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White Oak Mountain Ranger: The Dakwa And The Shell Cracker

  • Thursday, May 16, 2024

“Have you ever held a snake? They are so strong. You can see why there are so many myths about them; they are unlike any other creature. It’s extraordinary how that little brain can keep everything moving in different directions.” - Michelle Paver

From Old Money, New South - The Spirit of Chattanooga, by Dean W. Arnold

“When George Rodenbaugh came to the area a decade earlier in 1828 for a hunting trip, he saw not a single resident in the heart of the valley.” (Chattanooga)

“The McDonalds had died, the Rosses had moved to Rome Georgia, and the missionaries still lived on the other side of the ridge. Only Uncle Billy Gentry resided in his small ferryman’s hut by the river.”

“Early resident Andy Williams also says there were no people at that time in the wilderness. “The spies that Moses sent out to search the Land of Canaan could not have found a more beautiful valley, with everything to sustain life, except bread. Upon river and creek bottom grew as fine timber as ever grew on earth.” He recalled one sycamore tree so large that a door had been cut through it large enough so a horse “could go in, turn around, and come out.” He said it kept him dry on many a rainy day.”

“Rodenbaugh said the valley contained an abundance of elk, bear, deer, turkey, wolves, partridges, beaver and mink. Wild hogs were found in droves.”

“Dr. Michael Abram, head of the Cherokee Heritage Museum in North Carolina, in a 2003 presentation at the Chattanooga Aquarium, discussed the rituals, purification ceremonies, and the religious beliefs associated with the “Long Man,” or the “Long Snake” as the Cherokee’s referred to the Tennessee River and its associated myths.

“Early historian Henry Wilse quotes an old citizen of Chattanooga who corroborates the more eerie legends of a river monster…“It has been frequently seen by the Cherokee Indians, and by them was held in great terror, and the sight of it by any individual was said to be a precursor of early death. It was generally described as the length of an ordinary canoe. It has a head something like a dog’s…a black fin, which was from 18 inches to 2 feet long…and it swam with incredible velocity. Many of those who saw it succumbed to the evil influence and shortly after gave up the ghost.”

“The first witness…was fishing on the South side of the river near Vann’s place. His estimate was that it was about 25 feet long. That summer he died. The next was Billy Barnes…He said it was yellow on the belly and blue on the back, was from 20 to 25 feet long. That summer he died. Jim Windon, in 1829, was sitting on a point of rocks below Dallas fishing. The monster slowly passed him not more than 10 feet distant…That summer he died. The elder Mr. Puckett saw it in 1836, and I suppose the power of the serpent had begun to wane, as the witness escaped with his life…”

“The last witness that I introduce is J. C. Wilson, known by the Indians as ‘Teese,' or the hanging bird. He saw it in 1839….He says when he first saw it, it was in a playful mood and had just started for the North shore. When it turned and came back to the South shore he could see the ripple made in the water. It darted with incredible speed. He does not think it took more than two minutes to cross the river and back.”

“After this, it was seen no more…probably it followed the Cherokees west.”

In James Mooney’s, Cherokee History, Myths and Sacred Formulas, compiled from 1891-1900, we find this river myth of the Cherokee…the Wahnenauhi version, of the HUNTER IN THE DAKWA….”A boy was sent on an errand by his father, and not wanting to go, he ran away to the river. After playing in the sand for a short time some boys of his acquaintance came by in a canoe and invited him to join them. Glad of the opportunity to get away he went with them, but he had no sooner got in the canoe than it began to tip and rock most unaccountably. The boys became very much frightened, and in the confusion the bad boy fell into the water and was immediately swallowed by a large fish. After lying in its stomach for some time he became very hungry, and on looking around he saw the fish’s liver hanging over his head. Thinking it dried meat, he tried to cut off a piece with a mussel shell he had been paying with and still held in his hand. The operation sickened the fish and it vomited the boy.”

I don’t normally think of these ancient river monster myths when wading the shallows and back sloughs of the river that the Cherokee referred to as the “Long Snake.” The water in the morning is somewhat calm and chilly in May, especially after the recent rains from the storms that seem so prevalent during this month.

Rain comes in amounts that largely overfill the edges of this long old river, inundating the green and pale tan reed, the home of the Red Wing blackbird, the cat tail. The high water now covers the early blooming low yellow flowered weed that is slowly drowning, but is still visible, under the dim shallows.

