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The International Folk-Lore Congress of the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, July, 1893/Legendary Lore of the Coast Tribes of Northwestern America



In this paper my field of research extends from the Columbia River, northwest, following the coast lines bordering the State of Washington, through British Columbia, north into Alaska as far as the Stickeen.

This division embraces the following nations, with their tribes. The Whull-e-mooch (Dwellers on Whull), Puget Sound, and their kindred. The Mis-tee-mooch (Island people) on Vancouver's Island, with their various tribes. Next them come the Guguals, with their various tribes and dialects, on Vancouver Island and mainland. Next to them, on the islands of British Columbia and Alaska, come the Haidas. Eastward, on the mainland of British Columbia, the Simshean, with their various tribes, on Naas and Skeena rivers and elsewhere. Next them, in Alaska, is the great Klingat nation, with its tribes. While speaking of the above mentioned, I shall chiefly treat of the Haidas and Alaskans, because they have a better and more copious legendary lore, if it may be so called, because it is entirely made up of tales bearing on the works of nature and of their family crests. Of the latter I shall first give a few.

Through many ages it has been customary, while seated around the evening fires, for the old people to tell stories for the amusement of the young folks, and in answer to questions on numerous natural subjects, such as the following, with regard to the beginning of the world, the old folks would be asked by whom, when and how was the world at first made. In answer to these, the following was always told.

At the beginning, where this world now is, nothing biit darkness of the very densest existed. A darkness on which the god Ne-kilst-lass, in the form of a raven, brooded over through


eons of ages, until his wings beat it down to solid earth. After the earth became solid, the light shed upon it was so dim and hazy that nothing could be seen distinctly, so the god, whose design was to prepare the earth for the abode of sentient beings, was ever ready to take advantage of conditions. Seeing that before the new-made world could be worth anything it wanted light. Knowing that a chief whose name was Sathling-ki-juss had all the light in three boxes, he was determined to obtain them. Knowing that this chief had a daughter, he was determined to get into the family, and by these means obtain the boxes, so turning himself into the leaf of a spruce tree, he floated on the water she drank and he was swallowed by her; so in due season she bore a son, who was none other than Ne-kilst-lass. He soon grew up to be a sturdy boy, and became a favorite with the old man, who doted on his grandchild. One day he asked his grandfather for one of the boxes to play with; this he flatly refused to grant. Again, after a while he asked, with no better results. Being determined to have them, he made an uproar and gave the old man no peace until he finally granted his request. Happening to get hold of the one which held the sun, after playing with it a while, he broke it and let out the sun, which he placed in the heavens, giving light to the whole world as a consequence.

Having gained the sun, he set his plans to get the moon and stars. Knowing well he could not play the old game, he thought of another. Learning that the old chief had gone up the Naas to catch Oolachans (when he went fishing he usually took the moon with him, in order to fish by night) Ne-kilst-lass,—or as I shall call him, Yethel (the raven god), because, wherever he went over the face of the earth, he turned himself into a raven, consequently, he was better known by the name of Yethel or Yale,—in order to visit Sathling-ki-juss, took a canoe. Going along he saw a heron or crane feasting on Oolachans. In order to get the fish, he told the crane that his friend the shag was treacherous to him and he should not trust him. This the shag denied; a quarrel ensued which ended in a fight, during which the crane vomited up the fish. These he took, and after rubbing his canoe with them, went on to meet the old chief. When he met him, he asked him where he had been. "Catching fish," he replied, "like yourself," showing the scales on his canoe. Before going he made a false moon and hid it under his wings. "If you have been fishing," said the chief, "how did you see?" "Do not think," Yale replied, "you have all the moons. I have one of my own as good as yours, see," he said, showing a little of the moon under his wings. Believing he had the only moon and stars in the world, he became so disgusted that he would have no more to do with them. Seeing this, Yale took them, first putting the moon in the heavens, then the stars, where they have been ever since.

