“How They Brought Back the Tobacco” two Cherokee folk tales told by A’yûñ’ini (Swimmer) and collected by James Mooney for his “Myths of the Cherokee”.

First Version

In the beginning of the world, when people and animals were all the same, there was only one tobacco plant, to which they all came for their tobacco until the Dagûlʻkû geese stole it and carried it far away to the south. The people were suffering without it, and there was one old woman who grew so thin and weak that everybody said she would soon die unless she could get tobacco to keep her alive.

Different animals offered to go for it, one after another, the larger ones first and then the smaller ones, but the Dagûlʻkû saw and killed every one before he could get to the plant. After the others the little Mole tried to reach it by going under the ground, but the Dagûlʻkû saw his track and killed him as he came out.

At last the Hummingbird offered, but the others said he was entirely too small and might as well stay at home. He begged them to let him try, so they showed him a plant in a field and told him to let them see [255]how he would go about it. The next moment he was gone and they saw him sitting on the plant, and then in a moment he was back again, but no one had seen him going or coming, because he was so swift. “This is the way I’ll do,” said the Hummingbird, so they let him try.

He flew off to the east, and when he came in sight of the tobacco the Dagûlʻkû were watching all about it, but they could not see him because he was so small and flew so swiftly. He darted down on the plant—tsa!—and snatched off the top with the leaves and seeds, and was off again before the Dagûlʻkû knew what had happened. Before he got home with the tobacco the old woman had fainted and they thought she was dead, but he blew the smoke into her nostrils, and with a cry of “Tsâ′lû! [Tobacco!]” she opened her eyes and was alive again.


Second Version

The people had tobacco in the beginning, but they had used it all, and there was great suffering for want of it. There was one old man so old that he had to be kept alive by smoking, and as his son did not want to see him die he decided to go himself to try and get some more. The tobacco country was far in the south, with high mountains all around it, and the passes were guarded, so that it was very hard to get into it, but the young man was a conjurer and was not afraid.

He traveled southward until he came to the mountains on the border of the tobacco country. Then he opened his medicine bag and took out a hummingbird skin and put it over himself like a dress. Now he was a hummingbird and flew over the mountains to the tobacco field and pulled some of the leaves and seed and put them into his medicine bag. He was so small and swift that the guards, whoever they were, did not see him, and when he had taken as much as he could carry he flew back over the mountains in the same way. Then he took off the hummingbird skin and put it into his medicine bag, and was a man again.

He started home, and on his way came to a tree that had a hole in the trunk, like a door, near the first branches, and a very pretty woman was looking out from it. He stopped and tried to climb the tree, but although he was a good climber he found that he always slipped back. He put on a pair of medicine moccasins from his pouch, and then he could climb the tree, but when he reached the first branches he looked up and the hole was still as far away as before. He climbed higher and higher, but every time he looked up the hole seemed to be farther than before, until at last he was tired and came down again.

When he reached home he found his father very weak, but still alive, and one draw at the pipe made him strong again. The people planted the seed and have had tobacco ever since.


Notes on the texts by James Mooney

“How they brought back the tobacco”: The first version of this myth as here given was obtained from Swimmer, and agrees with that of John Ax, except that for the humming bird the latter substitutes the wasulû, or large red-brown moth, which flies about the tobacco flower in the evening, and states that it was selected because it could fly so quietly that it would not be noticed. The second version was obtained from Wafford, in the Cherokee Nation west, who heard it from his great-uncle nearly ninety years ago, and differs so much from the other that it has seemed best to give it separately. The incident of the tree which grows taller as the man climbs it has close parallels in the mythology of the Kiowa and other Western tribes, but has no obvious connection with the story, and is probably either one of a series of adventures originally belonging to the trip or else a fragment from some otherwise forgotten myth. It may be mentioned that Wafford was a man of rather practical character, with but little interest or memory for stories, being able to fill in details of but few of the large number which he remembered having heard when a boy.

