Spearfinger - A legend of the Cherokee

 

The Legend of Spearfinger

There are over 200 cemeteries throughout the ridges and valleys of the Great Smoky Mountains, hidden in the backwoods and down lonesome trails, out of sight but not quite out of mind. With hundreds of miles of trails and wooded hidden places where no human hand has touched in ages, if ever. It’s here, in the wildness, where the legends still live and thrive out of sight of the normal, daily lives of the people who travel through on their way to an unforgettable vacation experience. But here they are, hidden, rarely coming to light. They’re hidden in places where if you pass by, a chill will slither down your spine. When they do come out of the shadows and into the light, it’s something never to be forgotten.


One of the oldest legends of the Smoky Mountains is the legend of Spearfinger. Spearfinger is a Cherokee legend that lived along the eastern side of Tennessee and western North Carolina in the Great Smoky Mountains. Her Cherokee name, U’tlun’ta, translate to ‘she had it sharp’, talking about her sharp finger on her right hand, which give her the name Spearfinger. Sometimes she was referred to by her other Cherokee name  Nûñ'yunu'ï which means ‘Stone dress’, a name taken from her stone-like skin.

The forefinger of her right hand is her ‘sharp finger’. Using it to cut her victims, the sharp finger resembled a spear or obsidian knife. With a mouth stained with the blood of the livers she ate from her victims, she was a horrific sight that sent chills throughout the mountains. Her evil heart was hidden in her right hand and was her only weak spot, so she kept it clutched tightly to protect it. Being made of stone, she had to make sure the heart in her hand was never exposed to danger. Since she was made of stone, she sounded like rolling thunder when she walked. She crushed rocks and boulders into the ground. Her voice bounced off the mountains and echoed down the valleys into the villages, sending the birds flying into the sky. When the birds flocked to the sky, the village people took it as a warning that Spearfinger was on the move.

Spearfinger got her stone clothes when she upset the Higher Beings because she came to close to their place of residence when she built a rock bridge, the ‘Tree Rock’, that spanned up through the air toward them. To show her she was being too arrogant to try to come up to their level, the Higher Beings struck the bridge down in a powerful bolt of lightning, causing the bridge to crumble down upon Spearfinger and cloaking her in a body made of rock and rubble. Years ago, the Cherokee pinpointed the location where the ruins of Spearfinger’s Tree Rock remain, in Blount County, Tennessee. They named the area Nantahala. The Cherokee name for the place is U’Tluntun’yi, which means “The Spearfinger Place.”


She not only has her spearfinger which she uses to spear her victims, she has the ability to shape shift into the family members of her child victims. But when she is in a different shape, the form of a family member, she can’t shift back into her stone form if she is in sight of another. Her normal shape shifting form it that of an old lady, one whom the child knows and doesn’t fear. One of her strengths is that, being made of stone, arrows couldn’t pierce her skin. They bounced off, falling to the ground or they shattered into tiny pieces. Spearfinger can pick up rocks and boulders without effort. She can break them into gravel, stack them to build barriers, and morph them together to create even larger boulders to then roll down the mountain, causing havoc and damage.


Spearfinger used the customs of the Cherokee to help her in her search for victims with fresh livers. In the fall, Cherokee tribes would set brush fires, which guided Spearfinger to the villages where she could hunt. The fires would cover the mountainsides so the tribe could collect the fallen chestnuts, which were already roasted from the brush fire. Spearfinger also took advantage of the clouds of smoke that rose from the valleys, the swirling fogs that gave the Smoky Mountains their name, using them for cover when she would hunt the children who sometimes came to drink from a stream or pick strawberries as they grew wild on the mountainside. Her most dominant power was the art of deception. She would hide her finger beneath her robes until she would whip it out to spear her victim in the liver. The children would trust her, allowing her to get close because she would resemble an older woman of the tribe and she would lure them close. Spearfinger would offer to comb their hair and lure them to sleep before spearing them with her finger, removing their liver for her supper. The Cherokee tried to be cautious about strangers entering their camp, always on the lookout. They tried to stay together most of the time and were leery of strangers and became suspicious of those who went into the woods alone. They could come back as Spearfinger in disguise and invade the village unnoticed.  


She would use her talent of shape shifting to sometimes turn into her victim, hiding the body if it passed on soon after she took the liver, and entering their family home to wait until the family slept so she could take all of their livers. Spearfinger was the ‘boogey-man’ of the time. Parents would warn children not to go into the woods at night in case Spearfinger would get them. They made sure the children knew the monster could show herself as their grandmother or their aunt, so they never knew if it was a family member of the monster.  