His next step was to form rivers as soon as he could get it from a chief Kanook, the wolf, who had all the fresh water in the world. This also he stole, and flew over the earth, letting a drop fall in various places, from which large rivers began to flow. His next step was to put fish in these rivers. These he stole from Sing the beaver, and put in the new-made rivers. And so with others through all his works of creation. He also stole fire from a chief and gave it to the world. This is how the Alaskans first got their fire. The people further south tell a different tale. Long ago, they say, all the fire in the world was owned by a little bird, who kept it on its tail. All the people ate their food raw, and kept themselves warm by living in holes in the rocks and ground.

One day the people were sitting round eating deer meat, raw as usual, when this bird came along. After flying around it drew near, and said: "Why do you eat your food raw?" "Because," they replied, "we know of no other way." "I am sorry for you all," replied the little bird. "To-morrow, if all of you meet me here, each one of you bringing a few sticks of Chnmuch (pitch wood) I will give you all something which will be a great benefit to you and your children, forever. This will be Hieuc (fire); it is on my tail; all you have to do is to place your chumnch on it, after you catch me, but remember you can only have it conditionally. You must have got some good and noble action." Next morning all of the people were there, and so was the bird. "When all was ready; "I go," said the little bird. So off it went, all following helter-skelter, onward over hills and dales, through bush and swamp, some falling over rocks and trees, some breaking their shins. Others turned back, saying anything so fraught with danger and trouble was not worth having. At last one man overtook it, saying: "Birdy, give me your fire." "No," it said, "you are too selfish. So long as you are right yourself, you care not for other people." So away it flew. Another man came up saying: "Birdy, give me your fire. I have been a good man and kind." "I believe you," said the bird, "no doubt you are kind enough, but you brought your friend to grief by stealing his wife. So you cannot have any fire from my tail." So on went the bird, few following, until it came to a woman nursing a poor old sick man. It flew directly to her, saying: "Good woman, bring your chumuch, and put it on my tail, you are welcome to the fire." "I cannot do it," said the woman, "I am not worthy of such a boon. I have done no good action that would make one deserving of it." "You have," said the bird. "You are always doing good, thinking it only your duty. Take the fire; it will, if you take care of it, serve you and your posterity forever. So she took the fire, and gave it to her neighbors. So that is how the Whull-e-mooch got, at first, their fire.

There is another remarkable legend amongst the abovementioned people, which may be classed as a creation, myth, or legend, and as it has a remarkable bearing on the glacial period it is worthy of a place in this paper. It is as follows:

Long ago our fathers tell us the "Whullemooch lived a long way further South than we, their children, do now. They did not like the country they lived in, and wished to emigrate, but did not know where to go. Southward lived a people stronger than they; northward the country was a mass of snow and ice; eastward, because of the high mountains, the country was little better.

One time they were met to consider what was best to do, whether to go to war with their neighbors or to remain where they were. While the subject was under discussion, Spaul the raven god came amongst them and listened to their conversation. After a while he spake, thus: "I have heard your complaints, and know your wants. To one and all of you, I say, 'Remain where you are, and I will give you a beautiful land to the North.'"

So saying he took all the snow and ice which he turned into Pe-kullkun (mountain sheep) so named from Pe (white) and kullkun (an animal). So in time the Whull-e-mooch moved northward.

That at one time their country was full of ice and snow is proved by the numerous ice grooves, which every where abound on the numerous rock outcrops.

That these people should connect the ice grooves with the mountain sheep, is not apparent. In all my dealings with these people I never once heard these grooves ascribed to the action of ice. In fact, if asked what made them, they either said. We do not know, or else they never saw them before. That means, the presence of the grooves never drew their attention.

One fact there is, that this legend has passed down from the dim and misty ages of the past, whatever might have been its origin.

