We know that Native stories, what we call oral history now, were history of our lands and peoples. Many were also teaching lessons for children. Their parents and elders in the tribes would set aside time in the winter time, usually at night to tell stories land, how it was formed, the strange animals, the existence of previous races of talking animals and their trials and troubles. Many of these stories were designed to teach the children how to act and how to stay safe when growing up and traveling around their land. Many others were told to answer the questions of how the people got there, and who they were in relation to their environment. Most of the stories told everyone that they were part of something larger than they. One such story is from the Luckimute.
Chuchounyhoof, The Goblin of the Coast Range
The Luckamiute Indians were a tribe of Kalapuya Indians living west of Salem, their homelands centered around the Luckamiute river. One of the early settlers to the region, Jesse Applegate, was a boy in about 1844 when he lived among the Luckamiute. He copied down his adventures later in a book he called “Recollections of a Boyhood”. His family had settled for a time at Salt Creek west of the town of Dallas and he had many adventures with the local tribal peoples. He recorded a part of a legend of the tribe which he heard from his native friends. He found they were afraid of a goblin in the Coast range, Chuchounyhoof. His entry about this goblin continues,
There was a very dangerous goblin in the Coast Mountains, whose awful name was Chuchounyhoof. When we expressed no fear saying we would shoot him if we found him, just as we would shoot a deer or a bear, they said, “Wake klietan kokshot. Skin hyas kull kahwa chickamin,” that is, “His hide is bulletproof; it is hard as iron.” (note- Chickamin is a term for money, so this likely suggests his hide was hard as (metal) money) Our parents did not seem to regard this story as of any consequence; they said it was only an Indian superstition. But my training in the school in the Old Mission had developed the bump of curiosity in my head and I absorbed this story eagerly. I had seen that there was an evil spirit roaming about this earth, and I thought this goblin the Indians told us of might be it. I interviewed many Indians on the subject, but gained little information. I discovered that the low caste natives truly believed in the existence of the goblin and were frightened by it. Their priest, Dickadowdow, said that to fall into the hands of Chuchounyhoof would be a fearful thing.
Although slow in making the discovery, I eventually learned that there existed among the natives a professional class possessed of all the learning not considered necessary in the day to day affairs of life. These professors were known in the Chinook language as “Lamachin,” that is, medicine men or doctors. … They were supposed to be learned in the law and in every branch of a religious or superstitious character. I became acquainted with two or three professionals. But when I introduced Chuchounyhoof as a text to be expounded, I found them averse to discussing the subject without assurance that I was not prompted by idle curiosity.
That is the extent of what we know of this goblin. Because of this goblin, the Luckamiute would not travel into the Coast Range. When two of the Applegate brothers did so and stayed overnight in the range, and returned safely, the Native people were much impressed. Interestingly, this story from the Luckamiute Kalapuyan peoples does not appear to have influenced the more northern Tualatin Kalapuyans. The Tualatin were known to travel over the coast range to visit the Clatsop to trade for ocean products and fishes like salmon and smelt.
This story seemed remarkably similar to stories from other tribes of monsters and demons who lived at the tops of mountains. The Klamath would not go to Crater Lake because of a story of the place being taboo, even while within their oral histories is an account of seeing the formation of Crater Lake. The Klamath story is told as a fight between Shasta and Mazama. Mazama lost and the top of the mountain fell inside the crater. The eyewitness account from about 7000 years ago tells us much of the permanency of tribal residence in the region.
The account of the way in which Crake Lake was formed, was verified by geologists in the 1950s, some 50 years after the story was collected by anthropologists. This independent verification suggests that native oral histories are accurate tellings of geological events in the past. This suggests that Native oral histories need to be looked at in different ways, not just as moral or ethical mythological explanations of the world and how it was formed, by peoples who “made up” stories to explain the things they see around them, but the true history of their region of the world. Then if this story is accurate other stories may, in fact, be accounts of events in Native history and need to reanalyzed and reconceptualized for us to understand them today.