In his Letters from the Alleghany Mountains, pages 119–121, Lanman gives the story as he obtained it in 1848 from Chief Kâlahû, still well remembered by those who knew him as an authority upon tribal traditions and ritual. In the Kâlahû version the story is connected with Hickorynut gap, a remarkable pass in the Blue ridge southeast from Asheville, North Carolina, and 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.

“Before visiting this remarkable passage through the mountains [Hickorynut gap], I endeavored to ascertain, from the Cherokees of Qualla town, its original Indian name, but without succeeding. It was my good fortune, however, to obtain a romantic legend connected therewith. I heard it from the lips of a chief who glories in the two names of All-bones and Flying-squirrel, and, though he occupied no less than two hours in telling the story, I will endeavor to give it to my readers in about five minutes.

“There was a time when the Cherokees were without the famous tso-lungh, or tobacco weed, with which they had previously been made acquainted by a wandering stranger from the far east. Having smoked it in their large stone pipes, they became impatient to obtain it in abundance. They ascertained that the country where it grew in the greatest quantities was situated on the big waters, and that the gateway to that country (a mighty gorge among the mountains) was perpetually guarded by an immense number of little people or spirits. A council of the bravest men in the nation was called, and, while they were discussing the dangers of visiting the unknown country, and bringing therefrom a large knapsack of the fragrant tobacco, a young man stepped boldly forward and said that he would undertake the task. The young warrior departed on his mission and never returned. The Cherokee nation was now in great tribulation, and another council was held to decide upon a new measure. At this council a celebrated magician rose and expressed his willingness to relieve his people of their difficulties, and informed them that he would visit the tobacco country and see what he could accomplish. He turned himself into a mole, and as such made his appearance eastward of the mountains; but having been pursued by the guardian spirits, he was compelled to return without any spoil. He next turned himself into a humming-bird, and thus succeeded, to a very limited extent, in obtaining what he needed. On returning to his country he found a number of his friends at the point of death, on account of their intense desire for the fragrant weed; whereupon he placed some of it in a pipe, and, having blown the smoke into the nostrils of those who were sick, they all revived and were quite happy. The magician now took into his head that he would revenge the loss of the young warrior, and at the same time become the sole possessor of all the tobacco in the unknown land. He therefore turned himself into a whirlwind, and in passing through the Hickorynut gorge he stripped the mountains of their vegetation, and scattered huge rocks in every part of the narrow valley; whereupon the little people were all frightened away, and he was the only being in the country eastward of the mountains. In the bed of a stream he found the bones of the young warrior, and having brought them to life, and turned himself into a man again, the twain returned to their own country heavily laden with tobacco; and ever since that time it has been very abundant throughout the entire land.”

In the Iroquois story of “The Lad and the Chestnuts,” the Cherokee myth is paralleled with the substitution of a chestnut tree guarded by a white heron for the tobacco plant watched by the dagûlʻkû geese (see Smith, Myths of the Iroquois, in Second Annual Report Bureau of Ethnology, 1883).

Tobacco—Tobacco, as is well known, is of American origin and is sacred among nearly all our tribes, having an important place in almost every deliberative or religious ceremony. The tobacco of commerce (Nicotiana tabacum) was introduced from the West Indies. The original tobacco of the Cherokee and other eastern tribes was the “wild tobacco” (Nicotiana rustica), which they distinguish now as tsâl-agayûñ’li, “old tobacco.” By the Iroquois the same species is called the “real tobacco.”

Dagûlʻkû geese—The dagûlʻkû is the American white-fronted goose (Anser albifrons gambeli). It is said to have been of bluish-white color, and to have been common in the low country toward the coast, but very rare in the mountains. About the end of September it goes south, and can be heard at night flying far overhead and crying dugalŭ! dugalŭ! dugalŭ! Swimmer had heard them passing over, but had never seen one.