How The World was Made

When all the world was water, the animals lived in the sky beyond the rainbow where everyone complained about being cramped for space. “It is much too crowded up here,” said Grandfather Buzzard. “Why don’t we find out what is down there under the water?”

“I will go. I will go,” clicked Beetle as he extended his little forelegs as far as they would go. Grandfather Buzzard agreed that since Beetle belonged in the water, he should go. “See what you can find down there,” said Grandfather Buzzard, and he waved good-bye.

Beetle dove from the sky and floated slowly to earth. He landed on top of the water and whirled around and around and around. When he found an opening in the surface, he kicked his little hind legs in the air and dove under. After awhile, Beetle surfaced, his forelegs coated with soft mud.

Beetle’s friends watched from above as the mud from under the water spread out in all directions. The mass of mud grew, and grew, and kept on growing, until it was a great big island. Then it was magically tied to the sky with four sturdy ropes.

Beetle returned home pleased with his good work. “When the mud dries,” he said, “there will be much land for us to share. We will never be crowded again.”

The others in the sky saw that the mud was still soft and wet. Everyone waited for the land to dry out. At last Raven grew impatient. “Why don’t we just go down and try it out?” he asked. Bluejay flicked his blue and white tail and hopped forward. “I want to go,” he said, “but perhaps I am too small to undertake such a long journey.”

“Do not worry,” said Grandfather Buzzard, “you are quick and clever. You will make it.”

Bluejay flew to earth. He traveled north, south, east, and west. Everywhere the island’s mud was wet and sticky. “It is too soon,” reported Bluejay when he returned to the sky. “Our feet will get stuck if we try to land down there now.”

Old Man Owl closed his big round eyes and went back to sleep. Mountain Lion curled up in a clump of grass and sighed. The trees let their leaves fall to the ground in disgust. Everyone was disappointed.

The animals busied themselves in the sky while they waited for their little mud island to dry out. Then one day Grandfather Buzzard stood up firm and tall. His big black body swayed, and his feathers rippled. “I have waited long enough,” he declared in a loud voice. “I am going down to take a look for myself.”

No one ever challenged Grandfather Buzzard. Instead, they watched as he flapped his huge wings and flew down to earth. The long journey made the old bird very tired, and he sank lower and lower and closer to the ground.

When he was as low as he could get without actually landing, the flapping of his wings carved out great long valleys wherever they touched the soft earth. And where his wings swept upward, they created tall rugged mountains.

The animals watched from above. “We have got to get Grandfather Buzzard back up here,” said Bluejay. “Look what he is doing. He is creating too many mountains.”

Grandfather Buzzard finally returned to the sky. He strutted among the animals with his chest puffed out. “The mud is not completely dry,” he admitted. “But one has to admit that it is very much more interesting down there since I have visited.”

Bluejay rolled his eyes. “That remains to be seen,” he muttered. For a long time afterward, the animals took turns checking to see if the earth had hardened. But each time they returned home they were sorry to report that the land was still too soft.

A long time passed before Grandfather Buzzard spoke again. “I think it is time to descend,” he said. “Look how solid those mountains are. And see how the water has formed into long ribbons that flow through the valleys. The land is ready. We must go.”

Bluejay, Hawk, Crow, Magpie, and a stream of little songbirds fluffed up their wings in readiness for the flight. Mountain Lion, Panther, Deer, Fox, and all the other animals preened themselves in preparation for the trip. The trees pulled themselves up by their roots and wrapped themselves up in tight little bundles so that they, too, would be prepared to move.

At last Grandfather Buzzard led off, and the others followed. Indeed, he was right. The earth was not too hard and not too soft. It was just right. There was only one problem: It was totally dark.

“Oh my,” said Grandfather Buzzard. “I did not count on this. I must grab Sun from up there beyond the rainbow.”

So Grandfather Buzzard went back and got hold of Sun. “I will show you how to behave,” he said to Sun in his firmest voice. “Start here in the east and travel toward the west every day across the island.”

Sun did as she was told and lit up the land exactly as Grandfather Buzzard had told her to do. But the animals were not at all happy. Sun was too close and too hot.

“Sun must be moved away,” complained Crawfish. “Look what has happened to the shell on my back. It is scorched, and now I am bright red. My flesh is spoiled.” So Grandfather Buzzard pushed Sun higher up into the sky. Still things did not cool off. So he pushed Sun higher and higher above the land.

“There,” said Grandfather Buzzard. “That looks like a good distance.” But the animals still complained. After many attempts, he finally got Sun in just the right position under the arch of the rainbow. “Now,” said Grandfather Buzzard to Sun, “travel from east to west across the island each day.” Again Sun did as she was told, and this time everyone was happy.

The animals and plants were barely settled when Grandfather Buzzard announced that they must stay awake for seven nights. (Seven is a sacred number to the Cherokees because it represents the directional units of the world: east, west, north, and south, as well as up, down, and here.)

So the animals and plants tried their best. The first night was easy, and everyone stayed awake. But on the second night several of the animals fell asleep. On the third night even more of them fell asleep. And by the seventh night Owl, Panther, and only a few others were able to remain awake.

As a result, Owl and Panther were given the ability to see at night and prey on others who could not. Cedar, Pine, Spruce, Holly, and Laurel trees, who also stayed awake the whole seven nights, got to keep their leaves all year round, and to hold strong medicines. The trees that fell asleep too soon were made to lose their leaves before winter came.

After the plants and animals were in place, a young brother and sister arrived. At first it was only the two of them. Then one day the brother hit his sister with a fish, (the Cherokees’ symbol for fertility), and told her to multiply.

Seven days later, the sister bore a child. And seven days later another child was born. Thereafter, every seven days she bore another child. The children arrived so often everyone was frightened the earth would become as crowded as the sky had been.

So, afterward, the woman was made to have only one child a year. And it has been that way ever since.