The History of Washington State

The History of Washington
Chapter 19, Part I

 

By Holice, Pam, and Deb

Extra special thanks to Holice B. Young for transcribing this series of books!

 

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CHAPTER XIX.

INDIAN PECULIARITIES--THE ABORIGINES OF WASHINGTON--THEIR MANNERS, CUSTOMS, AND CHARACTERISTICS.

"Strange mysteries these that weirdly link
Wild fancies with the true,
To people wood and lone lake brink
With forms of horrid hue,
Gruesome in shape as old gargoyle
Or idols of Japan,
Or Laocoon, where serpents coil
In deadly strife with man.
Here water nymphs and fountain sprite
Haunt every crystal stream,
Dwelling in solitudes that fright
The Indian hunter's dream."

Indian eccentricities might possibly have furnished us with a better title for the peculiarities of that strange anomaly, the North American Indian, and especially those who once roamed the hills and fished the coasts of Washington. A strange compound truly--darkest ignorance blended with supreme cunning; cowardly treachery with occasional desperation of fighting that might have excited the admiration of Richard the Lionheart himself; filth and dirt unspeakable in all their belongings and ways, linked, as one might fancy swine with pearls, with a poetry of speech and an eloquence of natural imagery that on great occasions might well compare and offtimes rival the more rounded period of the white man's oratory. A dozen chapter--yes, volumes themselves would fail to give even a tithe of the weird, wild legends told beneath the shelter of the tepee or by the glare of their camp-fires, handed down from sire to son, with which the Indian mystifies himself and vainly strives to penetrate the unseen. Yet their fancies, after all, are but the natural children of almost Oriental imaginations, wrought upon and heightened by the savage surroundings of their lives. The insensible ab-

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sorption of nature's unspoken yet ever eloquent influences, the misty seas over which they rode, the mountain fastnesses, with their snow-clad peaks and solemn shadows, the lakes hidden away amid the everlasting hills, the silence of the endless woods broken only by the crash of some falling giant of the forest or the hoot of the midnight owl--all these in the untutored mind of the savage bore fruit in fancies wild as themselves. Ina higher sense, perhaps, they were the outcome, fantastic though they might be, of that vague desire to find a first cause for nature's perfect order and handiwork--a something, however, intangible, on which the human soul may lean in those dark hours that come to all, when in some moment of despair man realized the need and existence of that unseen but all-pervading presence--God.

The religion, if such it may be called, of the Indians of the Northwest is a strange medley, a mingling , as it were, of all faiths, ancient and modern, but which never seemed to exercise a salutary influence, unless, indeed, superstition became a factor, upon the morality or honesty of their lives. Like the old mythologies, they deified animals, and had their fables of water nymphs and river gods. The lakes were haunted by spirits who made the rain, the seas by forms as fantastic as its fog wreaths, while the mountains harbored demons as uncanny and vindictive as those of the Hartz. India is far behind them in the doctrine of the transmigration of souls or the rehabilitation of the lower animals with the spirits of the ancient dead. The spiritualist discovers a kindred faith in their seances of "dancing the stick," which parodies the modern rappings and the attempts of coyote and eagle to visit the island of the dead and communicate with their long-departed friends. Like the roman Catholic, they have their purgatory or period of waiting, though no place of torment save one which, Tantalus-like, presents pleasures they are not permitted to enjoy. With the Universalist, they expect that all will be ultimately happy. Theosophy may strive in vain to rival their flights of theological mysticism, while evolution should be charmed with a score of theories that not only accepts the survival of the fittest, but preaches an evolvement of decadence (if this be not a misnomer) as well as one of gradual improvement; to put it tersely, it evolutes both ways. For instance, the rattlesnake when in his prime was a

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three-headed horror, a gentleman of leisure, dwelling in a fine stone house and spending most of his time in lounging in the sun--a charming fellow, who shook his rattles till he crazed the listener, whom he finally fascinated and the proceeded to devour.

The lobster, now only associated with salads, was once, according to the Yakimas, a monster crustacean, and god of the crayfishes. He dwelt in a mighty lake. Here he ruled supreme, the Neptune of this inland sea. His arms were as those of the octopus, strong and far-reaching, with pincers that could crush an Indian like a vice. His name was Castiltah. He kept a sharp eye on the Indians, permitted them to fish; but if he thought they took too many salmon or clams, he pursued them with a tidal wave pr--possibly with some vague foreboding of his own future fate--set the lake to boiling; and them, unless the offender fled for his life, he was swallowed up. The residence of this old-time aquatic terror is located on the site of the present Big Willows.

The cry of the lonely loon, disturbed in his desolate anchorage, was also woven into a mystery. Their traditions tell us that they are the spirits of children who formerly dwelt on the borders of a lake, where they loved to dabble in the mud and venture, spite of their mothers' command to the contrary, into the water. One day they ventured too far, and to punish them were changed into loons, in which form they continue to cry for the mother whom they disobeyed.

