Nunnehi: The Fair Folk of the American Southeast

cherokeeThe nunnehi are the principal Fair Folk of the American Southeast. They are helpful spirit warriors who dwell in rocks and hills. They prefer to live on the tops of mountains and hills. Like the daoine sídhe of Ireland (and many other Old World fae), they are said to enjoy dancing and music. It is said that, the closer one came to singing nunnehi, the farther away they seemed to be. They were able to become invisible at will, but when they permitted themselves to be seen, they looked exactly like other Native Americans. They wore traditional Cherokee clothing and spoke the Cherokee language in the Overhill (i.e., Tennessee) dialect.

The Cherokee name for these beings can be rendered nunnehi, nvnehi, or gunnehi. Whatever the form, the name means “people who live anywhere.” The singular form is nayehi.

Although nunnehi is a Cherokee word, the Creeks had a legend of similar beings, said to have once inhabited the Ocmulgee Indian Mounds in Macon, Georgia. In Revolutionary times, the Creeks still claimed that, when forced to encamp there, they heard at dawn the sound of Indians singing and dancing, as if going down to the river to purify themselves and then return to the old townhouse (James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee [Dover, 1995 (reprint)] 475). Robbie Ethridge writes,

 James Adair, and eighteenth-century trader and writer, reported that every Indian knew of the Ocmulgee Old Fields. These old fields, too, were haunted. In fact, according to Adair, one could hear ghost warriors dancing at night. Adair claimed he never heard or saw the ghosts even though he had often camped there. His Chickasaw companions explained that was because he was an “obdurate infidel in that way.” (Creek Country [University of North Carolina Press, 2003] 52)

The Creek also describe an ancient battle in which their warriors emerged from a mound and defeated a Cherokee war party—an exact parallel to similar legends told by the Cherokees themselves about the nunnehi who lived beneath Nikwasi Mound near Franklin, North Carolina.

The nunnehi are generally quite hospitable to mortals, especially those who are in trouble. There are a number of stories of nunnehi helping lost travelers and returning them safely to their homes. In 1838, it is said, the nunnehi invited members of the Cherokee nation to retreat to their domain at Pilot Knob, North Carolina, and thus escape forcible deportation to Oklahoma. Other nunnehi are said to have migrated to Oklahoma as a sort of vanguard for humans forced to walk the Trail of Tears.

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