Cherokee Formulas in Appalachian Folk Magic

Appalachian Folk Magic is a mixture of blood and relics, a culmination of culture. One essential component of this craft are the teachings of the Cherokee that expand far out from the Qualla Boundary. The interactions, wars and love between the Cherokee and the settlers reign supreme in the tales of these hills and rests in many peoples bloodlines.

My blood runs thick with Cherokee love and the sins of my forefathers who hunted them like animals, slaughtered them in wars such as the Battle of King’s mountain, or simply tortured them for pleasure. That Cherokee blood isn’t clean though. It was stained with the severed scalps and limbs of the white man. It was likewise mingled with the sweat of war and the blood of rape.

In Appalachian culture, those who carry these opposing bloodlines take pride in it. Not pride in the sins, but in the heart and stories behind those sins. We take pride in those native warriors who sung their death songs to fight for The People and first welcomed the Settlers before they were betrayed. We take pride in the trials of the Settlers who traversed seas and found life in this unknown land.

Our strength comes from those people whose fathers and mothers were taken to the Trail. How fearful that child must’ve been to hide and survive without his family. Our kindness grows from those Settlers who thought the native man a neighbor instead of a barbaric animal and took them in. Most of what you hear is of wars and blood shed and little of the kind trade and neighborly attitude that was shared.

This post was not planned. More so it’s been warranted in my search for those Ancestors who prayed by the fire and soared with the tobacco. The dreams have come again. Dark figures speaking Tsalagi, telling me to find them find them find them. The Trail of Tears made this a hardship on the descendants of those who remained, survived, and hid.

Those fugitive Cherokees who were harbored by the friendly mountaineers cut their hair, became civilized, and took new names not given them by the Creator. Census records hold them to be white under the taboo of families carrying native blood. It was an embarrassment in most areas; hush hush. Only one grandmother of mine has been found to be native, sadly with no other documentation save for a photo and a name from before her civilized changed.

Dressed with braids and deer skin, she poses supreme under the name He gave her: Seomi. No other records remain of her, that or they haven’t been found. takes one only so far, after which one must turn towards the Spirit.

In my way of studying and the writing of my book, Backwoods Witchcraft, I have found origins to some formulas that are still taught and done in these hills. Formulas and charms which find themselves reminiscent of that red man past. Some of those I will share in this post, as a way of honoring my grandmother Seomi and her mothers, and to keep these traditions alive.

The way the Cherokee worked their charms and wits are both familiar and foreign. Within hundreds of years of contact with the Europe immigrants before the Trail of Tears, it is likely and evident that some elements of European folk magic was absorbed and taken up by the Cherokee. This is what I take as the first stir of the pot in regards to the creation of Appalachian Folk Magic.

The make up of the formulas and charms of the Cherokee are unique in both fabrication and thought. For example, to cure a snake bite, as James Mooney relates, it is advised to dance counter clockwise or “to the left” as snakes cool “to the right”. This action is to uncoil the snake and rid the person of its power. A song is prescribed to be sung as well while rubbing tobacco juice on the bite. “Listen! Ha! For it is only a common frog that has passed and put it (the poison) in you.”

The above holds a specific practice done by the Cherokee medicine men to make the intruder inferior by advising the patient the wound was simply an inferior creature such as a bug, a frog or a fish. They also stated it is easy for them to handle, further discrediting the power of the poison before the power of the Doctor.

The tobacco is a very common factor and ingredient in Cherokee healing rites and charms. Having been given to man by the Beaver (or Selu the Corn Mother as there are varying stories) the Tobacco is Man. His roots grow deep into the earth to hold hands with the Ancestors of the Shadow Land while the branches reach up into the heavens to be tended by the Sun and Moon and Thunder. The tobacco plant is essentially the Axis Mundi of the spiritual landscape of the Cherokee.

Animal spirits also play a big role in their healings and magic, however, when Yona (the bear) is spoken of in ceremony. The Cherokee do not call up just any spirit of the animal, but the spirit of the first and original of that species, which may explain why they are often pictured differently than those of that species today.

Animal spirits are called upon to assist in getting rid of a disease based on its origin. Diseases caused by or coming from eating rabbits could warrant the help of a predatory bird such as the Hawk or Eagle; or a predatory animal like the Fox to chase off the rabbits influence. The same applies if the disease is caused by the deer or elk, the Wolf or Mountain Lion is called up. Likewise if the sickness originated from eating a particular animal, the patient must avoid eating that meat for a year to avoid regaining the sickness.