The Haida tribes on Queen Charlotte's Islands, B. C, have a remarkable legend, bearing on a period of glacial action. Scannahgunnuncus (hero of the Scannah or Finback whale crest or class) they say took a canoe and went up Hunnah river on that island. Being tired he went ashore and lay down; he had not rested long until he heard a noise up stream; going to see what caused it, was surprised to see a body of stones coming down, going to see the cause, he was more surprised to find a body of ice coming down and pushing everything before it. Seeing this he ran into the bush for safety. In the bush he found the trees cracking and breaking. Everything seemed to say to him. Go away, go away. Hearing this he made for his canoe as fast as he could and never stayed till he reached the open sea. At that time, they say there was far more water than there is now. They say that they could sail miles up rivers into which at high water only a canoe can enter. A few years ago I made a survey of this valley and found everywhere traces of glacial action. In fact the valley had been formed by local glacial action at a comparatively late period. There is a rather interesting legend current amongst these people. It is called Tow es tassin (Tow and his brother). And is as follows:

Long ago a round hill stood far up Masset Inlet. Somehow tradition does not tell, probably through volcanic action, this hill got split in two. Afterward these two hills took the names of Tow and his brother.

Prom where the brother stands down to the sea is Masset Inlet. From the lower part of this inlet to the mouth of Hiellen river is a low tract more or less filled with salt water. This inlet and these hollows were scooped out by the action of ice. Not viewing it in this light, the Haidas have the following legend: Long ago, and after Tow (food) got separated from his brother, he became dissatisfied because he could get no dogfish to eat. Learning of his dissatisfaction, Yale asked him what he wanted. To this. Tow replied he wanted dogfish, and if he could not get some he would not stay there. "Go then to Hiellen, and stay there," Yethel replied. So off he went, stopping at Hiellen where he has remained ever since.

What is remarkable, both show unmistakable evidence of being at one time one round hill two hundred and fifty feet in height, and divided by some means. Tow, on the east, presenting a steep face, up which nothing could climb; the brother presenting the same on the west.


Legends of this sort are purely local, each nation having a great flood of its own. A description of the floods of the Haidas of B. C. and the Klingat of Southern Alaska may be told in the account of a great flood given by a Haidah chief.

Long ago, he said, there was a great war between the Spirit of the Air and the Spirit of the Earth. The one of the air sent thunder and lightnings and rain. The one of the earth sent earthquakes and fire. The earth shook, heaved, and rent. Water rushed out of the cracks, the earth seemed to sink, and the sea rushed over the land. The people took to their canoes; some were lost in the wild waste of waters, others were lost by their canoes being struck by floating timber. As the waters rose, trees were drawn up from the shattered earth, striking the canoes underneath. A few canoe-loads gained a high mountain and were saved. On the dry ground afforded by the mountain they lived until the waters left, when they returned to their former homes; these they never found, owing to the change.

After wandering about a long while, they at length settled down on the best place they could find. Being few in number and downhearted for the loss of their relations, Yale came and said, " Don't be downhearted, you shall soon have plenty of company, pick up stones every one of you, and throw them backward over your heads." This they did, and as soon as they struck the ground they jumped up men and women; consequently, they soon had plenty of companions. In this legend there is a remarkable resemblance to the story of Deucalion in Greek mythology.

The Indians of the Sunnich tribe near Victoria, B. C, have a legend of a flood different from all others, as follows:

Long ago a great flood covered the whole country, excepting one high mountain, whose top alone was dry. To this high mountain the people fled in their canoes. After a while their provisions ran short, and all of them were beginning to feel bad, when one of them remembered he had tied his canoe with a very long rope, near his house in which were plenty of provisions; so this man and several others went to look for the canoe, which they found, floating at the end of the line. Having found the house, they sent down the sea otter to find the provisions and bring them up, which he did. By these means, they were able to live till the waters left.

I shall now briefly give a few stories of the crests, or clans.


Among these peoples, society was divided into crests, first represented by two great divisions or phratries,—the raven and the eagle. In some villages the raven was highest; in others, the eagle. The raven phratry had the wolf, bear, scannah, and a number of others; while the eagle had the eagle, frog, beaver, shark, and several others.

