CHEROKEE LEGENDS a blog from Pastor Ken Rickett

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Cherokee Legends

GENESIS 1:1-2 In the beginning, God was creating the heavens and the earth, and the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. . .

GALATIANS 5:22-23 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.

Having grown up near the Great Smoky Mountains in a town located about an half hour’s drive from the Cherokee Indian Reservation, I learned a few of the Cherokee legends as I heard them several times. I will share two of them from memory, with apologies to those authors who have written these same stories with many variations.

From the beginning of time, every Cherokee family understood the importance of preserving the harvest so that they may have bread and food for the winter. In the autumn, as the corn stalks yield their dried ears of corn, it was gathering time. With ample corn stored, then every few days a few ears of corn were taken and the corn kernels were shelled off of the cob and placed into a hollow bowl. With a wooden pestle, the corn was ground into cornmeal, a tedious task before the days of grist mills. Once the cornmeal was made, it was stored in a basket- enough to make cornbread daily for several days before more corn had to be ground into meal.

One day an old Indian couple had worked hard to prepare their corn into cornmeal, and they carefully stored their basket of fresh cornmeal. Alas! The next morning much of the cornmeal was gone. Looking around they sought clues as to who the thief was. Outside, the ground was covered with scattered cornmeal, revealing the tracks of a giant dog. The old couple said nothing, hoping that it would not happen again. But the next morning, even more cornmeal was taken, and again, the tracks of a giant dog were seen. So the whole village was alerted. Together the villagers held a council and made a plan, namely, they would hide during the night and every one of them would have a rattle or some kind of noise-maker. When the thief came again and entered the area where the cornmeal was stored, the people would make a loud noise that would roll up the mountainside like a roar of thunder. So at dusk, the villagers took their places, careful not to make a sound as the darkness of the night deepened.

Then suddenly, swooping down from the western sky, the giant dog came into the village, landed near the old couple’s tepee, and quietly sneaked into the area where the basket of fresh cornmeal was kept. Just as the dog bit into the cornmeal, loud noise shook the place. Startled, the dog ran outside and the villagers chased it. Suddenly the huge dog arose and streaked across the sky, bits of cornmeal flying from its mouth, forming stars. Immediately the sky was filled with stars of all kinds, far too numerous to be counted. And it dawned on the villagers: this was the Great Spirit in the form of a dog. And the Milky Way, the brighter band of stars, was the promise of the Great Spirit.

Granted, this story has many variations. And yet, I marvel at how different cultures have stories of a “Great Spirit” who brought the heavens and/or the earth into being. The Cherokee, whose ancient ancestors had never heard of the familiar biblical stories that we know, have their own story of the Great Spirit who creates the starry sky. And yes, in the Cherokee language, the word for “milky way” literally means “where the dog ran.”

A grandson sat near his grandfather, an old Cherokee elder, and listened to the stories that the grandfather hoped to pass down to the new generations of children. In order to make sure that his grandson was listening, the grandfather said, “Have you heard the story of the two wolves that fight inside people?” “No,” was the quick response, “tell me the story”, replied the grandson.

The grandfather began, “Every person has two wolves that live inside, and they fight all the time. One wolf is evil, and he tries to convince the person to be mean, resentful, argumentative, selfish, revengeful, disruptive, dishonest, disrespectful, envious, and even heretical. The other wolf is good, and he tries to convince the people to be loving, kind, patient, joyful, gentle, peaceful, meek, forgiving, and faithful.”

Responding quickly, the grandson asked, “Who won?”

“Whichever wolf the person feeds” came the answer.

Few legends are as loaded with truth and insight as this Cherokee tale. Who hasn’t known the fierceness of the battle within us? Who hasn’t regretted those moments when the “evil wolf” gets the upper hand of our emotions and our actions. In a day and age when “love” is often perceived as softness that has “no guts and no power”, let me remind you that the love of which Jesus spoke is a “love that is born of the will.” Turning the other cheek is not simply a gesture to defuse an explosive issue for the moment, rather, it is a will to treat that person kindly forever. When Jesus asks us to “lay aside all malice and all revenge”, he meant that agape or Christian love rested upon a will within us that will not allow us to do evil unto others. Yet, Jesus knew the power of human emotions and honored that aspect of life. “Be angry, and sin not” is clearly an admonition to express anger but refrain from acting out toward others in anger. Even Jesus in his anger toward the moneychangers in the Temple, did not smite the moneychangers, but overturned their tables! One element of agape (Christian) love is this: forgiveness! Whether one “forgives and forgets” is NOT the point; rather, the point is that forgiveness as an act of love is also an act of incredible will power. In the New Testament there are a couple of words for forgiveness, but when Jesus said from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. . .”, Jesus used a word that meant “do not hold back from total and full forgiveness.” Talk about will power! For Jesus to speak this prayer of forgiveness was to wipe out all feelings of revenge toward those who crucified and/or condemned and/or mocked him. Had we been in Jesus’ place, which wolf would have won the battle within us?

Until we preachers of the Gospel can find the words, meager and weak as they may be, to help us all grasp that agape (Christian) love requires a strong will, the Church may not have the fortitude to face a society in which the bad wolf howls and nips at our heels. Can we, the Church Universal, feed the good wolf enough so that our will (love) is adequate to heal division all across this world? Mind you, I am NOT talking about agreement, I am talking about having the will (love) to honor the sacredness of all life. No, we can’t and won’t be perfect, but when we fall short, shall we feed a little more to the good wolf?