Where did the Milky Way come from? According to a Cherokee legend, it all happened long ago, in a time when only a few stars shone in the night sky.
Back then, the people depended on corn to keep from starving. They would grind it into white cornmeal to store in outdoor bins.
One day, an old couple checked their cornmeal bin. Someone had stolen from them! Their grandson was determined to discover the cornmeal thief.
That night, under those few stars that shone in the sky, the boy hid outside his grandparents’ home. Soon an eerie light appeared in the distance. As the light came closer, the boy saw it was in the form of a dog.
The shining dog came over to his grandparents’ cornmeal bin, nosed off the lid, and scattered cornmeal everywhere as it ate. Finally, the dog ran off into the black night.
The next day, Beloved Woman, who was very old and very wise, examined the dog tracks left in the spilled cornmeal. She declared, “This is a spirit dog. We must be very careful.”
She devised a plan: All the people of the village would work together to scare off the dog so it would never return.
The next night, as those few stars were shining in the sky, everyone hid outside near the old couple’s cornmeal bin. They had brought with them their drums and turtle-shell rattles.
Soon, an eerie, shimmering light appeared in the distance. The people watched as the shining spirit dog came closer, reached the cornmeal bin, nosed off the lid, and began scattering cornmeal as it ate.
Beloved Woman gave the signal: “Make noise now!”
The people banged on their drums and shook their rattles. Frightened by the noise, the dog leapt out of the bin and began to run, with all the people of the village chasing behind.
The dog ran to the top of a hill and leapt up so high that it went right into the sky. The dog ran all the way from one side of the sky to the other, spilling cornmeal out of its mouth.
As the people watched, every grain of cornmeal turned into a star.
Beloved Woman said, “We will no longer worry about the spirit dog stealing our food. We shall call that path of light it left behind Gil’liutsun stanun’yi – the place where the dog ran.”
This telling is based on “The Story of the Milky Way: A Cherokee Tale” by Joseph Bruchac and Gayle Ross and illustrated by Virginia A. Stroud. This book may be found at many libraries, including Chapel Hill Public Library and UNC Libraries.
If you would like to hear a full version of this Cherokee legend—and participate in frightening away the spirit dog—please join me this coming Saturday, Nov. 8, at 3:30 p.m., for Star Families: Native American Skies.
You’ll also hear stories of why Coyote howls at the night sky, why the North Star stands still, and how the Pleiades star cluster came to be. As in all Star Families programs, you will also learn how to identify stars and planets in North Carolina’s current evening sky.
When Galileo turned his telescope to that hazy ribbon of light in the night sky, he discovered that the Milky Way was made of “innumerable” stars.