Along with techniques to heal, the Cherokee devised many divination methods to determine if or when the patient would regain their strength and health. One such technique, also told by Mooney, involves taking the client (who has been fasting) to a bend of the Long Man or river where the two can face the East. An emetic is administered or the uvula is molested to make the patient vomit.

The patient would be instructed to vomit into the river and the resulting splashes and weight of the vomit were divined. If the vomit sunk to the river bed, the sickness was too strong and the patient was terminal. If it floats, they would soon regain their health.

Vomiting in the river was another method of getting rid of disease according to Mooney in the Swimmer Manuscript. The patient is taken to the Long Man, an emetic administered while the Medicine person made prayers to the Thunder or White man (he is never called Red outside of ceremony, so I won’t do that here) and to the Long Man to take the disease into his waters and transport it to another people. Sounds harsh to pass it on to another people, but even the Cherokee knew it has to go somewhere. Sending things away via the River is the origin of the same acts practiced in Hoodoo today.

The River knows, as the Cherokee say. Water passes through all beings, all lands, and all skies. Beside the fire and the smoke, the Long Man is a chief oracle of the People. His oracular knowledge is sought on full moons and moonless nights at a bend of the River facing North or East where the water reflects the moon’s light.

Most of the time, the Long Man’s wisdom is sought out to determine possible war and the outcome of the diseased patient. If anything disturbs the surface or flow of the River, it denotes badness and downfall. This includes debris flowing on the water or fish breaking the surface. If nothing flows down or breaks the water in the time spent there, which is usually hours, goodness and success are foretold.

Another form of getting rid of a disease, saved usually for those who had no hope of seeing day break, were given a new name. The Cherokee saw ones name as being a large portion of who a person was, not a label by whom other simply get your attention. Whether hurt by witchcraft or sent disease by an offended spirit, the patient was taken to the River and baptized and given a new name that all would henceforth know them as.

If divination said John Birdsnow was to die and there was no hope, this ceremony was done. Afterwards, the divination is done again and will say that Bill Foxtail would outlive the poison. For surely the first divination was correct, John Birdsnow did die and no longer exist, but this new Bill Foxtail wasn’t to die by this poison.

The components of their formulas and prayers are specific. The conditions of the patient are first stated followed by the explaining of the symptoms’ origins or the identity of the poisoner; most often these are attributed to troublesome rabbit or the trickster De’tsata (De’tsata is a trickster little person who roams the Southern Appalachias causing mischief when offended; him and his children play the role of the Appalachian Puck).

Next, the disease-killer is called up, whether the Thunder and his two sons or some animal who preys on the animal who brought the poison. The Helper’s attributes and greatest are exalted, followed by the demeaning of the poisoner as we saw before (“it was a common frog who passed by”).

Their charms and formulas are ended by exalting the health of the patient: “no poison is left, you stand tall among your men! The Apportioner (the Sun) has rid and thrown out the spirit. Walk tall as the pine, your strong as the rock.”

Behind the textbooks and history and trials of the People, the houses of their Spirit still stand. Filled with the treasures of Living Waters and Talking Roots, I am proud that my Ancestors preserved more than enough for following generations. They proved stronger than the slaughtering of their children and the desecration of their home-hills. While I have learned much of their Treasure, only a small amount will be given in Backwoods Witchcraft as I wish to educate about my heritage, not sell it.

The wisdom of my grandmothers and grandfathers who prayed to the mountain whisper back to me from the echoes of my own calls on Buffalo Mountain, as if they speak to me beyond the mountain. Not behind nor below nor within it. Just there, beside me but not, guiding me and leading me. My search for them all will continue with my Spirit. By my blood and bone, they deserve to be remembered and to have their names spoken again.

Author: Jake Richards

Jake (Dr. Henny) follows family practice as a Yarb Doctor and Conjure man in the Appalachian Folk Magic tradition. He follows the legacy of his mother (a seventh daughter), that left behind by his grandfather, a baptist preacher who was a blood stopper, wort doctor, and thrush doctor; his grandmother, who was a knowledgeable woman in these works before Alzheimer’s set in; his great, great grandfather who witched for water in Washington County and his great grandmother who taught and worked from her roost at the foot of Devil’s Nest Mountain. Jake is the author of Backwoods Witchcraft: Conjure & Folk Magic from Appalachia, available for preorder on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound. When he's not writing, blogging, reading the bones or trying for clients: he is either traveling, gardening, sewing, book binding, reading, or sculpting. For questions, readings, recommendations for future posts, interviews and the like, you are welcome to email him below:

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