Beaver, the changer
Several other stories tell of the formation of their land. These land-changing stories, or changer stories, are known in various forms by many tribes. One such changer story is that of Beaver, a giant, who created the Columbia Gorge by walking down the river and dragging his tail behind him. The Beaver story is both about how the ecosystem of the Columbia was created and about how people came into the land. The river is an important fishing area for the tribes in the region. The manner in which Beaver changes the land is very reminiscent of the more recent glacial story of the region, where geologists have said that about 7000-12000 years ago, the Missoula floods, a massive glacial dam broke flooding the lower river valleys, and bringing with it the topsoils of eastern Washington into the Willamette Valley. This event may have happened several times according to geologists. Beaver is well-known as a powerful river manipulator and maker of dams, and his monstrous version may very well represent the climactic event of breaking of the glacial dam which carved out the gorge and changed the region forever. And in
Beaver is well-known as a powerful river manipulator, maker of dams and ecosystems behind the dams. The beaver was very plentiful in Oregon in the early 19th century and attracted several fur trade companies to establish trading forts in Oregon and yielded many thousands of furs to the trade for a half century. Beavers were eradicated in such numbers that it is difficult to envision today what Oregon was like when the animal reigned the rivers and creeks of Oregon, creating thousands of ecosystems behind his dams. The animals work created much of the wealth of Oregon by slowing down waterways and creating places for salmon to spawn, extremely diverse ecosystems of plants animals, fished, and waterfowl throughout al, parts of the land. The manner in which beavers slowed water runoff is so efficient that in some places today, like in California, there is talk of reintroducing the beavers to the Sierra foothills so they might naturally slow down the rivers and creeks and preserve water in the state.
His monstrous version may very well have caused the climactic event of breaking of the glacial dam which carved out the gorge and changed the region forever. And in fact, such an event would have scattered the tribes, like the parts of the Beaver, to all areas around the Columbia. This story would have been a great educational tale for all of the children in the region. They would then understand and respect the land and how it was formed and perhaps see how other tribes are related to them in some way. Respect for the animals and land and its power to was part of Native life. People would have ceremonies for weeks at a time, in the winters, where stories of important history would be told. These stories were owned by families, and traded and storytellers, historians of the tribes, would be groomed from an early age to learn and tell their histories without alteration. These important people would carry the history of their people, and the tribes carried their history forward in this manner for many thousands of years.
There are many stories of Beaver among North West Tribes. Another story of Beaver (Monsterous Beaver Wishpoosh) has him in a great fight with Coyote (Chinook) Their fighting created the Columbia Gorge and when Coyote wins, he scatters the parts of Beaver to create the many tribes of peoples in the area. The Chinook version mentions a great dam holding back a monstrous lake, and the dam is broken by their fighting. The dam may be a glacial ice-dam, and the huge lake would then be the waters of Lake Missoula which carried topsoils into the Willamette Valley.
Some stories of monstrous humanlike creatures are common for the region. Such is that of the Stick Indians. Native stories of Stick Indians and notions of the “Sticks” are the likely origin of this expression in America today. Some oral histories represent Stick Indians as fierce and wild humans who were to be avoided. They were known to have magical powers, screamed in strange ways, and kidnapped women and children. It is possible that there were scattered tribal groups who living in the “Sticks”, the forest, and were fierce to the villagers. In tribes, if people did evil or broke laws, they may be cast out of the tribe. These outcasts may have sought to kidnap or kill village people out of revenge or in a desire to create their own tribe. There was a commonly known tradition in the region of some tribes that raided other tribes to kidnap people for slavery. In this manner, potential wives could be captured, or laborers could be gotten freely, rather than through expensive trades. Nevertheless, stories of the Stick Indians would have been terrifying to children, cautioning them against wandering alone at night in the forest.
