Cherokee Native Americans and Wampas Mask
History of Cherokee Native American tribes in Appalachia, and the legend of the Wampas Mask.
“The Wampas Mask” is one version of a popular legend told throughout East Tennessee. For years, people have been reporting sightings of a large, frightening wildcat that walks on its hind legs, known locally as the “Wampas Cat” (also spelled “Wampus”).
The legend of the Wampas Cat began with the Cherokee Indians who originally settled this part of the country. Cherokee folklore is filled with tales of evil spirits lurking in the deep, dark forests that surrounded their villages. One story in particular told how Great Fellow, a brave Cherokee warrior, ventured into the forest to slay an evil demon called the “Ewah” that had been terrorizing his village. He returned in a disheveled, crazed state, leaving his beautiful wife, Running Deer, a virtual widow.
Running Deer went out to confront the Ewah wearing a magical mask made from the preserved face of a wildcat. As in our story, Running Deer scared the Ewah away and, from that point onward, took on the responsibility of confronting any forest demons that threatened her village. Some believe that the Wampas Cat sighted in modern day Tennessee is, in fact, the spirit of Running Deer.
Most sightings of the Wampas Cat have taken place in the deep mountain woods, although there have been recent sightings in cities such as Chattanooga and Knoxville. The creature has been described as being over four feet tall, with huge eyes, enormous paws and tiger-like stripes. The creature is never seen in the daytime.
Whether the Wampas Cat is really the spirit of Running Deer, an escaped circus animal, or perhaps the evil Ewah himself remains a mystery to this day. As they used to say on a certain TV series – believe it or not!
– Cherokee Indians
According to Cherokee legend, the Great Smoky Mountains were formed centuries ago when a giant buzzard, wearily circling the earth after a great flood, plummeted to the ground in exhaustion. Where his vast wings hit the earth, the mountain valleys appeared.
The Cherokees were intrigued by the bluish mist that crept through this mountainous region in present day Tennessee and North Carolina, which they named “Sha-cona-ge” (Land of the Blue Mist). They were descendants of the Iroquois people who had migrated south from the Great Lakes region and settled in the mountains of Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama and Georgia. They lived in log “towns” along the riverbanks, each ruled by a supreme chief.
Before the arrival of the white man, the Cherokees were an agrarian people who observed sacred religious practices. They believed that the bluish mist took the form of both good and evil spirits, and that the deep woods were filled with magical creatures.
At one time, the Cherokee Nation encompassed over 135,000 square miles of territory. As more white people settled on their land in the 1700s, the Nation shrank. The Cherokees sided with the British during the American Revolution, then conducted their own raids on frontier settlements and forts, particularly in Tennessee. But they were unable to stop the American forces from taking over their land. After their last major defeat near present-day Rome, Georgia in 1793, the Cherokees entered into a peace treaty with the United States.
In the eyes of white America, the Cherokees were the most advanced and “civilized” of the Indian tribes because they had adopted so much of white culture. They followed the white man’s farming and home building methods, wore European-style dress, and had even developed their own literacy program thanks to the efforts of Sequoyah, a Cherokee who developed and taught a unique syllabary (a system of written characters, or symbols, that represent syllables). Rapid literacy followed, showing that the Cherokees could read and write without the white man’s English.
The Cherokees tried to save their homeland by joining together to form a nation that would stretch across four states. Their capital was called New Echota, and their constitution was patterned after the U.S. Constitution, with three branches of government. This new nation consisted of eight districts, each represented by an elected official in the capital.
For the most part, the U.S. government approved of the new Cherokee nation. The state of Georgia, however, did not, claiming that creating a “nation” within state boundaries without the approval of the state’s government was unconstitutional. Georgia lawmakers decided to put an end to the new Cherokee nation, and in 1828 voted to extend state laws and court authority over the Cherokee nation, proclaiming all Cherokee laws “null and void.” Outraged, the Cherokees appealed to Washington for help.
But another event that same year would eventually bring an end to the Cherokee nation – the discovery of gold in the north Georgia mountains. Thousands of prospectors flooded into the region, and despite appeals to the U.S. government, the Cherokees were unable to stop them from taking over their land. Ten years later, President Van Buren issued the order to send the Cherokees out West in what would become the infamous “Trail of Tears” Indian removal. The Cherokees in the mountainous regions avoided removal longer than other tribes, but were eventually driven out.
Some Cherokees refused to go, disappearing into the bluish mist and, according to mountain legends, reappearing every once in a while to attack or to survey their land. One popular story is that of Tsali, a Cherokee brave who killed a white soldier, then agreed to give himself up to the authorities in exchange for the promise that his tribe could stay in the mountains. Some of his descendants are said to live in the popular tourist attraction and Cherokee reservation in Cherokee, North Carolina.
Find out more about the Cherokees, and American Indians in general, by visiting:
Cherokee History Links & Resources – From the North Georgia Resource Center, a comprehensive list of Cherokee links.
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