Issue 22: Radiant

Joseph M. Pierce

Reading time: 9 minutes



Dayunisi's turn

Dayunisi is the protagonist of a myth of Cherokee origin, Joseph M. Pierce proposes this little beetle, capable of navigating between worlds, as an ancestral guide to understand our queer/cuir/cuyr and dissident becomings

Among the Cherokee people we have an origin story that I would like to share. The text below was told by Sequoyah
Guess to Christopher Teuton, both citizens of the Cherokee Nation, and is an abbreviated version of what is usually a longer, more detailed narration.[1] I think it is important to relate this version to show some of its crucial elements. The story goes like this:

A long time ago
the earth was covered with water.
And on this water
a giant turtle
And on the back of the turtle was us,
the people.
And the people kept getting more and
until there was so many people that
they started falling off the sides.
Well, Unetlvnv, the Creator,
saw what was happening so he told
the water beetle to dive down
and bring up a speck of mud.
And so the water beetle dove down to
the bottom,
brought up this little speck of mud.
But as soon as it hit air,
that speck of mud started spreading
And, the people, they sent out
the giant buzzard.
To fly and find a dry spot.
And Suli flew all over the world.
And he started getting tired.
And, as he started getting tired,
he kept getting lower and lower to the

And, when he’d flap his wings whenever
he’d go down,
that’s where the valleys were formed.
Whenever they’d come up,
that’s where the mountains were
And so finally, Suli got back to the turtle.
And he told ‘em there was no dry land
So the people waited a while again
and finally they sent a raven.
And it went out and it stayed out for a
long time.
Finally, it came back and it had a
branch in its mouth.
And that told the people that the mud
was dry enough to step on
Now, so.
So the turtle landed and the people
walked off.[2]

Water Beetle is called Dayunisi in Tsalagi, the Cherokee language. They have the ability to descend into the primordial sea and return with a small piece of mud that expands to create the land we now inhabit. When the Earth finally solidifies and both people and animals can descend from Turtle’s back, life begins on what is called Elohi, the land—the world in between, which is suspended between the Above World, Galunlati, and the Below World, Elati.

I wonder what Dayunisi felt as they dove into the water. I wonder if they ever doubted themselves as the light dissipated into an elemental, withering darkness. Or perhaps they knew that their body had everything required to fulfill what was asked of them, what the people needed to survive.
We live in gratitude knowing that we depend on animals, non-humans, and more-than-humans. Not only do we depend on them for our survival, but because the very land that gave us origin is a gift from Dayunisi. The Earth, Elohi, does not exist without Dayunisi. Human beings (we call ourselves Aniyunwiya) do not exist without Elohi.

Our creation story varies, but it always depends on one crucial moment: Dayunisi’s turn. It is this moment that I want to emphasize here; to rescue it as a queer, dissident flash in the center of our cosmogony. I say queer/cuir (or cuyr, as Diego Falconí suggests) knowing that it is perhaps an impossible, incommensurable translation; knowing that the Cherokee origin story does not seem to invoke a dissident practice, reality, or desire.[3] But I say queer also thinking that sometimes epistemologies overlap, generating frictions that reverberate beyond a single moment, a single body. I say queer, then, thinking that when Dayunisi dives into the water, they generate capillary waves that break the primordial silence, murmurings of a future yet to come. That gesture, when wel ook at it refracted by Dayunisi’s utopian emergence from the sea, could signal the beginning of a partial, in-process understanding of our own Indigenous histories, but also our queer/cuir/cuyr, dissident, or (as Néstor Perlongher might say) minoritarian becomings.[4]

And yet, Latin American dissident criticism, as well as queer approaches from the English-speaking world, are not able to fully grasp Dayunisi’s gesture. The Cherokee world is the product of a juxtaposition that has no correlation in a Western paradigm. Dayunisi’s gesture, when they touch the bottom of all that exists, clashes with Western taxonomies and binarisms. (In case it is not clear, I am referring to the precise moment when Dayunisi touches the bottom of the sea, grabs the mud, and turns around, turning upward—a return that is at the same time a beginning.) There is no way to explain what that moment of change represents, when the Above World and the Below World constitute each other, and the balance of the World Between is created. I only have suggestions, approximations. But I do not mean that it is impossible to think with and through the frictions, the undulations, that Dayunisi generates with their body. Here I am imagining a refractory gaze, an approach that generates tension—like the water tension ruptured by Dayunisi—between different worlds that at first glance do not touch, and yet fundamentally need each other.

In this story there is a drive toward the unknown, toward the future. But this future is the product of a series of mediations between forces in relation, a constitutive relationality that is more than a sex/gender difference, and is more than queer/cuir/cuyr.

Dayunisi establishes relationships that generate knowledge, and that knowledge is not simply limited to one people, one moment, one body. It expands.

