Indian talk: The Long Man

One of the Indian phrases we white folks like to throw around now and again is the name “Long Man” or “Long Person” for a river. We tend to do this with the idea that Indians had some “primitive” idea of the river as a god of some kind. The fact is, the name and idea of a “Long Man” only occurred in some Indian cultures, in specific contexts.

Cherokee Indians do have a name for the conscious spirit of a river or stream, whose voice is said to speak in the waterfalls and rapids. Such a spirit is called ᏴᏫ ᎬᎾᎯᏔ (yvwi gvnahita), a long man or long person. In a 1900 report, ethnographer James Mooney referred to this being as a “river god,” but that seems to be a lazy and inaccurate comparison. I’ve found no evidence that Cherokees worshipped or sacrificed to these beings. Rather, they believed (and I suppose still believe) that a river has a consciousness, the wisdom of great age, and a capacity to teach lessons to receptive humans.

Mooney describes a ritual designed to improve the character of young children. A Cherokee parent would take a plant having small seed cases that stick to clothes — now commonly called “hitchhikers” — and mash some of it to a pulp. This was mixed in a small bowl with water taken from a waterfall, a place where the Long Man was always speaking. The “hitchhiker” plant was expected to give the child a more retentive memory and a steadier temper. The river water would also aid the child’s memory and intellect, because a river can “seize and hold anything cast upon its surface.” What’s more, because the river water came from a waterfall, the child might be able to hear and retain valuable lessons that only a Long Man can teach.1

It would be absurd, of course, to talk of fishing or swimming in the Long Man. The idea of a conscious river spirit applied to ritual contexts. For everyday use there is the everyday word egwani, “river.”2

Even within a ritual context, talking of a Long Man would probably not make sense outside of the Cherokee culture — or it would make the wrong kind of sense. For instance, the Cherokees shared many ideas and beliefs with their Creek neighbors, but there is no evidence that they shared the idea of a river spirit called Long Man.3

On the contrary: a literal translation of Cherokee yvwi gvnahita into Muskogee (the principal Creek language) gives a term with a very different meaning. In Muskogee, a “long man” is isti japko (spelled este capko) and it means “giant.”

So one could certainly tell tales of a “Long Man” in Creek culture. But instead of a wise old river spirit, these tales would refer to a frightening mythic giant. Just another example of the overlooked variety of cultures that we hide under the blanket term “Native American.”

1 James Mooney, “Plant Lore,” in Myths of the Cherokee, Bureau of American Ethnology 19th Annual Report 1897-98 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1900), p. 426. 
2 I think that’s the Cherokee for “river.” James Mooney says it is, but I can’t make it work in the Cherokee syllabary. Could it be ᎡᏆᏂ? 
3 I’m no expert on American Indian cosmology, but if I were looking for other cultures with similar river-spirit beliefs, I’d start with the Six Nations and other Iroquoian peoples. The Cherokees speak an Iroquoian language, and are believed to have migrated south to their traditional homeland in the southern Appalachians. 

2 thoughts on “Indian talk: The Long Man

  1. This is exactly the sort of thing I need when teaching students (and myself) about native peoples and their relationship to the non-human natural world. The Noble Savage/Original Ecologist myth is, of course, tired and wrong, and this piece helps reveal the complexity. I wonder how concepts of the conscious spirit of rivers/streams have changed over time–has the Long Man taught different lessons at different times? Curious. In any case: thanks for the observation and investigation.

  2. An important drawback to this piece is that I am writing about a culture that is not mine, and relying mainly on an ethnographer in doing so. At least I hope to tamp down some misconceptions by doing this.

    The Cherokee “Long Man” river spirits seem to me to be a specific cultural expression of an impulse that nearly all human beings have in the presence of rivers. People of all nations may have settled beside rivers just for the agricultural and commercial advantages; but that doesn’t explain why they also gave the rivers personality. Whether or not we ritualize that personality, we find ways to commune with it. I’ve felt the impulse myself; for example, when I was a newcomer to Perry, Georgia, it didn’t take me long to uncover a yearning to visit the Ocmulgee River, a half-hour away, just to stand on the bank and listen to the water. Can’t really say whether I learned anything.

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