AppLit Home Native American Tales / Appalachian Animal Tales / Tales of Strong Women Tina L. Hanlon

"The First Fire" - or - "How the Water Spider Captured Fire"


Note: Some Cherokee storytellers, such as Gayle Ross, are from outside Appalachia, but they and their stories are descended from the strong Cherokee culture that their ancestors took from the Southeast to Oklahoma during the Trail of Tears.

Cherokee Tales

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"The First Fire." In Scheer, George F., ed. Cherokee Animal Tales. Illus. Robert Frankenberg. Holiday House, 1968. Rpt. Tulsa, OK: Council Oak Books, 1992. pp. 25-29. Many different animals try to bring fire to the cold world, but they get singed in the process. Water Spider succeeds by using her thread to tie a bowl on her back, bringing back a little coal from a burning tree on an island. A soft pencil drawing shows the animals gathered around the water spider. First Fire cover

Moore, MariJo. First Fire. Illus. Anthony Chee Emerson. Barrington, IL: Rigby, 2000. This and other books by Moore are recommended by Debbie Reese, a member of Nambe Pueblo, in northern New Mexico, and expert on American Indians in Children's Literature (see Reese's blog list of Recommended Children's/YA/Reference/Resource Books). See Moore's The Cherokee Little People and The Ice Man.

Arneach, Lloyd. "The First Fire." In Long-Ago Stories of the Eastern Cherokee. Illus. Elizabeth Ellison. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2008. pp. 34-37. Arneach is a native Cherokee professional storyteller. The creatures that are altered in appearance by their attempts to get fire are Raven, who turns black; Hoot Owl, who gets red eyes (depicted in a full-page black and white drawing); Screech Owl and Horned Owl, who get white rings around their eyes; Racer Snake, who turns into Black Racer; and Great Racer, who also turns black. "The little Water Spider" has always kept her bowl that she wove out of her silk.

Roth, Susan L. The Story of Light. New York: Morrow Junior Books, 1990. A pourquoi tale about how spider takes light in a clay pot from the sun on one side of the world to the animals on the other side. With striking black, white, and yellow collage illustrations.

Keams, Geri. Grandmother Spider Brings the Sun: A Cherokee Story. Illus. James Bernadin. New York: Rising Moon, 1992. See cover and description at Nancy Keane's Booktalks.

Ross, Gayle. Kennedy Center Millennium Stage performance. Mar. 5, 2003. Video available on page about Gayle Ross at Kennedy Center web site (accessed 1/18/04). Ross opens the performance by singing and telling about the creation of the world and Grandmother Spider bringing fire to the people. She links these creation and animal tales with later Cherokee history, including the Trail of Tears, when people carried coals of the sacred fire to Oklahoma, where it burns today. Grandmother Spider today has the round white mark made by the bowl she carried. It's "her badge of honor" because "the great gift of fire" came from "one of the smallest and meekest of our animal brothers and sisters." She also tells about her family and Cherokee history, and other tales. See AppLit's Gayle Ross bibliography.

The First Fire, Cherokee tale online in Stonees Web Lodge. "Water Spider has black downy hair and red stripes on her body. She could run on top of water and she could dive to the bottom. She would have no trouble in getting to the island" to get fire for the people. She's little but she can spin thread to make a little bowl on her back. "Every since [sic], we have had fire. And the Water Spider still has her little bowl on her back."

"Getting Fire." As told by Kathi Smith Littlejohn. In Duncan, Barbara R., ed. Living Stories of the Cherokee. Chapel Hill: U of NC Press, 1998. pp. 53-55. A buzzard and snake get burned trying to get fire from the other side of the world. Grandmother Spider plans on the way that she will make a pot of clay to carry the coals on her back. "She made it all the way back and gave everybody some fire. But then she also gave the Cherokee people the idea of making pottery." This version is similar to the one collected by James Mooney in Myths of the Cherokee (1900). The stories are transcribed in this book in a free verse form that represents the storytellers' "rhythmic style," using the "oral poetics" method developed in the 1970s. Background is included on storyteller Littlejohn, a native of Cherokee, NC.

"Getting Fire." As told by Kathi Smith Littlejohn. In Duncan, Barbara R., ed. The Origin of the Milky Way & Other Living Stories of the Cherokee. Caravan book. Illus. Shan Goshorn. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008. This tale is in section 2, Living with Animals.

"How the Water Spider Captured Fire." In Chiltoskey, Mary Ulmer. Aunt Mary, Tell Me A Story: A Collection of Cherokee Legends and Tales. Ed. Mary Regina Ulmer Galloway. Cherokee, NC: Cherokee Communications, 1990. pp. 64-65. With one drawing by John Barton Galloway. In this version the animals see fire but have no control over it. As the world gets colder, they try to get fire from a burning tree in the river. The crow, owl, two snakes, and hoot owl fail, but the water spider realizes that preparation is needed. The coal she risks her life to carry burns a place in her basket so she still carries the basket and the mark of the fire today.