If a person belonged to the raven phratry he was, or she was, allowed to have the birds or animals belonging to that phratry tatooed on his or her body, but not those belonging to the eagles. The same rule applied to the eagles with regard to the ravens. Each of these phratries and crests appears to have had a legend, a few of which I shall give, beginning with the hero of the scannahs above quoted. Scannah gun nuncas had nine or ten brothers who one after the other went to find the queen of the Cowgans (wood-mice) and never returned. It is as follows:

Scannahgunnuncus himself, having gone to find the queen of the Cowgans, saw while walking along the seashore what he took to be a man standing on the edge of the woods. Wondering who the stranger was he called to him, but got no answer. He then went up to it in order to see what it was, found it to be a stump with a man's head on it. While looking at it, a voice said, "Take me down," he did so, and it suddenly turned into a man, and gave the following account of himself: "I am a man, I went to find the queen of the Cowgans. I got along with her maids, they led me on until I commenced to take liberties with them, and then as a punishment they turned me into a stump, in which condition I was to remain until Scannahgunnuncus came to break the enchantment. You are the man, and I am again free. You are looking for the palace of the beautiful queen of the Cowgans. If you follow my advice, you will find her; if you do not, you will share the fate of your brothers. Over that hill on a log you will find a lame mouse, help it along. Do not run after it; your brothers did so, and were killed. I am once more free, thanks, go and do as I tell you."

When our hero got on to the hill he found a log on which a lame mouse was trying to walk; as often as it tried, it fell off, so he picked it up and placed it on again. At last the mouse, who was not at all lame, came to him and said: "You are Scannahgunnuncus, the hero of the Scannahs; you are not a hero by name, but one in deed. You wish to find the lovely queen of the Cowgans, I will show you. Your brothers wished the same, but ran after me and tried to kill me and so got killed themselves. Come along." So the mouse, who was one of the queen's guards, led the way to the palace. After passing through long grass and timber, they came to a beautiful country in the midst of which the palace stood. "Yonder is her home," replied the guide. "I will show her to you." When they got inside they found her sitting spinning. The mouse introduced him to her, saying, "I have brought you Scannahgunnuncus, great hero of the Scannahs. He has long tried to find you." To this she replied: "Welcome Scannahgunnuncus, great hero of the Scannahs; I have often heard of you, thou friend of the Cowgans."

This is one of many legends of the Scannahs. The next I shall give is a story of the Simsheans of B. C, and is entitled the Daughter of the Sun.

Long ago two brothers took to themselves wives at the same time. In due season both of the wives were confined; the one gave birth to a son, the other to a daughter. The former was very plain, even ugly, but with a kindly disposition. The latter was very beautiful, but of a proud and haughty disposition. These two cousins, growing up together, began to have a liking for each other, more so the boy. As they grew up to manhood and womanhood he asked her to become his wife; this she refused, saying she did not want an ugly husband; still, because he truly loved her, he undoubtedly pressed his suit. She asked him to do many things for her, thinking he would become tired of her; but not so; still he cheerfully did for her all she wished.

One day he so pressed her, that she said. One thing I will ask you to do for me and that will be the last. Say what it is and I will do it, he replied. Then go and cut your hair close. She knew very well if he did this he would be despised by the rest of the tribe and classed with the slaves. This last request he did not like, but after all went and did it. Then came and showed himself to her. When she saw him she said. You fool! Do you think I would marry a slave; besides, you are too ugly for me. Think no more of me. So with a heavy heart he went away, and wandered aimlessly about, not caring to see any one, or to do anything.

Wandering onward he came to a house. Not caring to be seen, he was hurrying past when he was seen by a woman who lived within. As soon as she saw him she asked him to come and rest himself. No, he replied, let me go; I do not wish to live; and he told her the story of his slighted love. You have told me all your troubles, she replied. Come in and rest, and I will tell you what to do. So he came in. While resting, she said to him, You loved your pretty cousin. She is good-looking, but foolish and vain. You are plain in your looks, but a man at heart. You shall have a good wife, the daughter of the Sun, while your cousin shall make but a sorry match. When you are rested, and have had something to eat, I will show you the way. Which she did when he was ready to go. Do yon, she said, see that pathway leading onward from this house? Follow it till you find a high and steep mountain. When you get to the top of it, you will see a road which will take you to the house of the Sun.

