Editor’s note: This George Ellison column first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in March 2005.
“Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the Fish’s belly …. The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head …. But I will sacrifice unto thee with that voice of salvation; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is the Lord … and the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.
— Jonah 2:1-10
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.”
Mooney also points out that, “in almost every age and country we find a myth of a great fish swallowing a man, who afterwards finds his way out alive.” It’s my notion that after the Cherokees were introduced to Christianity in the 18th century, they adapted an earlier legend depicting a great fish to a version closer to the story related in the Bible. There are several Dakwa stories in Cherokee lore. Here is the one known as “The Hunter and the Dakwa” as collected by Mooney from the storytellers Swimmer and Tagwaddihi on the Qualla Boundary (present-day Cherokee) during the late 1880s:
“In the old days there was a great fish called the Dakwa …. This fish was so large that it could easily swallow a man. One day several hunters were travelling in a canoe …. when the Dakwa suddenly rose up under the canoe and threw them all into the air. As the men came down, the fish swallowed one with a single snap of its jaws, and dived with him to the bottom of the river. This man was one of the bravest hunters in the tribe, and as soon as he discovered where he was he began thinking of some way to overcome the Dakwa and escape from its stomach. Except for a few scratches and bruises, the hunter had not been hurt, but it was so hot and airless inside the big fish that he feared he would soon smother. As he groped around in the darkness, his hands found some mussel shells which the Dakwa had swallowed. These shells had very sharp edges. Using one of them as a knife, the hunter began cutting away at the fish’s stomach. Soon the Dakwa grew uneasy at the scraping inside his stomach and came up to the surface of the river for air. The man kept on cutting with the shell until the fish was in such pain that it swam wildly back and forth across the river, thrashing the water into foam with its tail. At last the hunter cut through the Dakwa’s side. Water flowed in, almost drowning the man, but the big fish was so weary by this time that it came to a stop. The hunter looked out of the hole and saw that the Dakwa was now resting in shallow water near the riverbank. Reaching up, the man pulled himself through the hole in the fish, moving very carefully so as not to disturb the Dakwa. He then waded ashore and returned to his village, where his friends were mourning his death because they were sure he had been eaten by the great fish. Now they named him a hero and held a celebration in his honour. Although the brave hunter escaped with his life, the juices in the stomach of the Dakwa had scalded all the hair from his head, and he was bald forever after.”
The obvious difference between the story of the Cherokee hunter and that of Jonah is that the latter was dependent upon a higher power for his salvation whereas the hunter was dependent upon his own devices.