In the Cherokee tradition, the relationship between primordial forms —water, earth, air—is shown through Dayunisi, who lives between worlds. They transcend the limits of the Western drive to partition spheres of life. Dayunisi transgresses normativity. They do not live only in water or only on land, but, cosmologically, in between. Dayunisi, who made it possible for us to live on Earth, is a liminal creature, dwelling across the threshold between worlds. They transit this liminality not because they have to, but because it is, precisely, their nature. Living between worlds is their norm.

If this is how the world was born, then let us imagine that Dayunisi is a model for we who traverse spheres of gender, desire, or simply, life. A model at the center of everything, at the crucial moment when all that exists begins to be what it was meant to be—what it will become. The key element is the capacity to transit, to balance, between forms of life, densities, and materialities. We are the result of what Dayunisi dreamed in that exact moment, when their hand touched the basic matter of the world before it was possible to imagine it as such.

A world in the process of creation, worlding. Dayunisi’s turn is a reminder of the promise of ancestral time opening into the future, a luminous glissando between worlds.

Dayunisi’s turn, underwater, instantiates a process that does not obey normative temporality (neither cis nor hetero nor capitalist nor patriarchal), but is itself a becoming world that characterizes this sacred story. And thus, Dayunisi is an ancestral guide for those of us who refuse colonial gender norms, who, in our bodies, desires, dreams, and in-betweens, also generate worlds.

When in the flow of history, punctuated by bodily becomings, does a gesture that never began, but which has always been emerging, come to an end? What I mean is: we are that end, the continuation of that emergence that is not really an end, but an ongoing—we are the ripples in the ocean, expanding.

My intention here is not to dwell on the opacity of this story, but to ask about the lessons that Dayunisi is leaving us in their effort to create the world.

We, their effervescent kin, should also understand that with our bodies we generate worlds.

My thinking here is influenced by an important critique of dissident corporealities by Cherokee literary scholar Daniel Heath Justice, who details a “theory of the anomalous.” This theory refers to entities (both human and non-human) within the Cherokee cultural system that transit more than one world or more than one social or bodily category. As Justice proposes, “Neither good nor evil, potentially helpful or harmful to established social categories and hierarchies, the anomalous body in pre- (and sometimes post-) Christian Southeastern traditions represents profound powers and transformative possibility”.[5] By anomalous, Justice is referring to animals such as the bat and the flying fox (mammals that can fly), the bear (who can walk on two legs like humans), or hybrid beings such as the flying snake (Uktena in Tsalagi) which is similar to the Mexica Queztalcoatl. The anomaly of these beings lies in their capacity to link worlds, bodies, and knowledge through their liminality or multiplicity.

Although Justice does not mention Dayunisi in his text, they are an anomalous being. Their nature is, precisely, being able to transit between two worlds—water and earth—and even between the not yet and the everything. In fact, Dayunisi is the first anomalous being, the first example of transience that is necessary for the foundation of the world. Elohi, it is worth repeating, emerges from cosmic nothingness because Dayunisi was able to do what the other beings could not: exist between worlds.

Again, the emergence of the Earth depends on a being that has the capacity to transit between worlds and in their transit, in their gliding between above and below, between nothingness and everything, resides the power of our bodies, also anomalous, inexorable in their quotidian mutability, in their becoming.

This essay insinuates a possibility—that everything depends on a turn, on the precise moment when the earth emerges from water, touching air, becoming Elohi, the world. However, if the origin of everything is the result of anomaly, of a being that can transit between worlds, liminal transience should have a privileged place in politics as well as in culture (it does not yet, but it should). If there is something that this sacred story of Cherokee origins teaches us, it is that creation itself is the inescapable product of a continuity, a gesture, a becoming. We bear witness to constant transformation; a transitory, fleeting, and luminous process of creation.

Dayunisi: non-binary ancestor, liminal, humble, and at the same time, essential for the very creation of the world we inhabit.


  1. The version of the story collected by anthropologist James Mooney at the end of the nineteenth century is perhaps the most popular and standardized version. See: James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee (New York: Dover, 1995), 239-240.

  2. See: Christopher B. Teuton, ed., Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars’ Club (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 38-40.

  3. See: Diego Falconí Trávez, “La heteromaricageneidad contradictoria como herramienta crítica cuy(r) en las literaturas andinas.” Revista interdisciplinaria de estudios de género de El Colegio de México 7, no. 1 (2021): 1-39,

  4. See: Néstor Perlongher, “Los devenires minoritarios,” in Prosa Plebeya: Ensayos 1980-1992, ed. Christian Ferrer and Osvaldo Baigorria (Colihue: Buenos Aires, 1997), 65-75.

  5. In Justice, Daniel Heath. “Notes toward a Theory of Anomaly.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 16(1-2). 2010:207-242. Quote from page 220.


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