Hunters alone in the woods were overly cautious, often seeing an old woman with a deformed hand slinking through the thick woods, singing her songs of the forest. When she would sing the hunters would run back to their camps. Cherokee lore states that Spearfinger stabs her victims in the back of the neck or through their heart, then draws out their livers. She is quick about it, no chance to get away if she gets close enough. Victims don’t feel the wound, she doesn’t leave a scar, but it only takes a few days for the victim to die due to lack of a liver.


Spearfinger only has one enemy other than the humans she stalks and that’s the Stone Man. Made of the same stuff as she, they can sense when the other is nearby. They are enemies because they hunt the same food—livers. But Stone Man doesn’t need to lift stones to build things. He has stronger powers than Spearfinger. He uses his staff to create bridges from mountain to mountain.


The Cherokee called a council to try to figure out how to get rid of Spearfinger once and for all so the surrounding villages all came to the council to discuss how this could be done. They knew about her finger and made a plan to attract her. They dug a pit and covered it with branches to camouflage it then they set the fires like they normally did to harvest the chestnuts, knowing it would draw her down as she searched for the blood of new livers. When Spearfinger saw the smoke of the fires, she came down from the mountain, crushing the ground beneath her as she ran. When she got there, she hid her spear finger under her cloak. She appeared as an old woman, confusing the men. She called to them for help, walking hunched over, hiding her spearfinger, trying to lure them closer. When they finally saw through her ruse, the tribal members, not knowing how to kill her, fired their arrows but they all shattered, falling to the ground.


Spearfinger raged against them, running at them with her sharp finger slashing. She fell into the pit but the stakes that lined the inside shattered when she fell against them, her stony skin not pierced by the sharp ends. They fired more arrows into the pit and she swatted them away like fireflies in the night. Birds came down from the sky to help. A titmouse tried to help, its song calling ‘heart, heart, heart’. The hunters aimed for Spearfinger’s heart but they aimed for her chest, not her hand where her heart was secretly hidden. The arrows did no good but they did cut the tongue out of the titmouse’s beak. Since that time, when someone sees a titmouse and its short tongue, they can tell it’s a liar and did not speak the truth. The little bird didn’t lie on purpose, he just didn’t say where the heart was. The titmouse flew back up to the sky, into the heavens, never to return.


Then a chickadee came and landed on Spearfinger’s right hand, the hand protecting the heart which had the spear for a finger. Spearfinger began to quake, scared now that the hunters had learned her secret hiding place for her heart. The hunters took that as a sign and decided to aim for that hand. One arrow struck her in the wrist where her right hand joined her arm. This separated her heart from her body, bringing her to her knees. She slowly sank to the ground, her spearfinger twitching, and then she collapsed into a heap of stones. The curse of Spearfinger has come to an end.


Stone Man, Spearfinger’s liver-eating cohort, heard the cheers of the hunters when Spearfinger collapsed. When he peered over the mountainside, he saw her right hand mounted high on a post beside the entrance to the village. This was a warning to him. He considered it but no one knew his one weakness so he shrugged it off. The villagers couldn’t know what would put an end to his reign. He moved along and continued to sing his song of hunting livers and rumbling war.

So if you’re in the Great Smoky Mountains and you hear rumbling with no clouds overhead, it may just be Stone Man, stomping through the valleys and over the ridges, singing his song. If you like to hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and you like a bit of the ghostly tales that surround parts of it, a great place to hike is along the Norton Creek Trail in the Lake Fontana area. This area is probably the spookiest of all the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s the place where Spearfinger used to roam and also Stone Man still walks the hills around here. Here you can take a long hike into the woods and roam around crumbling pioneer ruins and over 200 cemeteries dot the mountainsides, silently waiting for visitors.


It’s said if you walk the Norton Creek Trail, you might witness a ghostly light floating in the woods. If you’re lost, or have just a question of your way, this light supposedly will lead you back to safety. It’s one of the tales of the Fontana area that deals with a farmer whose daughter was lost and disappeared and he went to search for her, disappearing himself as he carried a lantern throughout the night. The farmer will lead you out of the woods to the trailhead so you can get back to safety. Just another folktale that, along with Spearfinger and Stone Man, can sets children’s minds to making up ghost stories that will not let them sleep at night. So if you’re ever in the area, remember the tale of Spearfinger and her blood stained mouth from eating the livers of her victims, Stone Man who wanders the mountains still, and all of the people who have come before, lived and died here in the mountains. Who knows who still wanders these forests and valleys, looking for something they lost long ago?