Is The Uktena Tribe Real On 'Riverdale'? The Show Explores A Piece Of Native American Folklore
Mild spoilers ahead for Riverdale Season 2, Episode 11, "The Wrestler." On this week's episode of Riverdale, Jughead discovers that the Northside/Southside feud traces back to Native American history, and you might be surprised to know that the Uktena tribe on Riverdale is real. Well, sort of. The tribe itself isn't real per se, but it does seem to be based on actual folklore.
On Riverdale, Jughead learns the Serpents were founded upon the traditions of the Uktena, a Native American people who originally lived on the land now known as Riverdale. Several decades ago, they were slaughtered by an enemy troop led by General Pickens — a man whose statue still stands proudly in the town's park. He was hired by none other than Barnabus B. Blossom, Cheryl's great-great-great-grandfather, to attack the Uktena and remove them from their land, massacring 400 people in the process. Ever year, on Pickens Day, Riverdale honors the general rather than making amends for what he did.
One of the last remaining descendants of the Uktena is Toni's grandfather, who passes on his ancestors' tale to Jughead when he comes to interview him for a school research project. When his grandpa died, Mr. Topaz says, they formed the Serpents in order to keep their family together, and gradually, it expanded into the gang it is today. Jughead asks why no one seems to know about the Uktena, and Toni sighs, "It's called the whitewashing of history, Jones."
That alone is a close mirror for U.S. history, in which patriotic triumph has often been prioritized over all else. In actuality, much of the country was built in the same manner as Riverdale: By forcing Native Americans off of their land in order to make way for white settlers, sometimes by brutal and violent means. Take, for example, the events that led to the Trail of Tears. Some 125,00 Native Americans lived across the southeastern U.S. at the start of the 1830s, but by the end of the decade, very few remained. Aided by Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act, the federal government ordered natives to migrate from their homelands to a designated territory thousands of miles away — a devastating and dangerous journey that claimed the lives of many.
Beyond that, though, the concept of Uktena also has roots in Native American mythology. As detailed by the University of Arkansas' archeology department, Cherokee legend tells of a serpent called Uktena, a monstrous creature with wings on its back and horns on its head. It appears in numerous fables, but details vary from tribe to tribe. Anthropologist James Mooney describes it as the following in his 1992 book, History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees:
"Those who know say that the Uktena is a great snake, as large around as a tree trunk, with horns on its head, and a bright, blazing crest like a diamond upon its forehead, and scales glittering like sparks of fire ... The blazing diamond is called Ulun'suti, "Transparent," and he who can win it may become the greatest wonder worker of the tribe, but it is worth a man's life to attempt it, for whoever is seen by the Uktena is so dazed by the bright light that he runs toward the snake instead of trying to escape."
It's unclear how the Uktena translates to Riverdale's Serpents aside from the fact that it happens to be a snake, but it certainly helps to advance the plot. After Jughead (misguidedly) writes an article exposing Riverdale's sordid past, the Serpents decide to take a stand and launch a protest during the Pickens Day celebration, showing the Northside that they won't be going anywhere, no matter how hard they try to erase them.
And on a lighter note, it also helps to fulfill showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's promise to "get back to the basics," as he told Entertainment Weekly in December. After a season and a half spent navigating dangerous crimes, Jughead is exploring one of the core tenets of being a rebellious teen: political activism.