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Native American Tales from Appalachia / Animal Tales

Tina L. Hanlon

"The Uktena"


Note: The Cherokee homeland was in the southern Appalachian Mountains hundreds of years before Europeans and Americans forced most of the Cherokee to move west. AppLit includes tales from Cherokee oral traditions that continue to be retold within Appalachia and elsewhere.

Arch, Davey. "Legends of the Uk'tena." In Duncan, Barbara R., ed. Living Stories of the Cherokee. Chapel Hill: U of NC Press, 1998, pp. 93-94. Arch (Cherokee, NC) tells that ten years earlier, an excavation revealed a crystal wrapped in deerskin, like the Uk'tena were supposed to have guarded. He says there were stories of giant snakes like rattlesnakes, and horned serpents, and stories about people in the underworld (entered through rivers and streams) who rode giant rattlesnakes. This book contains detailed introductions to each storyteller and Cherokee culture. The stories are transcribed in a free verse form that represents the storytellers' "rhythmic style," using the "oral poetics" method developed in the 1970s.

Bushyhead, Robert. "The Hunter and Thunder." In Living Stories of the Cherokee (see details above), pp. 179-83. A mythic hunter saves Thunder from a giant snake coiled around him. Hunter ignores the serpent's call for help and follows Thunder's instruction to shoot the snake on the seventh spot on its neck. Thunder, admitting he likes to be destructive for fun, gives Hunter a formula to protect things from storms. The formula is probably lost but Bushyhead (b. 1916) recalls his mother reciting something seven times to keep storms away from their crops. Duncan calls this "a rare combination of a myth and a personal-experience story about a medicine formula, explaining the origin of the formula and giving an example of its use in everyday life." She compares the myth part to "The Red Man and the Uktena" in Mooney's older collections (p. 145). 

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

Carden, Gary. The Uktena, 1998. NC storyteller Carden (who worked with the Eastern band of the Cherokee for some years) retells a series of horrific tales of the deadly Uktena. He compares the white man's Bible telling of giants walking the land with ancient Native American beliefs in a time of giant animals such as the Uktena, a mysterious monster which left its imprint on the mountains.

Carden, Gary. The Cherokee Stories. Audio cassette. Highland, NC: Media Divide, 1992. Contains "Uktena" and "The Nunnehi."

"The Uktena." In Ellington, Charlotte Jane. Dancing Leaf. Johnson City, Tenn: Overmountain Press, 2007. p. 27 (chap. 3). 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). Chapter titles (available with other excerpts in Google Book Search) indicate the legends retold in this book as Dancing Leaf pursues a journey of self-discovery. The Uktena is described in detail as a wondrous and dangerous snake. After the warrior Aganunitsi hunts it down and kills it while it sleeps at Gahuti Mountain in the Smoky Mountains, its poisons run down the mountainsides, stopped by a trench of fire the warrior started. He then gets birds to devour the giant carcass and possession of its sacred crystal makes him "the greatest medicine man of the tribe."

Daughter of the Sun is a Cherokee tale online at Stonee's Web Lodge, from James Mooney's work collecting myths of the Cherokee. It contains helpful Little Men and Uktena, the water monster. It is like the Greek myths of Demeter and Persephone (or Ceres and Proserpine), and Orpheus and Eurydice, and a little like "Snow White," when seven men carry Sun's daughter from the ghost country in a box they must not open, but she convinces them to open the box, escapes and becomes a redbird. Thereafter, people can never bring others from the ghost world. Sun is a cruel and sad old woman until the people's dances cheer her up at the end.

"Agan uni tsi's Search for the Uktena." With stone carvings by Cherokee artist Fred Wilnoty. Reprinted from version told by Swimmer in Mooney's Myths of the Cherokee. In Duncan, Barbara R., ed. Where It All Began: Cherokee Creation Stories in Art. Cherokee, NC: Museum of the Cherokee Indian, 2001. See details on this book at Appalachian Folktale Collections.

Cornelissen, Cornelia. Soft Rain: A Story of the Cherokee Trail of Tears. New York: Bantam, 1998. Nine-year-old Soft Rain loves hearing stories daily from her grandmother, until her family is separated during the forced removal of their people from North Carolina to Oklahoma. Aunt Kee describes the uktena, a "huge snake that has shining scales and horns on its head" and "lurks in deep river pools and dark mountain passes" (p. 52). She tells of a hunter that saves a man by killing the uktena, is given a burned scale from the dead creature, and has good hunting ever after. These tales make Soft Rain afraid to cross rivers on their difficult journey. Aunt Kee says once that maybe these are only stories, while Soft Rain's mother says later that the uktena is said to live in calmer waters (p. 71). See more at Folklore Themes in Longer Fiction.

McCrumb, Sharyn. The Rosewood Casket. New York: Penguin, 1996. Early in the novel, a section titled Spring 1824 describes Nancy Ward or Nanyehi in old age, telling of her life as a Cherokee hero, famous for her youthful courage in battle as well as her later attempts to assimilate with white people in order to make peace. At an early age she was given the sacred title Ghighau, or Beloved Woman. Later, before the Trail of Tears, she foresaw that Native Americans could not prevent the invasion of countless white settlers. She is on the mountain "called Udawaoguhda—the bald mountain. Here the great Shawnee conjurer Groundhog's Mother had fought a magical giant lizard he had encountered in his search for the serpent monster Utkena" (p. 7). More details on this novel at Folklore Themes in Longer Appalachian Fiction.

See also:

Arch, Davey. "The Rattlesnake in the Corn" and "Big Snakes." In Living Stories of the Cherokee (see above), pp. 81-86. Arch tells of his own family's stories of dangerous encounters with giant snakes in the mountains, and older Cherokee treatment of rattlesnakes as revered protectors and brothers. Ute Jumper was a conjure or medicine man Arch's grandfather stayed with. Ute fed and sang to a giant yellow rattlesnake that protected the corn while it grew.

"Dakwa Ka-Plunk." In Russell, Randy and Janet Barnett. The Granny Curse and Other Ghosts and Legends from East Tennessee. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1999. In this story from Hamilton County, John Brown, a Cherokee storyteller, innkeeper, and ferry operator, tells a Cherokee legend about Dakwa, a giant fish that swallows a warrior, who is bald after he cuts his way out. The book observes that "Cherokees always knew the exact location of their stories" (22) and gives other comments on storytelling.

Compare with:

Many tales of dragons and sea monsters around the world. See Dragons in Children's Literature by Tina Hanlon.

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