Cherokee language and zoology

Doctoral dissertations don’t usually make for exciting reading. There are, however, exceptions.


Arlene Fradkin’s Cherokee Folk Zoology: The Animal World of a Native American People, 1700-1838 published in 1990 by Garland Publishing of New York and London, is just such an instance. It contains material about the Cherokee relationship with and understanding of the animal world of the southern mountains that is always informative, often entertaining, and sometimes eye-opening.

Dr. Fradkin’s 562-page dissertation was written as part of the requirement for her doctoral degree at the University of Florida in 1988. She is currently an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at Florida Atlantic University.

With some exceptions, this is, of course, a volume aimed at the university library marketplace. But it can be said without compunction that Cherokee Folk Zoology should be on the shelves of all libraries — university, college, and public — in Western North Carolina.

Fradkin’s approach to understanding the animal world of the Cherokees is groundbreaking. In brief, she employs a methodology that utilizes the study of folk semantics so that linguistics, oral tradition, and early ethnographic or historical data are examined to reconstruct Cherokee folk zoology.

Accordingly, the opening chapters (the ones this reader, alas, skimmed) deal with such matters as “The Cherokee Language And It’s Early Environmental Context” and “Data Sources, Recording Procedures, and Framework of Analysis.” Once the author has her methodological machinery in place, she moves on to matters of more general interest, painting a vivid and engrossing picture of the interrelationship of the Cherokee culture and the multitude of animals that permeated it in both utilitarian and spiritual ways.

Chapter 4 (“Cherokee Animal Nomenclature”) depicts, species by species, the various invertebrates, fish, herpetofauna (i.e., toads, frogs, salamanders, snakes, etc.), birds, and mammals along with tables that correlate the various names the Cherokees used for them.

Subsequent chapters in the nine-chapter volume cover topics like the place of animals in Cherokee subsistence, secular, ideological, and ritualistic patterns, and how the Cherokee themselves classified animals (i.e., according to such schemes as habitat, color, mode of reproduction, etc.).

As one might suspect, Fradkin’s bibliography provides a mother load of sources for anyone interested in Cherokee studies. Unfortunately, the volume isn’t indexed, which makes pinpointing individual topics highly cumbersome in a work of this length.

Here is a little sampler of the sort of materials contained in Cherokee Zoology that make it a fascinating source for those interested in Cherokee culture and lore, as well as in this region’s animal life in general.

• The Cherokee use the name “doyunisi” for the water (whirligig) beetle, which literally means “beaver’s grandchild” since both “were equally at home above or beneath the water.”

• They used the name “kamama” when referring to butterflies, and then added “the attributive ‘utana’ (big) ... to the word ‘kamana,’ which, in turn, was expanded in meaning to signify ‘elephant,’ an Old World animal that was introduced by traveling circuses, because of a supposed resemblance of the long trunk and flapping ears of the pachyderm to the proboscis and wings, respectively, of the butterfly.”

• For obvious reasons, ‘daksi’ — the word for terrapin — was also applied to the padlocks introduced by Europeans.

• The name “wodige askoli” was used for the northern copperhead in reference to its coppery-red head. The synonym “junaktajisdahli” (meaning something like “ignited eyes”) was also used for this snake, “which is believed to have ‘eyes of fire’ because of their intense brightness.”

• The word “waguli” was an onomatopoetic reference to the whippoorwill, “whose cry was said to be an ill omen. This bird was not killed and much hated.”

• “The terms ‘wahya’ and ‘wahaya’ are onomatopoetic, resembling the distinctive howl made by this animal (the gray wolf).”

• The term “svgi” (meaning literally “one that smells”) refers “to the mink and to the onion plant, both of which are noted for their powerful smells.”

• “The white hair of the opossum was spun into thread, which was dyed several colors and then interwoven to make young men’s garters and girdles.”

• “The pileated woodpecker was considered lazy and stupid. In one story, a woman found out she was married to such a bird.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Go to top