”

Tsuwe’nähï followed the stranger into the cave and down along a passage that ran into the heart of the mountain,  Eventually the passage opened out into a wide and beautiful valley. Looking down into the valley Tsuwe’nähï saw a great town thronged with many people.

Tsuwe’nähï and the stranger walked down the valley towards the town.  The townsfolk seeing him coming ran to meet him greeting him in warmth and friendship and showed him to the house of their chief.   The chief greeted him warmly and told him he was welcome and offered him a seat beside the fire.  Tsuwe’nähï gladly accepted and sat down but was surprised to find the seat moved underneath him.  Then he looked down and saw there was a turtle’s head poking out of its shell and realized he was seated upon the back of a huge turtle and jumped up in surprise.

“It’s alright,” said the chief, “he is only looking to see who you are!”   Tsuwe’nähï sat down gently and carefully and the turtle drew its head back into its shell. He was then offered food the kind of which he was accustomed to and he was encouraged to eat and drink his fill.  When he had finished the chief took him on a tour around the settlement and introduced him to many of its people.  Eventually, Tsuwe’nähï grew tired and was allowed to rest.  After he had rested the chief led him back to the mouth of the cave he had entered the strange country from and showed him the path that led back to the river telling him,  “Although you are going back to the place you call home you will never again be happy there. Nevertheless, you have seen us and whenever you are ready you can come to us as you now know where we are.”

Tsuwe’nähï Returns Home

The chief turned and left. Tsuwe’nähï made his way back down the mountain path towards the river following it until he found his way back to Känuga.  On his return, he told his story to his family and friends but none of them would believe him and laughed calling him foolish.   After his return, he would often go off alone into the forest sometimes being away for several days at a time.  When he came back he would tell folk he had been visiting the hidden people on Pilot Mountain but still, no one believed him.

Then one day after returning from such a trip he told a group of friends about his visit to the hidden people.   Most laughed at dismissed his story and walked away but one man stayed and told him he believed him and would like to go with him to see for himself the next time he visited the hidden people on Pilot Mountain.

At Last Someone Believes Him

Tsuwe’nähï was pleased that he had, at last, found someone who would listen to him and readily agreed to his company. A few days later he took the man into the forest and the two of them made their way to Pilot Mountain.    After a good trek, they decided to make rest and Tsuwe’nähï said to his companion to remain at the spot and set up camp while he went on ahead telling him he would soon return.

So his friend set up camp and waited for the return of his guide.  While he waited he did some hunting and set up a fire to cook his game.  After two days and two nights the man heard  Tsuwe’nähï approaching but although he appeared to be alone he was talking to someone else close by him.  Although he could see no one the man heard the voices of two girls who were talking to Tsuwe’nähï and he to them.

As Tsuwe’nähï stepped into the firelight he greeted his friend and said,  “Look I have returned with friends and they say that in two nights time there will be a dance at their town and they are inviting us to go.”  

His friend liked the idea of a dance at the strange town and readily accepted even though he could not see who else he was talking to.   Then Tsuwe’nähï spoke as if to someone nearby saying, “He accepts and thanks you for the invitation” and turned to his friend and said, “Our sisters ask for some venison”

His friend said, “What parts would they like?” and the girls said,  “Mother has asked us to request ribs,” and although he could not see who was speaking he cut them generous portions of ribs and handed them to Tsuwe’nähï.

“Thank you,” said Tsuwe’nähï taking the ribs and said, “We shall return for you in two days,”  and then turned about and disappeared into the forest night.  The man watched him disappear and listened as the voices faded into the forest and then all was quiet.

Just as he said two days later Tsuwe’nähï returned but this time the man could see he was accompanied by two girls who went and stood by the fire to warm themselves.  The man thought they were very handsome girls but one thing struck him as strange.  He noticed that their feet were not like human feet but more like the paws of a wolf.  As soon as they realized he had seen their feet they sat down to cover them up but said nothing about them and he decided out of politeness not to ask.

The party ate a meal together and then set out along a nearby creek to the trail that led to Tsuwa`tel’da and the hidden land.  They came to a bare cliff face where they entered a cave that was hidden by folds in the rock.  They made their way down a passage which opened up into a broad valley and walked down the path to the town below.  The man was surprised by everything he saw but found his legs became very weak and began to give way under him and he fell to the ground.

Tsuwe’nähï and the girls tried to help him to him to his feet but he could not move so one of the girls ran and fetched a medicine man.  The medicine man told him he could not walk because he had not prepared himself by fasting.  He then took out some old tobacco he kept in a pouch at his side and rubbed it on the legs of the man and placing it under his nose told him to smell it.  After this, the man was able to walk and went with others to the dance which had not yet begun.

The Dance

Tsuwe’nähï took his friend to the townhouse and gave him a seat close to the fire.  His friend looked warily at the seat.  It was covered in the long thorns of the honey locust and he was worried they may pierce his skin if he sat on it.  However, his Tsuwe’näh told him it would be safe to sit on so he sat down and found the long thorns soft and comfortable.

The drummer entered the townhouse and was followed by the dancers and the dancing commenced.  A man followed the dancers around crying, “Kû! Kû!” and Tsuwe’nähï explained that he was not one of the dancers.  He told him that the man had once got lost in the mountains and had gone round in circles calling out to his friends.  Eventually, the hidden people found him and took him in but he had lost his voice and was only able to say “Kû! Kû!” ever after.

Return to Känuga

When the dance finished Tsuwe’nähï and his friend went back to Känuga.  They told the people of Känuga all about the town on Pilot Mountain and how good and kind the townsfolk were.  This time because there were two of them the people listened and some said they wanted to go there.  Tsuwe’nähï told them that they had to fast for seven days while he went up to Pilot Mountain to tell the hidden people so that they could prepare for their coming.  After seven days he returned and led the people of Känuga who wanted to go to the town on Pilot Mountain.  The people who remained behind never saw those who went with Tsuwe’nähï to the secret town again.

© 22/02/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 22nd, 2017 zteve t evans

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8 thoughts on “Cherokee Folklore: The Strange Legend of Tsuwe’nähï and the Secret Town

  1. Love, love, love this post, Zteve! Great stories that you’ve retold well (and very nice photos). I’ve been writing, for probably more than a year now, a horror/fantasy story that incorporates Cherokee lore. Where the Eastern band of the Cherokee now live is where I was born (I was probably lucky there was no Andrew Jackson to deport me on the Trail of Tears, as supposedly we have Cherokee on my maternal side).

    • Thanks for the kind compliments, really appreciated. I had no idea you were born in Cherokee lands or descended from them, how fascinating! The story you are working on sounds fascinating and there certainly a lot of inspiration in the Native American legends and I especially like the Cherokee stories.
      I am glad Mr Jackson is no more though I worry about the new President whose name shall not be spoken but means He-Who- Breaks-Wind-A-Lot, where I come from. Anyway good luck with the story and hope to read it one day soon.

      • Yeah, I know…I hadn’t even thought about Trumpert Trumpert being like Andy Jackson until I wrote that, but it does kinda fit. That’s funny to know that’s what (Trump) means in your part of the world! Ha! Yes, I will definitely revisit the story; I just don’t normally write what I call happy or light fantasy. If it’s fantasy, mine is usually dark but this story was turning out very different once I introduced the Cherokee element and I wondered whether it was working given what I’d already written. Anyway, thanks, Zteve; have a wonderful weekend.

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