In their collection Supporting Diversity and Inclusion with Story: Authentic Folktales and Discussion Guides (Libraries Unlimited 2020), editors Lyn Ford and Sherry Norfolk assemble a rich tapestry of tales, re-told by scholars and storytellers who share versions of the fables that shaped their own lives and cultural identities. With these vivid folktales, accompanying discussion guides, and additional resource lists, students and educators alike can discover the power of stories to draw us together and discover what we share in common. Sample one of the stories and its accompanying discussion questions today with this tale about the eternal choice between good and evil.
Why Thunder Is a Friend to the Cherokees
As told by Gayle Ross
Long ago, in a Cherokee village high in the mountains, there lived two young boys. Today you might call them cousins for their mothers were sisters; but in the way of Cherokee clans, they were brothers. Close in age, there was a strong bond between the two as they grew. learning the skills they would need when they became men. When they were five years old, they were given their first weapons, a blow gun and darts, and the boys quickly learned how to hunt birds and small animals.
One day, as the boys were climbing down a rocky and rugged ravine, they came across a small brightly-colored snake lying on a flat rock in front of a large cave. The boys were preparing to walk away from the rock, when, to their surprise, the snake spoke to them in a high hissing voice. "Boys, you look like good hunters to me. I have not eaten in many days and I am very hungry. Would you find me some food? A bird, or perhaps a squirrel? I will always be your friend if you feed me." The boys were amazed by the words of the snake and he did seem so small and helpless that the boys quickly agreed to help him. That very afternoon, they brought him two small birds and a squirrel before heading home to their village.
The boys continued to bring food to the snake and they saw that he was growing larger and stronger. The boys never thought to wonder why the snake could not hunt for himself as other snakes did, for every time they brought him the birds and squirrels they shot, he continued to say the same thing. "Feed me and I will be your friend." The boys were enchanted by the idea of such a friendship and the snake became a treasured secret that they shared. They were careful never to speak about the snake when others were near, for fear that their parents would be frightened for their safety and would forbid them to go back to the cave to feed their friend.
Months passed, and the boys outgrew their blowguns and began to hunt, as the men did, with their bows and arrows. In this way, they were able to bring bigger game to the snake and he grew larger and larger. One day when they called him and the great snake came from his cave, they saw that he had grown horns and his huge brightly-colored scales struck sparks from the rock as he slithered toward them. For the first time, the boys were wary of his size, and spoke to him, saying, "Well, you are certainly enormous now. You have grown up and will no longer need us to feed you."
But the snake replied, "Oh, but you are my friends and you will feed me." And the boys heard a new and menacing tone in his voice.
Now, neither boy wanted to admit to the other that he was frightened by their old "friend," but by unspoken agreement, their daily hunts began to take them in other directions. Some time had passed before the boys went near that ravine again, but when they did, they were startled to hear the sound of thunderous explosions. As they listened, the blasts became smaller and fainter.
"Someone is in trouble down there," said one boy.
And his brother replied, "It is coming from where the snake lives!" So they hurriedly began climbing down the rocky ravine.
On the flat rock in front of the cave, the boys saw the snake they had been feeding. He had grown even larger, and in addition to his horns, he now had a great crystal embedded in his head that flashed with a blinding light. And the boys realized that their "snake" was no ordinary snake, but a great Uk'ten', the Cherokee dragon. The boys shivered as they remembered the stories they had heard about this Cherokee monster whose tales had terrified generations of Cherokee children!
The boys saw that the Uk'ten' had wrapped his coils around the form of a man and was rolling and twisting while his scales struck sparks from the rock. When the boys looked closer, they saw that the form caught in the punishing coils of the Uk'ten' was no ordinary man. It was Thunder. The boys had heard many stories about the great being who lived in the West, and often visited the land of the Cherokees in human form. The Uk'ten' had caught Thunder and was holding him so tightly that he could barely move and he could only make a low rumbling sound.
When Thunder saw the boys, he called to them. "Nephews, this Uk'ten' wrapped around me is fierce and an enemy to the Cherokee. You know he kills people. If you will shoot him in the seventh spot on his body, he will die!"
