Dancing Drum – Cherokee Folklore
One day long ago, when souls could still return from the Land of the Spirits, the Sun looked down upon the Earth. ‘The People of the Mountain do not like me,” she said to her brother, the Moon. “See how they twist up their faces when they look to the sky.” “Ah. but they love me.” replied the Moon. “They smile when they see me, and they make music and dance and send me songs.” This did not please the Sun. for she thought she was more important than her brother, and more deserving.
That night, as she always did. the Sun visited her daughter for the evening meal. ‘ ‘How can The People love my brother and not me?” she asked. “I will show them it is unwise to offend me!” And the next, she sent scorching heat onto the land.
During this time of the angry Sun. there lived in a small Cherokee village, a boy named Dancing Drum. He saw the suffering of his people. The crops no longer flourished, the children no longer laughed, the old women no longer gossiped, and the river, Long Man, was drying up. Soon, there would be no water even for drinking. Dancing Drum went to the Shaman, and asked, “Why is Grand-mother Sun burning the land and The People? How can we make her stop?” The Shaman drank the last drop of water from her drinking gourd. “I do not know.” she said.’ ‘But in a dream, a woodpecker came to me and told me to go to the little men in the wood. Alas. I have grown too weak to travel. You are young and strong. It is up to you to go.” Honored to be chosen for such an important mission, Dancing Drum followed the Shaman’s directions and soon found the little men in the wood. “How can we make Grandmother Sun stop burning The People?” he asked them.
“You must go to the Land of the Sky People and kill the Sun before she destroys us all.” they said. “First, take these snake rattles and tie them onto your moccasins.”
As soon as he did this, Dancing Drum felt a strange tingling flow from his heels to his head. Suddenly, he could not move his arms, and when he tried to move his legs. he only heard the shaking of the rattles. He called for help. “Hsssssss!” was all he could say, for he had become a snake!
“Do not worry.” said the leader of the little men. “You will be yourself again when your task is complete.” He pointed to a small opening in the underbrush. “Now follow this path to the house of the Sun’s daughter. In the morning, when the Sun comes out, bite her quickly.”
Soon, Dancing Drum became used to the side winding movements of his new body. He slithered along the path into the woods, up the tallest mountain, and through the mist to the clouds themselves. At last, he came upon a large domed house made of mud and cane. It was the house of the Sun’s daughter.
Since it was near dawn, Dancing Drum hid behind the clay pots stacked outside the door. I’ll catch the Sun as she comes out, he thought. But when the door opened, she rushed by him so quickly, he didn’t even have time to strike.
He would have to be more alert next time. He slept throughout the day, and as twilight approached, Dancing Drum was ready. This time, when the Sun drew near, he tensed to spring at her. But at the last instant, he turned away, blinded for a moment by her brilliance. I must try again, he vowed, and this time, I will not miss. Through the night he waited. As soon as he heard stirrings from inside the house, he slithered to the door and closed his eyes.
“Forgive me. Grandmother Sun,” he hissed. A moment later, the door opened and Dancing Drum struck. He felt his fangs sink deep into her ankle. But when he looked, he saw that it was not the Sun, but her daughter who lay dead on the ground.
Just then, Dancing Drum shed his scaly skin. He was a boy once more. With the Sun’s wail filling the air, he ran from the Land of the Sky People. Over the clouds he went, through the mist, and down the tallest mountain. After many days, he reached his village.
There, the chief was holding counsel. “At last, we have relief from Grandmother Sun’s burning heat,” he said, “But, in her sadness over the death of her daughter, she no longer leaves her house.” He pulled his robe tighter around his shoulders. “Now, The People are cold and in darkness.”
Stepping into the chief’s circle, Dancing Drum announced, “I am the cause of this darkness. I stopped the heat, but out suffering grows worse. I will go to the Land of the Spirits and bring back the Daughter of the Sun. Then our grandmother will once again smile upon The People.”
Once more, Dancing Drum consulted the Shaman. “Take six others with you,” she advisee, “and a large basket. You will find the Daughter of the Sun dancing with the ghosts in Tsugina’i. Each of you must touch her with a sourwood rod. When she falls to the ground, put her into the basket and secure the lid. Then bring her back here.’ “This we shall do,” answered Dancing Drum. He chose six of the swiftest stickball players in the village.
They were about to leave for the Darkening-land when the Shaman cautioned, “Once you have her in the basket, do not lift the lid.” For days, the runners followed the path to the Land of the Spirits. At the end of the seventh day, they heard drums and chanting, then they saw the ghosts, circling around a low fire. The Daughter of the Sun danced in the outer ring, heel-toe, heel-toe.
From their hiding place in the shrubs, Dancing Drum and his companions took turns reaching out with their sourwood rods. Each time the Daughter of the Sun passed, one of them touched her. Dancing Drum’s rod was the seventh. As it brushed her. she collapsed. The ghosts seemed not to notice, so the boys hastily picked her up, put her into their basket, and secured the lid tightly.
After a time, the Daughter of the Sun started moving around in the basket.’ ‘Let me out!” she called to the runners.’ ‘I must eat!” At first, the seven ignored her. Then she called, “Let me out! I must have water!” Again, her plea went unanswered.
When they were almost to the village, the basket started to shake. “Let me out,” called the Daughter of the Sun. This time, her voice sounded strangled “I cannot breathe!” she croaked. Dancing Drum was afraid she might die again, so he opened the lid a tiny crack. Suddenly, a flapping sound came from inside the basket, and a flash of red flew past, followed by the “Kwish. kwish. kwish!” cry of a redbird. Not sure what had happened. Dancing Drum quickly refastened the led and hurried with his companions back to the village. Once there, the Shaman opened the basket. It was empty! The Daughter of the Sun had been transformed into the redbird. “You disobeyed,” the Shaman said to Dancing Drum. “For this, souls can no longer be returned from the Land of the Spirits.”
Dancing Drum hung his head, and Grandmother Sun, watching from the Sky World, began to weep. She cried so hard, her tears filled Long Man to overflowing, threatening a great flood over the land.
“What shall we do?” The People cried.
“We shall sing!” declared Dancing Drum. So The People put on their most beautiful clothes of embroidered buckskins. They wore necklaces of deer and panther teeth, and painted their faces white. They lifted their faces to the sky and chanted for Grandmother Sun. They drummed, and kept rhythm with their gourd rattles. But still Grandmother Sun grieved.
Finally. Dancing Drum left the singing and went to his lodge for his own drum. It had been a special gift from his grandfather. He filled the hollow log with water and dampened the groundhog skin. At last he was ready. Returning to the group of singers, he sat and began playing his own song.
From the Land of the Sky People, Grandmother Sun heard the new music. She stopped crying and looked down to see her beautiful people smiling up at her. She saw them offering their special dances, and she heard their special song.
Dancing Drum lifted his face to the sky as he played from his heart for his ancestors, for his people, and for his land. And as he played, Grandmother Sun came out of her house to once again smile down on her Children of the Mountain.
Adapted by Terri Cohlene