These stories might be accessing older histories of the tribes where there were migrations of native people throughout the land. These migrations would consist of groups of questing native peoples who would be homeless and landless for a time. They would be looking for an area to settle and call home. In this region, there was movement of tribes every few thousand years. Some time ago, the Molalla moved into the Cascades and the Klickitat moved westward, pushed there by the plateau peoples. Many of the Athapaskans tribes moved into the region relatively recently, perhaps 800-1200 years ago. Tolowa stories address their voyage by canoes from the frozen north to land in Northern California. From there they spread out. Most of the tribes were relatively stable in the region, but as climactic events occurred, environments changed, new areas were colonized, new technologies discovered, and changes came to the tribes.
Among many tribes there are stories of monsters in lakes. They are part of most tribal traditions.
They instill fear in all Indians, which is perhaps why many native people did not like to swim.
One set of stories is from the Tualatin Kalapuyans. These people inhabited the Tualatin valley, an eastern section of the Willamette Valley. The Tualatins were a powerful tribe with good connections with the Clackamas peoples, and strong leaders. Many of their people inhabited some 20 villages and towns in the vicinity of Wapato Lake. The lake was perhaps the largest resource of wapato, Indian potato, in the region. The tribal women would lever up wapato bulbs from the bottom of the lake and into their canoes as a principal food resource. The lake is gone now, drained to make way for agriculture.
The Tualatin people have a story of the Water Being (Amu’lukw) who lived in Wapato Lake. This being would periodically come out of the water and was large enough to eat the leaves at the top of trees. They say it had a big horn and was spotted and would sometimes kidnap children. Instilling fear of what lurks in the depths of lakes helps to encourage young people not to venture too far into the water.
The Santiam Kalapuya people lived in the central Willamette valley and were perhaps the most powerful tribe in the valley. When treaty negotiators came to Champoeg, the Santiam leaders were so powerful that the other Kalapuya tribes joined with them and allowed them to negotiate all of their treaties. They held out for a permanent reservation in the center of their vast area, an area that encompassed Salem, Albany and Brownsville. Their seasonal hunting camps would take them into the Cascades and there they would camp in forest meadows near lakes and rivers. They have a story of an Elk Monster who lived in the lake. The Elk Monster was large enough that a grown man could stand inside its ribcage. The story tells us that one day The Elk Monster came from the depths of a lake and a young man shot arrows at it and killed it. He told his grandfather about the dead Elk-like monster and the men went back the next day and camped in the hollow of its ribcage. They cooked the monster from inside out. As they did this the waters began to rise and the area began to flood, forcing the people to higher ground.
We do not know today of such creatures in the forest. But we do know that in the distant past our peoples may have hunted the megafauna with large spear points of obsidian. They used spears and atlatls to hunt down and kill these monster animals and/or to protect themselves from these monsters, many of whom may have been extremely dangerous. Archaeological theories suggest that Native people hunted megafauna to extinction; other theories suggest that a meteorite caused their demise. Somewhere in my studies there was discussion of the fact that a pygmy variety of Mammoth survived on an island in the north Pacific until just a few hunted years ago, Regardless, These stories tell us about the experiences of the native people who have lived in this area, the Willamette valley and in associated river valleys for about 15,000 years. This is about 50,000 generations of our people. The stories may be the experiences of our long ago ancestors as they encountered the last of the megafauna. They are at times combined with stories of catastrophic events in the history of the people. The Elk Monster encounter is combined with a flood, which caused changes to the way people lived thereafter.
These nearly racial memories of strange and monstrous creatures from sometime long ago help us to understand that people then were trying to make sense of the world around them. Unexplainable events were caused by something equally monstrous and inexplicable. In addition, a ray of truth exists for all of these stories. The fact that native people knew about monstrous creatures, by either listening to stories from their own storytellers or seeing the skeletal remains of the megafauna erupting from the earth and imagining the creature who might have inhabited the bones. Regardless, the stories tell us that native peoples were just as imaginative and interested in explaining the inexplicable as people today.
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Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.