But the Uk'ten' cried, "Boys, we are friends. Kill Thunder instead! He is the true enemy! Remember how his blasts frightened you while his storms raged overhead!" And the boys stood paralyzed in fear and uncertainty as Thunder and the Uk'ten' both called to them to kill the other.
Suddenly the boys remembered what their mothers had told them when they were little and frightened by the sound of Thunder's voice. "Thunder brings the rain that makes our gardens grow. We could not live without him."
So the boys believed Thunder's words and in unison they raised their bows, took careful aim and loosed two arrows that flew straight and true to pierce the Uk'ten' in the seventh spot on his enormous body. There was an eerie whistling sound as the Uk'ten' fell to the ground and a great cloud of thick smoke and fumes rose from his body. Thunder stepped free from the coils of the Uk'ten' and called to the boys, "Run! The fumes are poisonous and if you breathe them, you will die! Run and I will protect you!"
So the boys began to run down the valley as fast as they could. As they passed a standing dead tree, Thunder sent Lightening to strike the tree and it burst into flames. Looking back, the boys saw that the flames were holding back the fumes and they continued to run. Again and again, when the fumes came close, Lightening ignited a great fire behind the boys and the poisonous fumes grew smaller and weaker with each battle with the living fire; until, after the seventh fire, the fumes were gone from the air and a gentle rain began to fall.
Gratefully, the weary boys stopped running and stood gasping for breath, feeling the blessed rain washing over them. When they looked up, they saw Thunder walking toward them. Catching their hands in his, he pressed them on his chest over his heart. "Now we will always be friends. We will always be together, and you can always depend on me. While we live on the earth, until the world ends, we must protect and help and love one another."
As the boys walked home, they talked about all that had befallen them. They had begun by feeding what they had thought was a small helpless snake, only to discover they had been nurturing a powerful evil. They had spent a lot of time feeding him and he had nearly killed Thunder. But the boys had decided to believe Thunder. They had saved his life and he had saved theirs. And that is why Thunder is, and always will be, a friend to the Cherokee people.
In what is often considered the seminal collection of Cherokee myths and stories, James Mooney's Myths of the Cherokees, collected primarily from North Carolina Cherokees and published in 1900, this beautiful story receives short shrift. Mooney included only one short version of the story where the protagonist is an adult hunter who stumbles on the fight between Thunder and the Uk'ten' and promptly kills the giant snake, saving Thunder's life. Decades later, Jack and Anna Kilpatrick, two Cherokee-speaking Cherokees, collected stories from Oklahoma Cherokees and felt this story was so beautiful and powerful that they named their resulting book Friends of Thunder. The Kilpatricks noted that the protagonists in this version are two young boys acting in innocence rather than an adult acting through knowledge and their reward is the love of Thunder rather than personal power. In this, my own version, I have added some information about the ancient Cherokee clan system and how it would have affected the boys as they grew as well as other cultural concepts. In the Cherokee cosmology, this story deals with the eternal choice between good and evil and the resulting guardianship of Thunder over the Cherokee people, a friendship that exists in a very real way among traditional Cherokees today.
In the ancient Cherokee world, all creatures spoke the same language so the boys were not surprised to find a talking snake. Have you ever wondered what the animals around you would say to you if they could talk? What would you say to them?
In this story, the boys must choose between the snake they helped to raise and a powerful being who is equally frightening in his own way. Have you ever been caught between two friends who pulled you in very different directions? How did you choose?
In the story, the voices of the boys' mothers helped them to see the "right" choice between good and evil. Have you ever been close to making a wrong choice of your own and been stopped by remembering the values taught by your parents?
As the author of five critically-acclaimed children's books, Gayle has been asked to speak at the American Library Association, the International Reading Association and the International Board of Books for Young People. She was recently featured in the ground-breaking American Experience series "We Shall Remain" in the "The Trail of Tears" episode. Her stories have been heard on National Public Radio on such programs as "Living on the Earth" and "Mountain Stages." From the kindergarten classroom to the college campus to the Kennedy Center, Gayle stories have enthralled audiences of all ages.
From Story: Authentic Folktales and Discussion Guides (Libraries Unlimited 2020), edited by Lyn Ford and Sherry Norfolk. Learn more and purcahse at https://products.abc-clio.com/ABC-CLIOCorporate/product.aspx?isbn=9781440867071.