When you get there, knock at the gate and one will come and ask what you want. Tell them you wish to see the daughter of the Sun ] if they ask who sent you, tell them I did. With thanks and good-byes he left. When he came to the mountain, it looked so high and so steep that he was afraid. While he looked at it he thought thus, It looks steep indeed, but for one to gain the daughter of the Sun for a wife it is well worth trying. Besides, the old woman told me never to look behind, but to go onward and upward. So he started and reached the top, very tired; in the distance he could see the palace of the Sun. After resting awhile he started, full of hope that he soon would be at his journey's end.

When he reached the palace, he was so awed with its splendor that he was afraid to knock. After awhile he mustered courage and knocked. A pleasing-faced man answered his call, and inquired what he wanted. The daughter of the Sun for my wife. Who sent you here? The old woman at the foot of the hill. Come in and welcome. After resting over night, he next morning asked to be shown the one he had come so far to see. In order to try him they first brought the daughter of the Stars—a pretty little girl with little, blinking eyes. This, said they to him, is the daughter of the Stars. What do you think of her? She is very well with her blinking eyes, but she is not good enough for me. Then they brought him the daughter of the Moon, majestic in her cold, radiant beauty. We have brought you, again they said, the daughter of the Moon. What do you think of her? She is all very well, he replied, in her cold beauty, but I want the daughter of the Sun only.

At last they brought him the one he cared for, the lovely daughter of the Sun. " This," said they, "is the one you cared for; take her, and welcome." So he took her and was happy. So, after all his troubles, he married a wife who made him great, while his old lover, with her beauty, came to nothing.

If I had time I could give a large number of these legends, but will have to he content with one. In bygone days, when anything unnatural or unusual was found which they could not explain, they generally appear to have made a story which would please, and at the same time have a moral effect on the people. For instance, up Stickeen River in Alaska, are a line of pillar-shaped rocks; two little ones on land, one little one at the edge of the river, and two or three bigger ones in the river. A mere casual glance at this freak of nature will show what it is. All the rocks are volcanic: at one time a large rent became filled with molten matter; this, after cooling, became harder than the older rocks. When the river commenced to flow through this valley a lake was formed above by this barrier, which was always becoming weaker by the falling water washing away the softer rock behind, until, finally, the weaker parts would give way, letting out the waters of the lake above and leaving a few harder places here and there standing like pillars in the river, as well as on the land, where once flowed the river. Of the above, the following legend has been told.


Long ago there lived amongst the Stickeens a very bad family called the Cattiquins. The whole family were notoriously wicked. The whole family were against everybody, and everybody was against them. At length they became so bad that nobody would have any dealings with them. When any of the people went a hunting, or a fishing, or gathering berries, all was kept secret from them. One day all the people wished to go to the flat, where now stand these pillars. The Cattaquins, being a lazy lot as well, did not get up early. Knowing this, all the people got up and were off while the others were in bed. When the Cattiquins found the others had gone without them, they swore vengeance on the others. Thinking the others had gone up the river, they, too, went and found them. They pulled their canoes ashore and awaited the arrival of the others. After awhile the others arrived, bringing lots of nice berries with them. These the Cattiquins demanded, which the people refused to give, saying if they were not so lazy, they, too, might have plenty of fruit. Hearing this, the Cattiquins grew angry and trampled the berries under foot. Seeing this, the people armed themselves with clubs, bows, and spears, and were determined to kill the whole family. Seeing the turn of affairs, the Cattiquins made for their canoes and pushed into the river. The old folks were in such a hurry that some of the children were left behind. If they escaped the wrath of the people, they did not escape that of Yethal; because, as a punishment for their wickedness, he turned them all into stone, there to remain forever as a warning to evil doers. And it was often said of a badly behaved person, " If he does not give up his evil way, the doom of the Cattiquins may befall him."

I could give many more very interesting tales, but believing my paper to be already too long, I must stop; hoping all of you will be interested in these my humble translations, in which I have kept as near the original as possible.