The Mound Builders
The southeast of the country is dotted with hundreds of mounds and theories abound on what they are and who built them. Following is an explanation given to James Mooney by the Cherokee Medicine Man, Swimmer, 1887-1890:
Some say that the mounds were built by another people. Others say they were built by the ancestors of the old Ani Kitu’hwagi for townhouse foundations. The townhouse was always built on the level bottom lands by the river in order that the people might have smooth ground for their dances and ballplays and might be able to go down to water during the dance.
When they were ready to build the mound they began by laying a circle of stones on the surface of the ground. Next they made a fire in the center of the circle and put near it the body of some prominent chie or priest who had lately died - some say seven chief men from the different clans - together with an Ulunsu’ti stone, an uktena scale or horn, a feather from the right wing of an eagle or great Tla nu wa which lived in those days, and heads of seven colors, red, white, black, blue, purple, yellow, and gray-blue. The priest then conjured all these with disease, so that, if ever an enemy invaded the country, even though he should burn and destroy the town and the townhouse, he would never live to return home.
The mound was then built up with earth, which the women brought in baskets, and as they piled it above the stones, the bodies of their great men, and the sacred things, they left an open place at the fire in the center and let down a hollow cedar trunk, with the bark on, which fitted around the fire and protected it from the earth. This cedar log was cut long enough to reach nearly to the surface inside the townhouse when everything was done. The earth was piled up around it, and the whole mound was finished off smoothly, and then the townhouse was built upon it. One man, called the Firekeeper, stayed always in the townhouse to feed and tend the fire. When there was to be a dance or a council, he pushed long stalks of atsil sun ti (fleabane), "the fire maker" down through the opening in the cedar log to the fire at the bottom. He left the ends of the stalks sticking out and piled lichens and punk around, after which he prayed, and as he prayed, the fire climbed up along the talks until it caught the punk. Then he put on wood, and by the time the dancers were ready there was a large fire blazing in the townhouse. After the dance he covered the hole over again with ashes, but the fire was always smoldering below. Just before the Green corn dance, in the old times, every fire in the settlement was extinguished and all the people came and got new fire from the townhouse. This was called atsi’la galunkw it’yu "the honored or sacred fire." Sometimes when the fire in a house went out, the woman came to the Firekeeper, who made a new fire by rubbing an ihya’ga stalk against the under side of a hard dry fungus that grows along locust trees.
Some sat this everlasting fire was only in the larger mounds at Nikwasi, Kitu’hwa, and a few other towns, and that when the new fire was thus drawn up for the Green Corn dance it was distributed from them to the other settlements. The fire burns yet at the bottom of these great mounds, and when the Cherokee soldiers were camped near Kitu’hwa during the Civil War, they saw smoke still raising from the mound.
The Cherokee once had a wooden box, nearly square and wrapped up in buckskin, in which they kept the most sacred things of their old religion. Upon every important expedition, two priests carried it in turn and watched over it in camp so that nothing could come near to disturb it. The Delawares captured it more than a hundred years ago, and after that the old religion was neglected and trouble came to the Nation. They had also a great peace pipe, carved from white stone, with seven stem-holes, so that seven men could sit around and smoke from it at once at their peace councils. In the old town of Keowee they had a drum of stone, cut in the shape of a turtle, which was hung up upside the townhouse and used at all the town dances. The other towns of the Lower Cherokee used to borrow it too, for their own dances.
All the old things are gone now and the Indians are different.