Beautiful Legends Of The Great Smoky Mountains: The Cherokee’s Little People Nunnehi And The Medicine Lake Ataga’hi


Ellen Lloyd – AncientPages.com –  The Great Smoky Mountains have a rich cultural and natural history beyond their national park status. These mountains span from Virginia to northern Georgia along the Tennessee/North Carolina border, are steeped in Cherokee folklore, and encompass several significant national forests.

Beautiful Legends Of The Great Smoky Mountains: The Cherokee's Little People Nunnehi And The Medicine Lake Ataga'hi

The Great Smoky Mountains. Credit: Adobe Stock – Vladimir Grablev

While the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a well-known attraction, the mountain range offers much more. It includes four expansive wilderness areas: the Nantahala, Pisgah, Cherokee, and Chattahoochee national forests. These protected areas provide vast tracts of wilderness for exploration and conservation.

A fascinating aspect of the Smokies’ lore is the connection to the Nunnehi, mythical “little people” in Cherokee tradition. An intriguing legend adds cultural depth to the region’s already diverse heritage.

The characteristic “smokiness” of these mountains, which gives them their name, is a natural phenomenon that has intrigued visitors and residents alike. This feature and the importance of the mountains to the Cherokee people form a significant part of the area’s identity.

The Legend Of Nunnehi Underground Fires

The Cherokee culture is rich with fascinating legends, including those of the Nunnehi (Nunne’hi), a group of supernatural beings. While not classified as nature spirits or gods, these entities are believed to possess immortality. The term “Nunne’hi” translates to “people who live anywhere,” likely due to their reported habitation in unusual locations such as underground, within mountains, and beneath streams.

In Cherokee tradition, the Nunnehi are often called “the Immortals” or “people who live forever.” Their presence was primarily associated with areas in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia, regions historically connected to the Cherokee Nation.

It’s important to note that the Nunnehi were considered distinct from other supernatural entities. They were characterized as small in stature and were believed to play a protective role for the Cherokee people. This protective aspect was a significant element of their mythology, highlighting the Nunnehi’s importance in Cherokee cultural beliefs and stories.

The Cherokee word for the Great Smoky Mountains was Shaconage, “mountains of the blue smoke.” 

Beautiful Legends Of The Great Smoky Mountains: The Cherokee's Little People Nunnehi And The Medicine Lake Ataga'hi

Credit: Adobe Stock – Jafree

The Cherokee people possess a beautiful legend that explains the blue smoke observed over the mountains. This old tale relates how the first inhabitants of the Smoky Mountains became puzzled over the blue smoke.

According to the legend, these early residents observed the pervasive smoke across the mountainous terrain. They deduced that the smoke must emanate from a fire source, yet they could not pinpoint its precise location. Their persistent investigations led them to an intriguing discovery that piqued their interest: the presence of multiple fire sources.

Subsequently, they realized that these fires originated from the underground dwellings of the Nunnehi, the little people. When the two races encountered each other, there was no conflict. The two populations maintained mutual respect and lived in harmonious co-existence.

Many believe that the Nunnehi continue to inhabit the Smoky Mountains, manifesting at their discretion. Before the Cherokee’s arrival, substantial earthen mounds of human construction were present.

The Cherokee came to believe that some Nunnehi resided deep within these mounds. Those Nunnehi who did not occupy the mounds established underground residences in sheltered valleys, occasionally beneath flowing water sources.

A common feature of Nunnehi dwellings is the presence of a fireplace. The smoke generated from these fires ascends into the atmosphere and is subsequently dispersed across the mountains by the wind. This phenomenon is purported to be the source of the characteristic blue smoke.

The Medicine Lake For Animals And Home Of The Great Rabbit

Another legend speaks of a mystical lake called Ataga’hi, which translates to “Gall Place.” This enchanted body of water, believed in the most remote areas of the Great Smoky Mountains, served as a “medicine lake” for animals. Notably, wounded bears were said to seek out this lake to heal their injuries.

Beautiful Legends Of The Great Smoky Mountains: The Cherokee's Little People Nunnehi And The Medicine Lake Ataga'hi

Hidden among the beautiful trees was the mysterious Ataga’hi Lake, where animals could heal. Credit: Adobe Stock – ArgitopIA

Another significant location in Cherokee lore is Gregory Bald, known as Tsistu’yi in the Cherokee language. This area, situated near the North Carolina-Tennessee state line in the southwestern part of the park, was considered the domain of the Great Rabbit, who ruled over the rabbit tribe. Interestingly, both rabbits and bears were said to have their respective council houses beneath Gregory Bald.

The bald itself held particular importance for the bear population. It was one of four specific locations where bears would perform their dance rituals before entering hibernation for the winter months. The Great Smoky Mountains have long been a place of mystery and legend for the Cherokees.

These legends highlight the deep connection between the Cherokee people, the local wildlife, and the landscape of the Great Smoky Mountains.

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Written by Ellen Lloyd – AncientPages.com

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