The Cherokee are a Native American people from the Southeastern United States of America. They evolved a rich culture centuries before the first Europeans set foot in the New World. Like any other ancient people they saw the world around them and strove to make sense of their place in the great scheme of things. Over time they evolved, mythology, legends, folktales and lore which explained how they see their place in the world, how the world works and much more besides. Presented here is the Cherokee tradition of the hidden lake of Atagâ’hï that is said to only be able to be experienced and seen after careful preparations and a suitable plane of spiritual development has been attained by an individual. This is followed by a short folktale of how a young Cherokee brave and his little sister believed they found the hidden place and finally conclude.
The hidden lake of Atagâ’hï is a special place that the Cherokee people believe lies in the wild lands of the Great Smoky Mountains that separate Tennessee from North Carolina, somewhere west of the birthplace of the Oconaluftee river. Atagâ’hï which means Gall place is not an easy place for humans to find and some people think it does not exist at all. The Cherokees know that it exists even though few people are said to have ever seen. Its location although secret to humans is known to the animals who seek it out for healing when they are sick or wounded.
If by chance some wanderer in the wild ventures close to it, he, or she, may hear the sound of the wings of the multitude of wild ducks and birds that inhabit the hidden place and fly in the skies above the waters. Should that wanderer then follow that sound they will not find a lake, but may find a dry flat plain of mud. No birds, animals, plants or any living thing, or even its beautiful waters will be seen by the wanderer.
Nevertheless, the Cherokee people will tell you that it is still there but to see it and experience it then it is necessary to heighten your own inner spiritual development. Then it is necessary to fast and pray to the spirits and then begin an all night vigil. Only then when the person has attained the right enhanced state of being will the lake and its inhabitants be visible to them as the sun rises after the night of the vigil.
People make the mistake of thinking that because the lake is not seen then it does not exist or if they stumbled across a mudflat in the wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountains that it has dried up long ago. It is not so. To see and experience the hidden lake of Atagâ’hï it is necessary to follow closely the procedure that has been given and then and only then can Atagâ’hï be seen and experienced.
After the appropriate procedures have been followed the magical lake will appear at sunrise as a wide but shallow expanse of beautiful blue water fed by springs falling from high cliffs around it. The waters are home to many kinds of wild fowl, fish and reptiles. In the skies above birds of all kinds fly overhead or swim upon its surface and animal tracks of all kinds led down to the water edge. It it is known that animals such as bears know how to find Atagâ’hï and bathe in the waters which heal their wounds and cure their sickness. This is a sacred place for all creatures and that is the reason why the lake is kept from the view of most humans especially hunters.
A message from the sun
Of the many people who have sought Atagâ’hï only a few have ever found it. Two of these may have been two Cherokee youngsters by the name of Utani and Netani. Utani was the elder brother of Netani, who was his little sister. He was a young Cherokee lad, tall and strong, who was approaching the age when he would be considered a brave and be expected to act like one. Utani had been given a new knife with a bright and shiny blade that was razor sharp and gleamed and glittered in the sunshine.
He was fascinated by his knife and the way the blade reflected the sun. He placed it upon the ground in the sun and stood and admired the way it gleamed in the sunshine. He was so absorbed in staring at the blade gleaming in the sunlight that he did not notice the approach of his sister, Netani. Not until her body cut out the sunlight from the blade stopping it gleaming did he notice she was there.
Seeing the knife suddenly stop gleaming Utani looked up and saw it was because his sister was blocking the sun by where she was standing and her shadow was falling upon it “Please remove your shadow from my knife,” he said but Netani just staring at him at him with puzzled look on her face. “Please move so that that your body does not stop the sun from shining on my knife!” he said. Netani did not move so he said it again.
Although Netani did not understand why Utani was staring at the blade, because he was her elder brother she obeyed him and moved out of the way allowing the sun to shine upon the knife again. Then she asked him why he was so fascinated about the knife. Realising she may think him foolish and because he was now approaching the age of when a Cherokee boy becomes a brave and he did not want to sound childish. He told her that he was watching the blade of his knife because the sun was shining on it and was sending him a message.
