Column: Remembering the big fish legends of Cherokee people

"When a fisherman in the Smokies region receives a sudden strike from a huge fish that breaks his line or maybe even drags his tackle away before he can react, he usually supposes it was a muskellunge, a ferocious species of pike that reaches a length of 60 inches and a weight of nearly 70 pounds. But maybe all strikes of this sort can’t be attributed to muskies.

There is, after all, another great fish almost as large as a whale that would smash any tackle to smithereens. This would be the Dakwa, a monstrous critter in Cherokee lore so large that it was equated with the whale. Indeed, according to ethnologist James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee (1900), when the Bible was translated into Cherokee in the 18th century — using the syllabary invented by Sequoya — the word “Dakwa” was employed as the equivalent of “whale.” As we shall see, the primary Cherokee story having to do with the great fish clearly echoes the biblical story of Jonah and the whale.

But how in the world would the Cherokees know anything about whales? No problem. They were great adventurers. Their trade routes and excursions of warfare took them far and wide throughout eastern North America. At any given time when a Cherokee party was on the Atlantic coast, whales — or at least their carcasses washed ashore — could have been observed.

Mooney points out, for instance, that James Lawson, in his A New Voyage to Carolina (1700), noted that whales “were ‘very numerous’ on the coast of North Carolina, being frequently stranded along the shore, so that settlers derived considerable profit from the oil and bladder.”"

Get the Story:
George Ellison: Cherokee’s own big fish legend (The Smoky Mountain News 3/17)

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