Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Ancient Journeys Retold

Wolftown Ball Team, Cherokee, 1891

Human culture can be maddeningly ephemeral.

James Mooney did his ethnographic work among the Cherokees during the late 1880s. In Myths of the Cherokee, Mooney made numerous references to Charles Lanman’s 1849 book, Letters from the Alleghany Mountains (recounting Lanman’s travels through the Southern Appalachians). Mooney described how Lanman obtained a story from Chief Kalahu concerning the origins of tobacco. By the time his sources shared the same legend with Mooney, he observed that the details had changed from the Kalahu account:

A comparison with the later versions shows clearly how much has been lost in fifty years. The whole body of Cherokee tradition has probably suffered a proportionate loss.

That statement from Mooney has stayed with me ever since I read it several months ago. It’s really quite chilling to hear him assess the cultural loss that occurred over the relatively short span of time from the 1840s to 1890. How much more knowledge has been lost during the period of, say, the early 1700s to the present? It’s unfathomable.

So I treasure the rare finds that hark back to old times. Last year, I stumbled upon an intriguing story published in 1845, telling of a Cherokee named Chiule, supposedly 110 years of age in 1838. Chiule had explanations for the names of several rivers and many other places in Cherokee country.

Another Cherokee story, predating even Chiule’s birth, was told to the trader Alexander Long in 1717. It was an account of how the Cherokees had arrived in the Southeast long, long ago after a treacherous journey through ice and snow. Was this a description of the migration of native peoples across the Bering Straight and onto the American continent? If so, it’s fascinating how that story was passed along for centuries before it reached Alexander Long. What follows is a fragment of that oral history as recorded by Long (with his archaic spellings modified for the sake of readability):

For our coming here, we know nothing but what was had from our ancestors and has brought it down from generation to generation. The way is thus. We belonged to another land far distant from here, and the people increased and multiplied so fast that the land could not hold them, so that they were forced to separate and travel to look out for another country. They traveled so far that they came to another country that was so cold. . . Yet going still on, they came to mountains of snow and ice. The priests held a council to pass these mountains, and that they believed there was warmer weather on the other side of those mountains because it lay near the sun setting which was believed by the whole assembly. We were the first to make snowshoes to put on our old and young. We passed over these mountains till we lost sight of the same and went through darkness for a good space, and then [saw] the sun again, and going on we came to a country that could be inhabited.

We multiplied so much that we overspread all this [land ?]. We brought all manner of grains such as corn, and peas, pumpkins and muskmelon as well as all sort of wild fruits we found here naturally growing. On our journey over these mountains we lost a vast quantity of people by the unreasonable cold and darkness that we went through. When we came on this land, first we were all one language, but due to the pride and ambition of some of the leading men that caused [unrest ?] among the tribes, they separated from one another and the language was corrupted. Moreover we are told by our ancestors that when we first came on this land that the priests and beloved men were writing but not on paper as you do, but on white deer skins and on the shoulder bones of buffalo for several years, but the [defiance ?] of the young people being so great that they would not obey the priest, but let their minds roam after hunting of wild beasts that the writing was quite lost and could not be recovered again. So much for their coming on this land.

Hearing a mysterious legend like this, I wonder about ancient knowledge and the oral tradition. The knowledge of great events survived, for a time, in the stories told by one generation to the next. But eventually, so much was lost. There's more than one way to burn down a library.

On the other hand, could we go somewhere on this planet today and find people who are keeping alive the stories that have been passed on, by word of mouth, for seven generations? Twenty-five generations? One hundred generations?

I’d like to think so.

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