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Agan-uni'tsi's Quest for the Ulunsuti

A Cherokee Legend

Hilahiyu jigesv -- in ancient times -- in one of their battles with the Shawano (Shawnee), the Tsalagi captured a medicine man named Agan-uni'tsi, "Ground-hog's Mother." Now, the People used to say that all the Shawano were magicians, and whether that was literally true or not, this Agan-uni'tsi was a very powerful medicine man and a clever fellow. He spoke very good Tsalagi, a bit of Lenape, and knew a few bad words in Chickasaw.

When the People dragged him to the center of the camp and tied him to a pole, meaning to give him the slow death of the captured warrior, he of course began to recite his exploits and brag about his many great feats of sorcery, healing, and so on. He said that the Tsalagi would be fools to kill him, that he would undertake a great work for them if spared, and agree to die if he failed. One of the Tsalagi warriors got right up in Agan-uni'tsi's face and said, "What if I asked you to bring back the Ulun'suti, the jewel in the head of the Uktena?" This made some of the other warriors laugh -- they knew well how impossible and dangerous this was, and that Agan-uni'tsi would not live a whole lot longer hunting the Uktena than undergoing torture. But the Shawano wise man was confident, and had heard all the lore of the Uktena. So his face did not change as he said, "I will bring you the Ulun'suti, or die trying, or meet you back here in three moons to sing my death song." The leader of the war party took a long look at Agan-uni'tsi and then sliced his bonds. He gave instructions to supply the Shawano with corn for the journey and the best bow that could be spared. Agan-uni'tsi lost no time setting off.

He hunted his way up into the passes of the Smoky Mountains, along the North side of the Tsalagi country, where there were many dark and lonely places in which an Uktena might lie in wait for four-footed or two-footed prey. He began to see many strange things. A black snake larger and longer than any snake he had ever seen crossed his path, but he laughed at it, being in search of bigger things still. Near a Tsalagi village he passed an enormous green snake, and called the people to see "the pretty salikwayi." A few people came up, saw the enormous snake coiled in the path, and ran back down in fear. Laughing, Agan-uni'tsi continued on his way. He knew his guides were showing him the way, and he walked tall and sang his magic songs.

He saw a great lizard on top of Bald Mountain, and a frog the size of a bear as he came down the South side of the mountain, and he kept seeing more strange and monstrous reptiles, so he continued on South. He looked into a deep pool on Hiwassee, a place called Tlanusiyi, the Leech place, because people said many strange things had been seen there, but although he saw big turtles, and two enormous sun perch swam up to him and then dodged away, he came away from the Leech place with nothing but leeches.

Time was moving on swiftly, he had traveled almost a moon, and was due back within three. So he moved faster, checking all the likely places, asking all the people he met for news of the Uktena, or leads to likely places, because he had never been so deep into Tsalagi lands before. Every morning when he rose from his little bit of sleep, his nose would tingle when he looked South, so on he would go.

One fine hot morning he strode up the North side of Gahuti Mountain (this is in Murray County, Georgia, just so you know how far Agan-uni'tsi walked) and all his senses were alert. His whole body was tingling and a crystal in his medicine pouch was hot against his chest. He stopped and strung his bow, and walked on very quietly. He followed a bend in the trail and came right up near the Uktena, which was fast asleep. Without his strong medicine, even this sight would have caused death in his family or to him. He ran swiftly but silently down the slope until he found a level spot with plenty of soil. Here he dug a circular trench and piled pine cones and branches around it, enough to burn for a long time. He lit the fire. Then running back up the trail, he circled around the monster until he had a good shot at the seventh spot back from its head, which is the only place a shot will kill the beast. Agan-uni'tsi made his shot cleanly, the arrow going deep into the serpent's side. It raised its head, the diamond in front flashing fire, and came straight at Agan-uni'tsi, who turned and ran full speed down the mountain with the mortally wounded Uktena after him.

Agan-uni'tsi did not look back to see the Uktena roll over and die, but raced down until he could leap over the fire and the trench and lie flat on the ground in the center. The Uktena thrashed around, spitting poison all over the mountainside, but the drops did not pass the hot fire, burning up harmlessly except for one drop that landed on the magician's forehead. He did not even feel it. The monster's heart pumped dark poisonous blood down the slope, but it collected in the trench and did not touch Agan-uni'tsi. The monster finally stopped moving, caught on tree trunks not far from the bottom of the hill.

Agan-uni'tsi called all the birds of the forest, and they feasted on the corpse for seven days until it was all gone.

A raven started to carry away the Ulunsuti, which was all that was left, but left it on a low branch when he saw the magician coming. Agan-uni'tsi wrapped it carefully in a piece of deerskin and returned to the Tsalagi town in triumph. He stayed with the People and true to the prophecy became a great wonder-worker and fortune-teller. Everyone noticed the small snake that grew from his forehead where the Uktena's venom had hit, but for the rest of his life he never saw it or knew it was there. He passed the Ulunsuti on to a Tsalagi medicine man when he died, and it was kept hidden for several generations, and then buried with the last man who knew how to control it.

Where the blood of the Uktena filled the trench, a lake formed, which was always black, and women dyed cane splits for baskets in it.

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