• Kara Newcastle

Myth Monday: The Chickadee (Cherokee Legend)

Myth Monday: The Chickadee (Cherokee Legend)


chickadee on pine branch

Photo by Dawn Huczek from USA - a cutie-pie, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37127920



I love chickadees! They’re my favorite songbird. Besides being just plain cute, chickadees are inquisitive, surprisingly brave and friendly, which I learned firsthand. When I was about fifteen or so, my family and I were on vacation on Cape Cod. After a trip to the beach, I was hanging up some towels on the clothes line (one of those tree-type things) and was startled when one of the many chickadees that live in the area suddenly swooped down and landed on one of the lines, just about six inches away from my left hand. We stared at each other for a bit, and then I decided that as much as I didn’t want to scare the little bird away, I couldn’t just stand there holding wet towels all day. I proceeded to move around the tree, clipping up the towels … and the chickadee followed me the entire time! It would stop and watch as I clipped up another towel, and then hop along the line after me as I moved to put up the next one. It stayed with me until I hung up the last towel and then zipped off, its curiosity satisfied.


Having witnessed that, I wasn’t at all surprised when I later came across a few Native American legends about the chickadee. The chickadee is a beloved bird in Native American culture, and featured in the legends, myths and folktales of many tribes. The chickadee was smart, friendly, trustworthy, brave and generous. Two Cherokee legends illustrate that quite well.


One legend (I think it may be Cherokee, but it was listed as “unknown” tribal origin) tells of the day that Thunder, the ruler of the skies, made his best friend Eagle king of all birds and gave him the task of bestowing special powers upon the birds. Chickadee politely waited his turn, and when asked what he would like to have, the Chickadee answered that he would like to be messenger and good-news bringer to humans. The Eagle granted his wish, and whenever the Cherokee saw a chickadee singing in the trees, they knew that they would be receiving visitors.

black capped chickadee

"Hi! Pizza guy's here!"

By CrimsonPenguin at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39469578

The chickadee was more than just an adorable announcer to the Cherokee. Years before Europeans arrived in the Americas, an evil witch stalked the Cherokee of Tennessee. She was called Spearfinger, because she had a long iron awl-like finger on her right hand that she would use to stab people through the heart, then cut them open, pull out their livers and eat them. Her skin was as hard as rock (earning her another name, “Stone Dress”), she was incredibly strong, and had the ability to meld stones together just by knocking them against each other. She once built a bridge from the “Tree Rock” on Hiwasse to Whiteside Mountain on the Blue Ridge in order to travel more quickly, but the Higher Spirits were angry at her boldness and destroyed the bridge with lightning.


Spearfinger was also a shapeshifter, turning her blood-stained countenance into the familiar visage of a well-known and loved member of the tribe. Disguised as somebody’s lovable grandma and wrapped in a blanket to hide her lethal finger, she would haunt a trail where Chilhowie Mountain meets the river, and would entice children playing there to come to her, saying that she would comb and braid their hair. Once they fell asleep she would kill them.


Spearfinger would also enter houses disguised as a relative who had just gone out, and then kill anyone she found inside. This person wouldn’t even know that he had been stabbed and his liver removed—he would just waste away and die. When the Cherokee burned leaves in the fall to expose chestnuts, Spearfinger would notice the smoke, come down from the mountains, disguise herself as one of the villagers and walk into their camp. The people lived in terror of her.


One day a man was out hunting, and he saw a woman wrapped in a blanket walking alone in the woods, singing to herself, “Uwe la na tsiku. Su sa sai. Liver, I eat it. Su sa sai. Uwe la na tsiku. Su sa sai.” Since people generally don’t sing about eating livers, he instantly realized that she was Spearfinger and rushed home to warn everyone. A meeting was held, and the assembled warriors agreed that it was time to destroy the witch once and for all. A medicine man advised that the best way to trap and kill Spearfinger would be to dig a pitfall and cover it with brush. When Spearfinger fell in, they could kill her from above.


The next day the Cherokee dug and covered the pitfall and went into hiding nearby. They didn’t have to wait long before they saw someone wrapped in a blanket walking down the trail. She looked like a familiar old woman from their village, and as the older warriors readied their bows, the younger ones stopped them, fearing they’d hurt an innocent person.


With a loud crackle of branches the old woman fell into the pit and instantly turned into an enraged Spearfinger. She screamed and tried to reach up with her long iron finger and stab anyone who got close enough to the edge. The warriors fired arrow after arrow at her, but they all snapped against her stone skin.


As the Cherokee worked to find a way to kill Spearfinger, a titmouse flew down and landed on a branch nearby. It began to sing, saying “Un, un, un.” To the Cherokee it sound like it was saying, u-nahu which means, “heart,” and assumed it was telling them to aim at the monster’s heart. Still, the arrows broke against Spearfinger’s chest and the furious warriors caught the titmouse and cut out its tongue for deceiving them. Forever known as a liar, the titmouse flew away in shame.


As the increasingly frantic warriors continued to look for a way to kill Spearfinger, a chickadee suddenly flew down from the sky and lit upon Spearfinger’s right hand, the one with the awl finger, which she kept curled in a fist. Taking that as a sign, the warriors fired at the hand, and one arrow managed to strike her in the wrist. As it turns out, the witch had been hiding her heart inside her right hand, and when the arrow struck, she fell down dead.


The Cherokee were elated, and saw that not only did the chickadee spread good news, it also told the truth and was a protective spirit. To this day, the Cherokee believe that if a chickadee sits outside your house and sings, you know your friends and loved ones will come back safe. You should thank them by putting out some sunflower seeds and peanuts (the chickadees will love you for it!)

By Chris [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons



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