"Grandmother Spider Steals the Sun." Retold by James Mooney. Illus. Leo and Diane Dillon. In Cohn, Amy L., ed. From Sea to Shining Sea: A Treasury of American Folklore and Folk Songs. New York:  Scholastic, 1993, pp. 12-13. Possum gets the fur burned off his tail trying to get light from the sun for the people. Buzzard gets his head feathers burned off. Grandmother Spider makes a pot of clay and since she is small, the people who have light don't notice her taking the sun to her side of the world, where the people now have sun, fire, and pottery making. 

Ernesto, Lilly. How Grandmother Spider Got the Sun: A Cherokee Tale. Illus. Michael Grejniec. Invitations to Literacy Series. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995. 16 pp.

"Grandmother Spider Brings the Light," A Cherokee/Creek/Kiowa pourquoi tale with gestures for young children, adapted by Sherry Norfolk (AL). In Holt, David and Bill Mooney, eds. More Ready-to-Tell Tales from Around the World. Little Rock: August House, 2000. 256 pp. Gives photos and background on the storytellers, notes on each story, age recommendations, and tips from the storytellers. The tales are organized by themes, with a geographical index. Another Appalachian tale in the book is "The Talking Dog" by Doc McConnell.

"How the Cherokee Indians Got Fire." In Johnson, F. Roy, ed. How and Why Stories in Carolina Folklore. Murfreesboro, NC: Johnson Pub., 1971. pp. 101-02, The Thunderers, called Ani-Hyuntikwalaski, "sent a lightning bolt and planted it in the bottom of a hollow sycamore tree. These were the Thunderers who lived way up in Galunlati. But this tree was on an island, and no one could get to this tree on an island because of the water. The animals saw the smoke" and had a council about how to get the fire they needed. Raven got his feathers scorched black; little Screech-owl, called Wahuhu, got smoke in his eyes, which are red to this day; Hooting Owl, Uguku, and the Horned Owl, Tskili, were blinded by smoke and ashes and got white rings around their eyes; little Black Racer snake, called Uksuhi, swam across but his body was scorched black so he darts and doubles still in the way he raced back away from the fire; large Blacksnake, Gulegi, the Climber, swam across and climbed the tree but put his head in a burning stump and was turned black as Racer. The creatures had another council but all were afraid to go. "At last the Water Spider, Kananeski, which spins around on the water like a little black button, said she would go. Not only could she run on the water, but she could dive. She sat to work and spun a thread from her body into a tusti bowl, which she fastened to her back. She crossed over the water to the sycamore tree, placed a little coal of fire into her bowl and swam back with it." Since then the Cherokees have had fire and she has worn the tusti bowl on her back.

"How the Animals Obtained Fire." In Traveller Bird. The Path to Snowbird Mountain. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972. Illustrations. Cataloged as a juvenile book. "Abstract: Fifteen legends told to the author by his kinsmen include fables, an explanation of the earth's origin, and other Cherokee lore" (WorldCat).

"Origin of Fire." Told by Cherokee Gregg Howard. In Howard, Gregg, and Nash Hernandez. Tales of Wonder Traditional Native American Stories for Children. CD. Dallas, TX: Rich-Heape Films, 1998. Also in Heape, Steven R., Chip Richie, Gregg Howard, Nash Hernandez, and Kathleen Raymond Roan. Tales of Wonder: Traditional Native American Fireside Stories. VHS video. Dallas, TX: Rich-Heape Films, 1998. 60 min. DVD 2004 contains additional tales.

"Origin of Fire." In Howard, Gregg. Grandfather's Stories. CD. Richardson, TX: VIP Pub., 1998. Other Cherokee tales, told by Cherokee Gregg Howard: Intro -- The Ballgame of Animals and Birds -- Why Mole Lives Underground -- Why Rabbit has a Short Tail -- Why Possum's Tail is Bare -- Little Turtle -- Why Bat Flies at Night.

"Grandmother Spider Brings the Light." Retold by Illinois storyteller Taleypo (Marilyn A. Kinsella). Text available in her web site Taleypo the Storyteller. Web site also contains drama choir adaptations (also adaptable as reader's theater) of "Little Eight John" (1981, based on Treasury of American Folklore by B. A. Botkin and Carl Sandburg, 1944) and "Wicked John and the Devil" (1980s, based on Richard Chase), the tales "Tailypo" and "The Hairy Toe," and another Cherokee tale, "The Legend of the Red Cedar" (about the creation of the seasons and the sun calendar at Cahokia Mounds, Illinois).

"Spider, the Fire Bringer: A Cherokee Legend." Told by Shan Goshorn. Illus. Robert Annesley In Max, Jill, ed. Spider Spins a Story: Fourteen Legends from Native America. Flagstaff, AZ: Rising Moon, 1997. "Presents tales from various native people, including the Kiowa, Zuni, Cherokee, Hopi, Lakota, and the Muskogee, all featuring a spider character."

