The natural history of a region consists of the plants, animals, and landscapes we can see and explore any given day. But no full comprehension of any region can be had without coming to some understanding of its spiritual terrain. When we consider this aspect here in the Smokies region, we necessarily enter the realm of Cherokee sensibility.
There are various examples. My favorite is the uktena, a monstrous serpent, because it persists as an informing presence in Cherokee lore. When anthropologist James Mooney visited the Qualla Boundary of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in Western North Carolina during the late 1880s, he collected uktena data subsequently published as part of his classic study Myths of the Cherokee (1900). In the 1960s, Indian historians Jack and Anna Kilpatrick found that the Cherokees removed to Oklahoma in 1838 vividly retained in their collective memory stories of the serpent, which they called the uk’ten. To this day, in my experience, a conversation about them can be conducted with many traditional Cherokees.
According to Mooney’s informants, the uktena — born of envy and anger — was a representative of the Under World: the realm of darkness and decay. They were, he was advised, “as large around as a tree trunk, with horns on its head, a bright blazing crest like a diamond upon its forehead, and scales glittering like sparks of fire. It has rings or spots of color along its whole length and cannot be wounded except by shooting in the seventh spot from the head, because under this spot are its heart and life.”
Aside from the horns that resembled those of a buck deer, the most compelling feature of the uktena was the diamond-shaped crest on its forehead (the ulunsuti) that emitted flashes of light like a blazing star. Those encountering the serpent — especially little children — were doomed, moth-like, to become so dazzled by this light that they ran toward it and sure death.
But in Cherokee spiritual life there was always a balance between good and evil. The danger of the uktena was counterbalanced by the potential power of the burning stone. If an individual was brave enough to confront the serpent, he could evoke the Mythic Hawk, which represented the forces of the Upper World: peace and light. Together, they would be able to venture into the recesses of the Under World, slay the serpent, and bring the ulunsuti crystal back to the Middle World: the mundane realm of human existence.
University of Georgia anthropologist Charles Hudson has made these observations in an essay titled “Uktena: A Cherokee Anomalous Monster” published in the Journal of Cherokee Studies (Spring 1978):
“The Cherokees believed that their priests or medicine men were able to gaze into certain crystals and thereby foresee the future ... The Cherokees told James Mooney that according to their traditions only one man — Groundhog’s mother, a Shawnee medicine man and a great worker of wonders — was able to get possession of an ulunsunti. A great hunter among the eastern Cherokees still had possession of it in 1890, but he kept it hidden in a cave and would not show it to Mooney, but he did describe it in this manner: ‘It is like a large transparent crystal, nearly the shape of a cartridge bullet, with a blood-red streak running through the center from top to bottom. The owner keeps it wrapped in a whole deer skin, inside an earthen jar hidden away in a secret cave in the mountains.’
From this description Mooney concluded that the ulunsuti might be an unusual crystal of rutile quartz with metallic streaks running through it ... Of all the anomalous monsters of the old world, the one that comes closest to the uketna is the dragon, a monster which existed at one time in the belief of people in most parts of Europe and Asia ... The dragon had no ulunsuti on its forehead, but it did have a lump on its head, called by the Chinese chi’h muh, which enabled the dragon to fly, and it had a pearl of great value and power which dangled from its neck. Also, the traditional Chinese used ‘dragon bones,’ the fossilized bones of extinct animals, for all sorts of religious purposes ... We are reasonably sure that the Cherokees, and other American Indians, are descended from people who came from Siberia, across the Bering Strait land bridge at the close of the Pleistocene. Therefore it is probable that these ancestors of the American Indians categorized the universe in a way similar to that of the Asian people who were ancestors of the Chinese. It is possible, in fact, that the people who came across the land bridge 15,000 years ago believed in the existence of a dragon-like monster.”
According to ancient sources, uktenas lived in caves, gorges, or lonely passes in the high mountains. Such places were carefully designated as “where the uktena stays” from generation to generation. They resided on the margins of the Cherokee universe like dark shadows in a dream.
Such places were obviously touchstones for the collective imagination of the Cherokees from one generation to the next for hundreds of years. They were constant reminders of the angry and envious serpents in their lives and hearts. To ignore these reminders was to follow the pathway into chaos and darkness; to come to terms with them was the pathway into a bright future.