ArtTour International Magazine|Spring 2020

When anthropologist James Mooney published the first of his influential studies of Native American culture in 1888, “Myths of the Cherokee,” he was struck by the centrality of water in the Cherokee world.
​​​​​​​Sam Dembling
Mooney had spent a season living with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. In the following years, he published several foundational books on Cherokee culture, and became, according to JoAllyn Archambault, director of the American Indian Program of the National Museum of Natural History, the “first person to write Indian history with Indian thoughts about their history incorporated into the work.”


Water, Mooney discovered during his season with the Eastern Band, appeared at the very beginning of Cherokee cosmology. In “Myths of the Cherokee,” published in The Journal of American Folklore, he recorded the nation’s origin story, in which the Cherokee conceived of the earth as “a great island floating in a sea of water, and suspended at each of the four cardinal points by a cord hanging down from the sky vault. . . . When the world grows old and worn out, the people will die, and the cords will break and let the earth sink into the ocean, and all will be water again.” We begin in water, and we return to the water.


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Spring 2020