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Cherokee Legends: The First Fire

Updated on December 21, 2014

The Cherokee story of the first fire is one of courage, determination, and bravery. It also teaches us to never underestimate ourselves or the people around us to accomplish great things.

Most Native American tribal nations are known for their stories and legends. Every tribal nation has amazing story tellers that will tell a story that will captivate audiences both young and old. The Cherokee are no exception. Being Cherokee myself, I have heard this story told many times and in many ways but all the basic details have stayed the same regardless of the story teller.

It is said that we haven't always had the capability to create fire to keep us warm and to cook our food. So do you ever wonder where fire came from? The Cherokee have a story that is told generation after generation that explains the origin of fire. In fact, according to the Cherokee, if it wasn't for the Thunder Beings and a few brave animals we may have never had fire at our disposal.

One day, a very long time ago, the Thunder Beings sent their lightning bolts down. One of these lightning bolts hit the hollowed out part of a sycamore tree. This in turn caused the inside of the sycamore tree to catch fire. Smoke began to bellow into the heavens.

The animals saw this and wanted to have the fire for themselves so the bear held a meeting of all the animals to discuss what they should do. All animals that could fly or swim were enthusiastic about trying to retrieve the fire. However, it was bear that chose the raccoon first because of the how smart and brave the raccoon is.

The raccoon begins to swim across to the island that the old sycamore tree burns. The raccoon arrives and looks at the burning tree, thinking of a way to bring back this fire. The raccoon decides to climb the tree to look inside a knothole to get a better look at the fire. In doing so, the fire pops back into the raccoons face. This is how the raccoon got the black mask he wears today.


When the fire pops into the raccoon's face, he falls back to the ground. When he lands, he got his tail stuck between the roots of the old sycamore tree. The embers from the burning sycamore try begin to fall from above. It sets the raccoon's tail, that is not intertwined in the roots, on fire. The raccoon screams out even louder in pain. He finally pulls his tail free and runs for the water. He swims back home, returning without the fire.

The other animals were shocked to see him. The raccoon, once solid white, came back from his quest looking quite different. Not only did he know have this black mask around his eyes, but his fur was gray with black rings around his tail.

It was the raven who was the first bird to offer his assistance. All of the animals thought he was a good choice because he was so large and displayed great strength. Surely if anyone could do it, he could.

The raven flew high above the waters. He traveled far until he reached the sycamore tree with the sacred fire. He circled around the tree trying to figure out exactly how he was going to bring the fire back. The heat from the fire was so hot that while he was circling, the heat had scorched all of his feathers black. This made him very fearful so he returned without the fire.

The raven's feathers used to be quite beautiful. The contained every color of the rainbow. But after the raven's attempt to bring backfire, his feathers have been black ever since. However, if you hold a raven's feather up to the sun you can still see a hint of all the beautiful colors its feathers once were.

Then the screech owl was the next to volunteer. He arrived safely to the place that held the fire. However, as he flew over the sycamore tree, a blast of fiery, hot air shot up and almost burned out his eyes. He was able to fly home but it was a very long time before he was able to see clearly. In fact, sometimes his eyes are still reddish-orange today.

Next, the great horned owl and hooting owl decided to pair up to bring back the fire. Unfortunately when they arrived the fire was blazing furiously. The smoke made it difficult for them to see and the wind sent ashes flying up with such force that it causes rings around their eyes. They flew home immediately and began rubbing their eyes. However they just could never erase the white rings around their eyes. This made the other bird very afraid.

Black racer snake
Black racer snake | Source

It was the snakes that answered the call next. First the little snake, in which we call Uksu'hi, went first. He swam to the island and slithered through the grass until he made it the tree. He entered the sycamore tree through a small hole, but the smoke was so thick that he couldn't see. Slithering blindly, he went over the hot coals almost catching him on fire. He was finally able to find his way out but he was scorched black. Because of this he is known as the black racer, even to this day.

The second snake to attempt to retrieve the fire was Gule'gi, The Climber. He swam to the island and climbed up the side of the sycamore tree. As he peered his head in the hole, the smoke choked him so badly that he fell from the tree into a stump that had caught fire. When he eventually climbed out, he was just as black as Uksu'hi.

The animals decided to hold another meeting to discuss who should go next. The snakes, the birds, and even the four-footed animals had some sort of excuse as to why they couldn't go after the fire. Finally the water spider spoke up. She had black hair with red stripes and was able to run across the water with ease but could also dive the depth of the water. No one argued whether or not she could make it to the fire. What they did wonder was how was she planning to bring back the fire. She showed them how she could spin a bowl from the thread that comes from her body. She then attached the bowl to her back.

She swiftly crossed the water and made her way through the grass to the sycamore tree that held the fire. The fire still was burning, but not as fiercely as before. She carefully placed a small coal of fire in the bowl. She made it back safely with the fire. Since then we have always had fire. We have Water Spider to thank for ultimately bringing us fire. Without her bravery and ingenuity, we may not be able to stay warm, cook our food, nor light our way. In fact, the water spider still has her bowl even today.

The Moral of the Story:

Never underestimate someone who is smaller than you or who you think wouldn't be capable of doing something important. There is purpose for everyone in this life. No one is insignificant. Anyone can accomplish great things if given the chance and/or they put their minds to it.

© 2014 L Sarhan

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    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 2 years ago from Hyderabad, India

      Very interesting and funny story. Good for teaching morals to children, especially. Thanks for sharing it.

      Voted up and interesting.

    • James-wolve profile image

      Tijani Achamlal 2 years ago from Morocco

      Very intersesting.I like the moral of this story.Good work !