Chapter 6: Indigenous Tales – add mat’ls & edit for cohesion

The Giant and the Ogress:

The Clatsops also considered many of the forest animals and the gargantuan storms that lashed their coastal home to represent active spirits that coexisted with them in this fog-swathed primeval landscape. Like their cousins the Chinook, they believed that a great wolf spirit Talapus had created salmon to save them from extinction during some primeval near disaster. To honor their wolf deity they observed strict traditions that prohibited them from ever cutting a salmon crosswise. Salmon always had to be cut lengthwise from mouth to tail and the bones had to be returned to the waters for renewal. The consequences for ignoring these customs were dire including burial alive.

The noted local ethnographer, James Swan, recounts several creation myths that he heard from the Chinookans that relate to these customs. One of them involved an old man who was a giant and an old woman who was an ogress. In the story, when the old man catches a fish and attempts to improperly cut it sideways, the woman cries out that he must cut the fish down the back. The man ignores her pleas and cuts the fish crossways. The fish changes into a giant bird that flies away toward Saddle Mountain on the northern Oregon coast. The man and woman go in search of the bird. One day while picking berries, the woman discovers a thunderbird’s nest full of eggs. The woman begins to break the eggs, and humans appear out of the broken shells.

How it was that coyote spread salmon all the way up the rivers:

You have to imagine: it was cold and foggy in those early days, especially way down the river where it wrestled with the ocean. Spray, mist and fog spread into the hills and blanketed everything with uncertainty, putting this story somewhere between history and mythology.

There were 5 sisters that lived down near the mouth of the river in those distant days.  And these sisters were famous, because they had a reservoir of fish that they maintained.  Now this was most unusual because this was close to the beginning of time, and these were the only fish that existed! It seems the 5 sisters had a monopoly on this very precious commodity.

Every evening one of them would go down to their fish trap and would select one of the fish for dinner. She’d grab it and snatch it out of the water – and asking the fish for understanding she’d thrust her knife into its spine – killing it quickly.  Then she’d bring it up to where her sisters were cooking up a special assortment of roots, berries, and fresh shoots.

Usually the sisters would serve the salmon on a plank, like a treasure radiant in the firelight. But when conditions were poor or when the storms were raging especially hard, the sisters would fold the salmon into the vegetable mash they had prepared. In this way they could celebrate the salmon’s return from the sea to the land, from which it was spawned.

But all this occurred early in our history when people’s actions were often so incomprehensible that they might as well have been shorebirds pecking in the surf.  In those early day all of us were trying out our parts, and it wasn’t clear who would turn out in the main roles. The beings that existed in those days were hard to distinguish from the animals, plants, places or things that comprised that place. The hierarchy of beings hadn’t yet taken shape. And even the people were tenuous beings that lived between the forest and the surf line, clutching onto the food chain somewhere between the big predators and the numbing fog and impenetrable mirk of the Coastal Range.

In this story it appears that Coyote got wind of the 5 beautiful sisters residing near the coast that were keeping all the salmon locked up in their fish weir. And this stuck in his craw. You see, Coyote always wanted to make everything free and give it away to everyone. It was one of his best qualities, because in doing this he taught the people to share.

Coyote was impatient with the set-up. He had very mixed-up feelings; he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. He just wanted to do something, and he knew it might not be a good thing. You see, Coyote was always getting into trouble for following all the newest ideas, without considering the dangers they introduced. And he was always interested if it involved beautiful women.

In the end he decided to visit the sisters. But when he approached he realized that they might not be too receptive to his ideas, beings that he was about to give away all their treasures. So he consulted his inner “sisters” and they suggested he arrive as a newborn babe. And so it was that he floated downstream towards the weir, as the oldest sister was tending to their fish. It took some doing to get her attention, but in the end the sister brought the baby home.

The youngest of the sisters looked into his eyes and proclaimed that this was no babe, but was the Trickster himself. But the others did not believe her and so they took turns nestling Coyote to their breasts, and Coyote was well satisfied with his plan.

When they went out in the mornings to gather food, they left him in his cradleboard dangling safely from a tree. At first he slept and in so doing fooled most of the women, but the youngest remained suspicious. And on the fourth morning she followed him down to the river where Coyote had assembled the tools he planned to use to destroy the weir. When the youngest sister saw that her suspicions were correct she called for her four siblings and together they battled the powerful Coyote. In the end they almost beat him back, but the violence had succeeded in breaching the weir and the salmon wasted no time in slipping out and swimming up the river.

And Coyote was there to encourage them all the way. At each village along the way, he would swagger in and announce that he had brought a new kind of food. Then he would barter with the headman and his wife to determine what their share of the bounty would be based on the beauty of the maiden that they brought to him. Some villages tried to negotiate and got moderate fish harvests, while others like the Indians residing at Kettle Falls presented him with a particularly fetching maiden and in return every year they harvest a great multitude of fish that try to ascend the falls. And so it went on up the length of the Columbia River as far up as the chilly villages of the Kootenay Indians living high up in the Canadian Rockies.

Coyote was the epitome of self-centered self-indulgence.  But it must be said, he also among the first creatures to think for himself at a time when everything was still unsettled and uncertain. When he was desperate or confused he would consult his “little sisters”. They would tell him what to do, but he never acknowledged their help, claiming that he had thought of the solution way before his “little sisters” had. Besides, Coyote could be very, very wise.

Most people know that when they hear about the Coyote, they will learn what not to do, how not to behave, and who not to be like.  But in this instance Coyote was very wise, and many people wonder why he hasn’t returned to destroy the 21 enormous dams that have been constructed all along the mighty Columbia.

Also River of the West pg. 21 Coyote myth re: Celilo Falls


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