One day while sitting with my grandmother shucking corn, this is what she told me of the beginning of the Cherokee world and corn. I’m reminded of this story every year about this time as the corn begins to ripen. While most of the corn grown was frozen or dried for winter, some was eaten right away. After the story, click on the link to the recipe for Corn Milk Cakes. A sure sign of summer at my grandmother’s house was Corn Milk Cakes, wilted watercress and fresh peaches.
Selu: The First Cherokee Woman
Soon after the world was made by Oo-ne-tla-nv, (ᎤᏁᎳᏅᎯ), a hunter named Kanati and his wife Selu lived on a mountain, next to a stream, with their son. Every day Kanati left to hunt and never failed to bring back game which Selu would clean and wash at the river.
One day, as Selu cleaned the game, she heard the voices of two children playing near the river. She recognized one of the voices as her son but the other was unfamiliar. Later she told Ka-na-ti and he asked his son who he was laughing with. The son said, “He comes out of the water every day and he calls himself my older brother. He said his mother was mean to him and threw him into the river.” Selu and Ka-na-ti knew from this that this boy was born from the blood of the slain animals which she had washed in the river. They decided to help the boy.
The boy was wild but they caught him eventually and raised him and tried to tame him. He was always mischievous though and led his brother in a lot of trouble. They were always together. One day the boys, now older, came home after getting into trouble with their father. They complained to their mother that they were hungry. Selu took baskets and went to the storehouse just like she did every day when she began to prepare food. In those days the store houses were built on platforms, many feet off the ground, so bears and other animals couldn’t find the food. Every day she would take in empty baskets into the store house and bring them back full of food. The wild brother said, “Let’s go and see what she does in there. Where does she get all that food?”
The boys climbed up the ladder to the storehouse and took out some clay that was between the saplings and looked inside. There Selu was standing in the middle of the room leaning over the basket. They watched as she rubbed her stomach and magically filled a basket half full of corn. Then she rubbed around her breasts and another basket was brimming with beans. Quietly the older brother said to the younger one, “Our mother is a conjurer. We can’t have this. We have to kill her!”
Selu came back into the house with the baskets of food. She turned to the boys and said, “You want to kill me I know.” She knew of their thoughts even before they spoke them. Kanati was far away and she knew she could not win against both of them. She was saddened but even in her sadness knew she must take care of her children and husband. She agreed not to fight them but said, “After you kill me, make a large circle of cleared earth. Drag my body seven times outside the circle and seven times inside the circle. Watch all night and in the morning see what happens.”
They killed her, but just like always, the wild brother didn’t listen. Instead of making one big clearing, they made seven smaller ones. “Too lazy I think” my grandmother said when I asked why they didn’t do what they were told. They dragged her body across the earth. Tiny droplets of blood soaked into the earth in the cleared spots with each passing. That night they watched until they could no longer hold open their eyes. In the morning they were amazed at what they saw.
When the sun came up, there were seven patches of corn growing. They realized that where Selu’s blood fell inside the circles, corn was growing. They had never seen corn growing before. Before it had come from the Creator, through Selu. But, because of their act and disobedience, as Cherokees we would from then on, have to work for selu….the Cherokee word for corn. It would require labor; planting, tending, caring, picking and husking. It would only grow in certain spots and only for a season. We would be dependent on our hard work and Oo-ne-tla-nv’s blessing, for selu to grow and feed us.
As for the boys you ask? They’re still around. Every time you hear it thunder, that is the Thunder Brothers, running and tumbling in the restless sky.