World didn’t begin with a bang, but instead with a beetle: Cherokee religious beliefs

We are familiar with most creation theories: evolution, the religious aspects of a god willing a world, and of course, the “Big Bang.” But what if instead of an omnipotent god, the world started with a tiny beetle? To understand, we must go back in time. Imagine Western Carolina University’s campus as a dense forest of Frazer fir Christmas trees and envision the wild deer, bears, and birds inhabiting this forest. The year is 1550 AD, the beginning of the historical Cherokee occupation of Western North Carolina. We are exploring their culture, specifically their ancient religious beliefs and how they have transcended into our modern day. Again, imagine in place of Killian Annex, a traditional mound with a rotunda building, capable of holding several hundred villagers. Its roof is made of bark, layered tightly and neatly to protect the inside from rain and snow. There is also a wide, single door that serves as a chimney when fires are ignited for festivals of music and dancing. Here, there is no manic noise from a neighboring frat party or the Bob’s Mini-Mart traffic. Replace the honking, the yelling, and the boozing with the clattering noise of sticks from a game of stickball, the quiet murmuring of the Cherokee language, and the serenity of nature. Now that the setting is established, consider that this is a time before a protestant god was introduced to the Cherokee. Instead of one god setting the world in motion, they believe it was something as small as a water beetle responsible for the creation of earth. The Cherokee retain that the world was an infinite mass of water suspended by four cords, the sky vault, or also known as Galunlati. In the sky vault, all animals dwelled happily until it became overcrowded. To find more space and allow more animals to live, the water beetle volunteered to fall into the water below and search for a land beneath its surface. He swam resolutely until reaching the bottom where mud grazed his back and attached itself to the creature. The beetle then emerged from the water with the mud, which began to quickly grow and spread, forming islands and creating what we know as our earth. A buzzard then flew to inspect this new development but slowed in exhaustion and became lethargic on his journey. He grazed up and down, and each time he fell, his wings carved the islands, creating valleys. As he flew upwards, Mt. Everest, Mt. Mitchell, the Rockies, and all mountains in the world were formed. Today, the Cherokee have preserved this celestial religion that honors environmental dates such as harvests and honors them just as modern day Christians observe Christmas. From this story, we can infer the power of water and the river in Cherokee religion. It was the source of all land and is a sacred symbol of purity, creation, and life. It also is a symbol of destruction in its tirades of floods and other natural disasters. It can be viewed similar to gods in other religions as it both grants life and ends life. And still in the present, the river known as the “Long Man” is such a powerful force in their religion. In Cherokee, North Carolina, during the stickball tournaments, the participants visit the river to pray to its spirit before the game. After the game, they return again the river to pray once more. The “Long Man” is still a place of ceremonies for priests and baptisms for infants. The priest faces the east in a bend in the river, looks upstream, and performs a ceremony to honor the river. These ceremonies take place at sunrise during a time of fast for both the priest and others honoring the river. Four days after birth, a newborn is brought by its mother to a priest who then retreats into the river with the child. While faced towards the sun, the priest recites a prayer to promote the child’s health and a long life on earth. After the prayer, the mother takes the infant and rubs a drop of water on its face and chest. If the child is not taken to the river by the fourth day, they must take him by the seventh day as four and seven are the Cherokee’s sacred numbers. This ritual of baptism can be considered similar to that of Christian beliefs and their baptisms. Christians also believe seven to be a sacred number because their god completed the making of the world in seven days. Perhaps these similarities can be attributed to the theory held among some Cherokee historians. “Some maintain Jesus Christ’s spirit preached to the Cherokees after his crucifixion,” said Dr. Karen McKinney, whom I spoke with regarding Cherokee beliefs. To learn more about this theory or if you are interested in other stories of Cherokee beliefs, visit Dr. Karen Mckinney in McKee, who gave great resources for this article. Also, visit Carrie McLachlan of Cherokee Studies in McKee who also provided resources and gave information concerning the Cherokee studies program’s upcoming trip. “We’re currently raising money for their trip during spring break. It should be great and a wonderful opportunity.” They will be traveling to ancient mounds in the United States, which sounds essential for anthropology majors and ideal to any Native American history buff. If you are interested, visit McLachlan who will be very excited to have you join in on the upcoming adventure.We live in the very heart of Native American culture. Whether you are Hindu, Buddhist, or Christian, all need to experience Cherokee history and culture during your time here. Visit our museum and ask about Cherokee history, take LMP trips to Cherokee, and speak to the department of Cherokee studies. And also while you’re studying here at Western, keep in mind that you can be the beetle, even someone as seemingly tiny as you can make such a huge impact.