AppLit Home Native American Tales in Appalachia Tina L. Hanlon

"Kanahena" or "Why the Turtle's Shell is Cracked"


Roth, Susan L.  Kanahena: A Cherokee Story. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988. A retelling of the traditional Cherokee tale of Terrapin the trickster. Possum shows Terrapin that it is possible to trick Bad Wolf into choking on the persimmons he steals, but Terrapin goes too far by taking Bad Wolf's ears to use for spoons as he eats kanahna, or cornmeal mush, with friends.  When the other wolves try to drown Terrapin, he tricks them into throwing them in the water where he knows he can save himself, but in the process his shell is cracked permanently. In 24 pages containing a spare inner narrative and collage illustrations, the little Cherokee girl in the brief frame story learns from her grandmother about the complex interactions of good and bad, natural and unnatural acts.

Ross, Gayle. How Turtle's Back Was Cracked: A Traditional Cherokee Tale. Illus. Murv Jacobs. Dial Books for Young Readers, 1995. Turtle is a braggart who thinks he has killed the wolf that chokes on the persimmons he and Possum are eating. He tricks angry wolves into throwing him in the river, where his shell is cracked. Ross developed her storytelling version from childhood memories and a written source. Source notes and background on the Cherokee nation are included.

"Why the Terrapin's Shell is Scarred." In Scheer, George F., ed. Cherokee Animal Tales. Illus. Robert Frankenberg. Holiday House, 1968. Rpt: 2nd ed. Tulsa, OK: Council Oak Books, 1992. pp. 65-68. The plot is similar to versions described above. Possum throws down persimmons that choke the wolf to death but Terrapin takes his ears for hominy spoons and brags about it. After he escapes from the river but cracks his shell on a rock, Terrapin is said to have sung a medicine song: "I have sewed myself together." A soft pencil drawing shows Terrapin talking surrounded by wolves.

Arneach, Lloyd. "Why the Terrapin's Shell is Cracked." In Long-Ago Stories of the Eastern Cherokee. Illus. Elizabeth Ellison. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2008. Arneach is a native Cherokee professional storyteller.

"Why the Turtle's Shell is Cracked." Told by Kathi Smith Littlejohn, a Cherokee storyteller. In Duncan, Barbara R., ed. Living Stories of the Cherokee. Chapel Hill: U of NC Press, 1998, pp. 47-49. A turtle kills a wolf in an argument, and cuts off his ears. Then the turtle makes a wolf village fix him supper and he uses the wolf ears as spoons. The turtle, a huge, strong "mighty warrior," breaks apart when he jumps in the river to escape the angry wolves, but he sings "a magic song" that joins his 100 broken pieces. Since then the turtle is small with a cracked shell. This tale closely resembles the version in James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee (Bureau of American Ethnology, 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. 

"The Terrapin's Escape from the Wolves." In Myths of the Cherokee. Ed. James Mooney. From Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology 1897-98, Part I. 1900. Reprinted in Internet Sacred Text Archive, 2001.

"Possum, Turtle, and the Wolves." In Peck, Catherine, ed. QPB Treasure of North American Folktales. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1998. pp. 37-43. Storyteller Doug Elliott of NC adapted this version from a 19th-century Cherokee tale, noting that it has African origins. Possum and Turtle are slow and lazy, but rumors spread that Turtle is a wolf killer. After he tricks the angry wolves into throwing him in the river, Turtle uses medicinal herbs to heal his cracked back. Elliott also tells this tale in Best-Loved Stories Told at the National Storytelling Festival. Jonesborough, TN: National Storytelling Press and Little Rock: August House, 1991 (20th anniversary edition). pp. 135-41.

"Why Turtle's Shell is Scarred." In Ellington, Charlotte Jane. Dancing Leaf. Johnson City, Tenn: Overmountain Press, 2007. p. 159 (chap. 11). 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). After Turtle convinces the vengeful wolves to throw him into the river and his back is cracked into twelve pieces on a rock, he sings a "peaceful" medicine song with the repeated line "I have sewn myself together." Ellington notes that this tale is also found in Garrett, Michael. Walking on the Wind: Cherokee Teachings for Harmony and Balance. Rochester, VT: Bear & Co., 1998. See also Folktale Collections Indexed in AppLit.

See also:

Duvall, Deborah L. Rabbit and the Well. Illus. Murv Jacob. Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 2007. 32 pp. A drought is drying up the Long Man, or river by Ji-Stu's home. The other animals try to make pots to save water and hold councils led by Terrapin to find better solutions. Ji-Stu (Rabbit) knows of water underground. Terrapin calls on the forces of nature and digging animals to help dig a well, but Ji-Stu angers everyone by not helping to dig, just taking credit for the idea. He finds it easy to steal water from the well but the other animals trick him with a tar wolf when they catch him. It begins to rain after Otter uses his oil to help Ji-Stu get free of the tar wolf and he promises not to steal again. Also available as a cyber storybook narrated by Duvall at this link.

See also many other animal tales and pourquoi tales in the Native American section of this index, and in Mooney's Myths of the Cherokee, Duncan's Living Stories of the Cherokee, and other collections, such as Gayle Ross's How Rabbit Tricked Otter and Other Cherokee Animal Stories. Illus. Murv Jacobs. The Parabola Storytime Series. New York: HarperCollins, 1994. Caedmon Audio cassette, 1996. Cherokee Animal Tales (see above) also contains "The Rabbit and the Tar Wolf."

Compare with:

Many other tales in other traditions about why turtles have cracked shells. For example, "Tappin, the Land Turtle," in Hamilton, Virginia. The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales. Illus. Leo and Diane Dillon. New York: Knopf, 1985. Tappin's adventure, in which a magic cowhide beats him, begins with his need to feed his six hungry children on earth. He flies through the sky with an eagle and then goes down under the ocean to appeal to the king of the underworld. This tale was first told by a slave in Alabama from the west coast of Africa.

"Cooter's Wing." Retold by Priscilla Jaquith, in Bo Rabbit, Smart for True: Tall Tales from the Gullah. Illus. Ed Young. New York: Philomel, 1981, pp. 31-38. Cooter the turtle tries to find someone to carry him up to Heaven to attend Father's party for birds. Crow agrees to take him up as a joke, then drops him on his back in the marsh. After he extricates himself and washes, Cooter sees the cracks and yellowish and black markings on his formerly smooth white shell. He's learned his lesson that "Crittuh without wings belong on earth. Be satisfy with what Father give you and enjoy." The Notes explain some versions from Trinidad and Guadeloupe in which Tortoise borrows feathers from birds and falls when they take back their feathers.

"Tortoise Cracks his Shell (inspired by numerous African tortoise tales)." In Tate, Eleanora E. Retold African Myths. Illus. Don Tate II. Logan, IA: Perfection Learning, 1993. Tortoise's vanity causes him to try to fly with Buzzard because Monkey convinces him he can outdo the sun with his bright shell. After he falls and breaks his shell, Monkey puts it back together, sloppily, for a fee, and then Tortoise is ashamed and hides inside his shell.

"Brer Rabbit," the most famous African-American trickster tale. See, for example "Doc Rabbit, Bruh Fox, and Tar Baby." In Virginia Hamilton. The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales. Illus. Leo and Diane Dillon. New York: Knopf, 1985. Hamilton notes that there are about 300 Tar Baby tales in many countries.

Catherine Peck notes similarities with the European fairy tale "The Brave Little Tailor." See references at Jack and the Varmints.

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