• The Good: Native wisdom, elder stories, and Cherokee words of the natural world
  • The Bad: Dense; best read slowly
  • The Literary: Combination of myth, language, and worldview, with an excellent glossary and references

The Cherokee cosmos is rich and layered and teaches us many lessons, but most importantly to “stand in the middle”, or ayetli gadogv. Exploring the middle world, the sky world, and the underworld, the creatures that inhabit each, we begin to understand our relationship with them.

Lesson number one: the Cherokee word for storyteller, gayegogi, also means liar. Everyone lives their own lives and experiences the world in slightly different ways, so one person’s truth may not be another’s. All the stories we tell are true to us but lies to everyone else, until they consciously decide to make that story their own truth too. Put another way, other people’s lies push us to understand one another truths.

It’s commonly accepted that language influences how we see the world. From simple nouns to verb tense, the structure of language sets a framework for how we understand, form relationships, and categorize what we see around us. For example, the Cherokee language uses a different verb tense for what is experienced first-hand versus what happened to someone else. Two types of pronouns indicate someone acting; the other is for someone being acted upon.

The Cherokee language was nearly extinguished in government boarding schools, where young native children were sent to assimilate white ways to succeed in a modern world. Teuton bookends the middle sections of this book with an academically informed introduction, afterword, glossary, and index. But the real focus on is on the traditional stories, including how the two gifts directly from Creator are fire and language.

The core lesson of the book is to “stand in the middle”, which is a way of saying that our purpose is to seek balance, peace, and interconnectedness. Humans live in the middle world between the sky world and the underworld. The sky world represents order and routine, whereas the underworld is chaotic and creative. We need both worlds to come together for us to live healthy lives.

Each section of the book includes a list of common animals and plants and their Cherokee names. My favorites include:

  • oginali, translates to my friend for poison ivy, to appease the plant
  • nvda dikani, translates to it’s looking at the sun for sunflower
  • svgi, translates to it smells for onion
  • svgta, translates to it fell for apple
  • kanugatli, translates to it may scratch you for blackberry
  • koga, a sound-alike name for the sound it makes for crow
  • tsitsi, same word for the dart for a blow gun for sparrow hawk
  • tsulasgi, meaning having feet for alligator
  • tsudakanisdi, meaning the one who stares at you for praying mantis

These linguistic chapters also include snippets of folklore, legends, medicine, or symbols. And interspersed between are traditional stories, including origin stories of how the world was made, the first fire, the origin of corn, and the redbird. I love the moral stories too, like the crooked-faced boy who was expelled from his village for his physical deformity, only to befriend the monsters who live in the wilderness. Or how the toad got warts (because humans stepped on him while he hid underground). Or why the possum’s tail is bare (a friendly prank by rabbit).

The three primary sources, elders Hastings Shade, Loretta Shade, and Larry Shade, all want to teach caution, respect, and “standing in the middle”. Teuton manages to balance a lot of different types of teachings, interweaving through the chapters the structure of the middle world, the sky world, and the underworld. I also love how this book manages to be academic and organized but also organic, honoring the myths, legends, and unverifiable “lies” of Cherokee culture.

Highly recommended for fans of linguistics, native mythologies, and Cherokee teachings!