Archived Mountain Voices

Secret poems of the Cherokee

I have always been struck by the sacred formulas (chants or incantations) that the Cherokee medicine men used to create good luck in hunting or warfare, in healing, or in affairs of the heart.

The evil medicine men or “witches” employed the formulas to accomplish their own nefarious ends. These have been categorized as those used “To Lower One’s Soul.” Alan Kilpatrick, a member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, noted in The Night Has a Naked Soul (Syracuse University Press, 1997) that the sacred formulas which fall into this category “represent instruments whose express purpose is to destroy human life. Because of their grave and irreversible consequences, life-threatening spells ... were traditionally the last incantations to be taught an apprentice.”

Here is a formula of this type I rendered from one of Kilpatrick’s rough paraphrases. The model for the “black owl” would have been the great-horned owl.


Your name is night.

I am the black owl

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that hunts the darkness

for your heart and soul.

Your name is the night.

I am the black owl

hunting your soul.

This is my favorite. It is rendered from various late 19th and 20th century English translations, etc., as a composite approximation of Cherokee sacred formulas intended to “remake” or “rebeautify.” In this instance the formula is also a love incantation.



Dressed in the sunrise

I might sing like a red bird.

But I shake my clothing until it fades

so that you and I are dressed alike.

Our souls are aligned.

Be thinking of me.

We are as the red bird.

We are as the blue bird.

We are as the yellow bird.

We are as the mythic bird.


Look at me ... talk with me ... no apartness.

In the middle of the morning we stand.

Each day we walk in splendor

within the heart of a rainbow.

Each day we are remade by

the spirit that never dies.

Some Cherokees believed that after death the soul could go to a place seven days to the west where the ghost people (their ancestors and others) resided in Night Land. Going there was apparently an option. One had to make up one’s mind. Neither a heaven nor a hell, it seems to have been a sort of parallel universe in which there were chiefs, warriors, wise women, dances, songs, animals, plants, and, most importantly, deceased ancestors with whom one could commune. In this poem a woman is explaining to her great-grandmother about where and how she made up her mind.




Speak to me.

I have made up my mind.

She stood listening before smiling

and nodding as the mist burned away and

sunlight turned the sycamore-lined Tuckaseigee

into a track of light within which she arose

on out-spread arms and down-turned hands

above the indifferent grasping currents and

was transposed as if on the wings of a radiant hawk.

Many years later when her great-grandmother asked

when she had made up her mind, she smiled and replied:

“I grew tired missing you and grandfather and my uncles.

I made up my mind while fording the river.

I asked my other grandfather

the river to ask my heart.

My heart told my mind to place

My soul with the ghost people.

Thinking always starts in the heart.

I made up my mind in the river

to come and live with you

here in the Night Land.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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