Utani had not reckoned on his little sister’s natural curiosity. She was fascinated and begged to know what the message was. Thinking to quiet her curiosity he told her that the sun was telling him the secret location of Atagâ’hï the hidden lake. Too late Utani realised he had gone too far with his childishness. But, he was obstinate. He did not want to be seen to lose face by telling his little sister that he had made it all up and did not know the way to the hidden lake. If he did he would have to admit that he had not received a message from the sun from his knife. Netani was intrigued by the thought of Atagâ’hï and begged him to take her there.
In search of Atagâ’hï
Utani realised he was in a fix but thinking now he was almost a brave he must begin to act like one. So he decided, perhaps foolishly, that he would try and find the way to the hidden lake of Atagâ’hï. Picking up his knife he placed it in its sheath at his side and taking his sister by the hand began walking towards the high ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains.
With no clear idea of which way to go Utani led his sister along the trails that led up to the high ridges. They walked for hours through the wild woods climbing higher and ever higher along remote trails that few trod. They got further away from home than Utani had ever been before and he began to feel scared, but he did not want to show fear in case he frightening his sister who had always placed her trust in him. They walked and walked and came across no sign of the lake and Netani now began to grow tired and lagged behind. She called to Utani to wait for her and suggested they rest and then head home as she was beginning to feel very hungry. She suggested they come back tomorrow and look when they would have more time.
Secretly, Utani was very pleased because he had no idea where he was going and with his sister suggesting it was time to go home he would not lose face and he was also feeling very hungry and tired. Making out he was angry he agreed to turn round and go home, but as he took his sister’s hand to return down the trail he kicked a pebble which rolled across the trail to one side and down a bank and they heard a plop as it fell into water.
Brother and sister looked at each other with surprise and then very quietly and carefully walked to the side of the trail which had thick branches and foliage growing along it. Pulling the foliage out of the way Utani and Netani found themselves looking down a bank that ran to the the edge of a beautiful blue lake that was hidden by trees and bushes. All around around the edges of the lake great cliffs rose and springs of crystal clear water bubbled down their face into the lake. There were multitudes of ducks and other water fowl and many different kinds of birds. The waters were filled with fish and their were reptiles in among them Around the shore of the lake there were the footprints of many kinds of animals and they could see bears and deer, squirrels and many other kinds of animals. They knew they had found the Atagâ’hï the hidden lake of their Cherokee people.
They looked about them and realised it was getting towards sundown so they agreed to return home and come back again in the morning to explore it further. When they arrived home it was dark and their mother and father and the older braves of the village were worried and angry. They wanted to know where they had been and Netani told them happily that the sun had sent a message to Utani’s knife blade telling him where to find Atagâ’hï and that was where they had been. Their parents laughed and the older braves laughed. Utani and Netani did not laugh. They knew they had found the hidden lake of Atagâ’hï and could find it again. Now, for those who wander in the Great Smoky Mountains sometimes along the trail in the wilds you may come across a young Cherokee brave and his sister kicking pebbles down a bank on the side of the trail.
So that is the tradition and folktale of Atagâ’hï of the Cherokee people. For those interested in conclusions it would seem fitting that I leave the reader to form their own ideas and draw their own conclusions from their own knowledge and experience.
What do you think?
© 09/03/2016 zteve t evans
References and Attributions
Copyright March 9th, 2016 zteve t evans
- Myths of the Cherokee by James Mooney. From the Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology 1897-98, Part I.  and is now in the public domain.
- Internet Archive Wayback Machine – Cherokee – Atagâ’hï, The Enchanted Lake and Cherokee – Atagahi – The Secret Lake
- Cherokee – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- File:Smoky Mtn View.jpg From Wikimedia Commons – Author: ReverieHikes – CC BY-SA 3.0 – Released under the GNU Free Documentation License 1.2, 1.3.
- File:Gsm100 1547.jpg From Wikipedia – The Great Smoky Mountains – by Terrill White – Public Domain
- File:Clifftops4-7-07.jpg From Wikimedia Commons – Author: Aviator31 – Public Domain