"Spider Woman." In Ellington, Charlotte Jane. Dancing Leaf. Johnson City, Tenn: Overmountain Press, 2007. p. 50 (chap. 5). A novel in which "authentic Cherokee legends begin each chapter and are woven into the adventures of Dancing Leaf, a character based on the adopted daughter of Cherokee chieftainess Nancy Ward" (Worldcat). This tale stresses that Water Spider was brave and smart, making a tusti bowl with thread before going to bring back the fire. "Across the dark and cold water, she cradled the container as a mother carries a child, and thus she wove her miracle; it was she who spun the web of life." Ellington notes that this tale is found in Garrett, J. T. and Michael Garrett. Medicine of the Cherokee: The Way of Right Relationships. Rochester, VT: Bear & Co., 1996. See also Folktale Collections Indexed in AppLit.

This tale is retold in the young adult novel The Fledglings by Sandra Markle. (Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mill Press, 1992). After Kate (age 14) runs away from Atlanta to find the grandfather she didn't know she had on Snowbird Mountain (near Cherokee, NC), she learns the language and customs of the Tsa la ki (Cherokee) from him. He tells Kate and her friend this story to pass on traditional tales to the younger generation and their descendants. This tale in which the ingenious water spider fetches fire from an island sycamore tree, after other animals get singed in the attempt, foreshadows the climactic crisis when they are attacked by poachers and must use their strength and wits to survive a fire (pp. 104-107). See Folklore Themes in Longer Appalachian Fiction.

brown quilt square Related Appalachian Tales

Other pourquoi tales about animals, natural phenomena, and human inventions are listed in the Native American section of this index, and in AppLit's Animal Tale Index and picture book bibliography. Pourquoi elements are also found in tall tales such as Tony Beaver, Swamp Angel, and Steven Kellogg's Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind Crockett. See study guide on Tall Tales and Jack Tales.

brown quilt square Related Tales from Other Regions

"Blue Jay and Swallow Take the Heat." Retold by Virginia Hamilton in When Birds Could Talk and Bats Could Sing. Illus Barry Moser. New York: Blue Sky/Scholastic, 1996. Blue Jay and Swallow acquire some of their distinctive traits while figuring out how to take fire from Firekeeper and get it to the lone, cold boy Alcee Lingo. Miss Swallow dips a chunk of fire in seven ponds, but Firekeeper's wife singes some of her tail feathers while trying to stop her. Thereafter Swallow could lean on chimneys and walls with her tail, people let her build nests around warm chimneys, and "children have toted fire chunks from cabin to cabin" (p. 25). Blue Jay should also be remembered for bravely taking on Firekeeper. Moser's realistic watercolor paintings depict birds wearing hats and ugly humans (including a self-portrait transforming himself into "mean old Firekeeper"). Based on black cante fable tales collected by Alabama folklorist Martha Young after the Civil War.

Grandmother Spider Steals the Fire. Choctaw version online at Stonee's Web Lodge.

"Grandmother Spider Steals the Fire" (Choctaw). In Young, Richard, and Judy Dockrey Young, eds. Race with Buffalo and Other Native American Stories for Young Readers. Little Rock: August House, 1994. Also contains Cherokee tales "Possum's Beautiful Tail," "Ball Game Between the Animals and the Birds," "Kanati the Hunter and the Cave of Animals," and "Where the Dog Ran across the Sky."

Fire Race: A Karuk Coyote Tale of How Fire Came to the People by Jonathan London, Lanny Pinola. Illus. Sylvia Long. Chronicle Books, 1997. Picture book with brightly detailed illustrations.

Judson, Katharine Berry, ed. Native American Legends of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi Valley. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2000. Contains a number of tales about the origin of fire from other Native American traditions, as well as a number of Cherokee tales. Originally published Myths and Legends of the Mississippi Valley and the Great Lakes. Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1914.

Tales from other traditions about getting or stealing fire include the Greek myth of Prometheus, who was punished by the gods for giving fire to humanity. An American 19th-century retelling from Bullfinch's Mythology is online at

brown quilt square Hispanic Connection

"The Possum's Tail" (How fire came to the world): A Mazatec myth. In Vigil, Angel. The Eagle on the Cactus: Traditional Stories from Mexico = El águila encima del nopal: cuentos tradicionales de Mexico. Transl. Francisco Miraval. World folklore series. Englewood, Colo: Libraries Unlimited, 2000. Dance, Nana, Dance cover

"Opossum Steals Fire." In Peck, Catherine, ed. QPB Treasury of North American Folktales. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1998. pp. 10-11. Opossum convinces the old woman who is hoarding fire to let him near her fire. He takes the fire on his tail to people, so the opossum's tail is bald and he has asked people never to eat him. A Mexican tale from The Mythology of Mexico and Central America by John Bierhorst (1990). Peck notes that in some North American tales, fox gets fire and that is why his feet are black.

Hayes, Joe. Dance, Nana, Dance = Baila, Nana, Baila: Cuban Folktales in English and Spanish. Illus. Mauricio T. Sayago. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press, 2008. This award-winning book is labeled as "a collection of [13] stories from Cuban folklore, representing the cultures of Spain, Africa, and the Caribbean," with a Cuban-born illustrator. Each page faces a translation in the other language. "The title story relates the acquisition of fire from an old witch by two canny jimaguas, the Cuban term for twins," who use music and dance (from School Library Journal review).

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