Excessively, loud pairs of Canada geese honk through the morning mist and maybe complain about a recently flooded nest of big eggs. Mallards, normally more drakes than hens, sail by and clatter the nervous hens chuckle as she seems to either complain, or sound tired of it all in some contented kind of way.

Ospreys circle and chirp/whistle to the newest crop of fledgling downy chicks high in a multitude of nearby nests. Some large nests of sticks, perched precariously on sturdy and high manmade towers, constructed of galvanized steel, compliments of the nuclear theme park that the river has evolved into over the last 40 years.

Even the undisturbed shallows and backwaters are not clear, or especially clean, on this, or for that matter, many May mornings. You can’t visually see your feet as you wade. You can easily see the mud swirl and billow with each cautious step. Stumps and boulders, unseen in the cloud of mud you are straining at, make for a cautious move if you want to avoid a brisk and damp swim.

At times, you think you can actually feel the gravel under foot, in dinner plate sized dished patches as you ooze slowly along. Small nests, frantically fanned by the males of the targeted species in the mud and small gravel. These little impressions you defile are hopefully abandoned and done with. Maybe you’ve stepped in the little fishes next years brood stock, but you can’t see it in this morning’s dingy waters of the “Long Snake.”

The water born weed is growing phenomenally well. Old weed, the milfoil, is still under the surface. You know this as you retrieve your cast. The relatively newest weed, floats on the surface in strange strings, pointed and for some lazy reason, unidentified by name. Another nuisance you think at times, these buoyant weeds. But, as you view the small fry minnows leap and escape the larger feeding fish, you slowly come to the conclusion that this unnamed and pointed floating weed mat, may be somewhat of a good thing. If you were a half inch minnow and ever needed to escape a five inch bass, this weed could probably spare your demise.

Carp thrash loudly and unexpectedly up and down the weedy shore. At least you hope it’s carp and not the fabled Dakwa of the Cherokee. You find it somewhat difficult to pay attention to fishing when this loud eruption is close. Surely the eerie and deadly Dakwa followed the Cherokee west. This discount of an old myth can easily be shattered when an Alligator Gar as long as your leg silently glides silently by your waist when you find yourself waist deep in the dingy “Long Snake.”

This small bit of cheap excitement is even more pronounced when these speckled, long and mean looking animals, slowly collide with your leg unseen. A bump suddenly followed by the monster frantically spraying you with the splash of their long flashy tails. You’ve read media accounts of real alligators in this long winding river. Way west of here they say. Who can really trust the media now days? Your heart stops, then starts again. Composure returning, takes a while longer.

There was a time when these fish were a target. ’Trash’ was the common acronym for these large fish then. Bows and arrows were the tackle. Carp and Gar were stuck to death in the shallows of May by the bushel, in that era of hunting and gathering. Now, after a long bit of reflection, you consider it a sad sort of waste that it once was.

Focus is now on the crispy plate of Shell Cracker and big Bluegill filets. Sweet meat, fried to perfection. Floating fish baskets of easy to catch and hard to filet colorful little brawlers. Pound for pound, hard charging, hand sized, brilliantly colored trophies, who can’t resist the worms unearthed from your tomato beds the night before. A small bonus of undersized but aerobatic Bass from time to time, struggle most valiantly to hand.

This is as easy fishing as May can offer up. Easy groceries, if they weren’t so difficult to de-bone. Success comes by the basket, making your old ego proud that you can consider yourself a successful fisherman for once.

Maybe the dreaded and feared, canoe long, blue bellied, dog headed Dakwa of the Cherokee, is still roaming today in the “Long Snake”. Maybe you thought you once saw it.

Does an old Cherokee myth about a river monster really matter in May?

“Myths are stories that express meaning, morality or motivation. Whether they are true or not is irrelevant.” - Michael Shermer


WOMR note: If you’ve ever wondered why, or how, Chattanooga is the way it is, how it got to where it is today, where it came from, or how, when, or who, came up with the name Chattanooga. The mystery has been painstakingly solved in my estimation. I humbly submit that Dean W. Arnold expansively nailed it all in his book, “Old Money, New South - the Spirit of Chattanooga.” I’ll call it required reading for all inquisitive Chattanoogans.

Send comments to whiteoakmtnranger@gmail.com

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