Archived Mountain Voices

Big fish of the Smokies

Each of us inhabits several landscapes. On the one hand, there is our everyday exterior topographic landscape. We call it reality. On the other there is our interior landscape … the world of imagination, dreams and nightmares. Whether we are aware of it or not, a significant portion of our life is spent balancing and reconciling the exterior and the interior.

The spiritual ideal of the ancient Cherokees was balance in all matters large and small … the Upper World of light, peace, and everlasting life (represented by Sanuwa, the mythic hawk modeled, perhaps, on the perigrine falcon) was balanced by the Under World of darkness, strife, and eternal death (represented by Uktena, the giant serpent modeled on the rattlesnake) ... men balanced women … plants balanced animals … summer balanced winter … each item or category had its counterweight. The totality of this belief system is now sometimes referred to as the Harmony Ethic.

The interior landscapes reflected in the Cherokee myths are inhabited by anomalous creatures. They were distorted images of the exterior world that helped define “reality”—or maybe it was the other way round. Be that as it may, they were an interesting assembly of strange and wonderful critters. Here is one of them: Dakwa.

When a fisherman in the Smokies region receives a sudden strike from a huge fish that breaks his line or 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 all strikes of this sort can’t be attributed to muskies. There is, after all, another great fish almost as large as a whale. This would be the Dakwa, a fish so large 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, the word “Dakwa” was employed as the equivalent of “whale.”

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 may be 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:

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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

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


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 in the Big Cove of 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 traveling 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. Before someone calls to advise me that there are no whales in WNC, I’ll note that the Cherokees had trade relations with coastal tribes. They would have heard all about whales. And it’s probable that they saw them from time to time. I do wonder why the storytellers gave the hunter a baldhead.

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..

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