The mosquito, too, was also a god named Wawa, having no settled place of abode, but variously located in places famous for those winged pests. The Peshkoes placed him at the mouth of the Satas. Here he had his home ina narrow place hemmed in by the bluff. He was, dreadful to relate, much larger than the tallest man. His bill--and he was a constant collector--was a long one, some three or four feet. With this terrible weapon he had a pleasant way of thrusting people through. He was the terror of all travelers, and had killed so many people in this bloodthirsty fashion that his superior, the god Coyote--of whom more anon--determined to destroy him, but was a little puzzled as to the means. But Dr. Kuykendall has told the story of Coyote's stratagem too prettily, as also the chipmunk legend, for us to mutilate his narrative, so we make no apology for giving it in his own words:

It seems that "Coyote or Speelyai had two sisters who lived in his stomach, whim he always consulted when in doubt what to do. These sisters were two kinds of berries, such as hail often damages, hence they were terribly afraid of the hail. Sometimes these sisters would refuse to advise Coyote, and then he would look up to the sky and call for the hail to come. This threat always terrified them, and they cried out, 'Hold, hold; don't bring the hail; we will tell you anything you wish.' When Coyote" (who seems to have been very much like a man in this respect)" got their views he always said, 'This is just what I thought--just my idea;' for whether he ever thought so or not before, he wanted all the glory. On the present occasion his sister oracles advised him to get five kinds of wood to make rods to twirl, to make fire. 'Hide them in your bosom and go where Wawa lives, and then follow our directions.' So he set forth on his journey to the house of the giant mosquito. When he neared Wawa's place, the giant saw him and cried out, 'Where are you going? You can't go by here. This is my road. I don't allow any one to pass.' Upon this coyote became very polite and said, in his blandest manner, 'My friend, I see you are very cold and have no fire in your house. Let me make a fire, so that you may warm yourself.' Wawa, not suspecting treachery, permitted him to go on, for the weather was really cold and damp, and made the mosquito god feel uncomfortable and sluggish. So Coyote took out his five fire-rods. He tried the four first in vain, but the fifth ignited and the wood blazed up. When Coyote got it well going he smothered it down and filled the lodge with strong smoke. Old Wawa could not get his breath, and so lay down on the ground to breathe. Then Coyote, taking advantage of the good fellow's situation, said, 'You are not going to kill people any more. You have been a terror, but you power is ended. I will split open your head, and from it shall come a diminutive race. They shall not have power to kill. They may fly about people's faces and annoy them, and may draw a little blood, but shall not take life any more.' So saying, coyote raised his huge stone knife, and with a tremendous blow split the giant's head open at one stroke, and immediately there swarmed forth myriads of little mosquitoes, such as have existed ever since. Since that time the mosquitoes cannot endure smoke, so the Indians learned to protect themselves by

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making a smudge." The scene of our story is said to be the most infested by mosquitoes in all Washington--at least the natives say so.

The legend of the original of the stripes upon the chipmunk is prettily told, as follows:

"In the long ago there lived a horrible old hag, who destroyed infants wherever she could find them. She had long, sharp claws, terrible teeth, and eyes that flashed like coals of fire. She charmed the little babies by crooning to them and enticing them until they came to her; then she rent this soft flesh as a wolf devours the lamb. She had been exercising her diabolical powers for a long time, and many a poor mother in the land moaned the loss of her little one. The wretch had become the terror of every woman who had an infant. One day this monster caught a little Indian baby, and was about to devour it in the sight of its frantic mother. The poor woman, wild with fear and grief, besought the Great Spirit to save her child. In answer to his prayer the baby was transformed into a beautiful little chipmunk, which sprang away from the old wretch and ran off. As it jumped she grabbed it with her hand, and her sharp claws scraped along the little fellow's back and made black stripes, which all chipmunks have since retained."

What old grandmother, crone or young Indian mother, we wonder, was it who first dressed in fiction the origin of these common denizens of their forests to please some little cooper-colored audience, who gathered round her in the soft twilight of the woods with the plea for "just one more story"?

Whatever their practice, we doubt if any Indian, however, degraded, can be found who in some form or other does not acknowledge and believe in the existence of that Great Spirit whom the white calls God. they credit not only themselves, but all other living things with a duality of existence, which involves the possession of both spirit and matter, a body and a soul. Some tribes, notably in Oregon, carried this so far as to endow the different portions or organs of the body with separate souls. Their realistic natures, however, subordinated spirit to matter. Like many of those who count themselves in our own day, they imaged that the soul could leave the body, journey afar, make itself known in its earthly form to distant friends, and then return to its tabernacle. This is their mode

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of accounting for dreams and trances. They could even be robbed of their souls by some evil magic, in which case the body would still live on for a while, but ultimately pine away. Again, the spirits of the departed might enter the bodies o beasts and birds, float with the wild duck or make its abode with the beaver, or even return in babes born to near relatives. We are told that the sick and suffering, the poor and needy found comfort in the thought that in the new incarnation of their souls they would enter clay destined by its circumstances of birth to be rich and fortunate. The ghosts of the dead were everywhere, haunting the night and busy in the darkness, yet obliged to fly when cock-crow told the coming of the dawn.

The Indians of Washington seemed to have peopled, and not unnaturally, all solitary places, whether of wood or wave, with some presiding genius of the place. Even the springs and fountains have their "beaver women," beings visible to human sight, wearing the form of an Indian girl, with face brilliant in carmine and long, flowing locks, like those of the mermaid, reaching to their waists. These water-nymphs never rose above their middle from the water, all below, like the beaver, from whence they took their names, being clothes in fur. These were the spirits of the ancient dead--solitaries--for but one inhabits each separate pool. Says the authority from which we have already quoted, in substance:

"If the nymph was absent or about to appear, the passer-by would hear the wail of a babe and the mother soothing it. On coming nearer she would be seen half-way out of the water, holding up her baby, painted scarlet like herself. If any noise was made she immediately disappeared, leaving the water still and clear, with no sign of recent occupancy. Sometimes the prints of the baby's bare feet would be found in the soft mud. If the 'beaver woman' stopped soothing her baby and looked upon the passer-by, her gave, sooner or later, meant death to the unlucky mortal who had thus unwittingly disturbed her. Sometimes these beaver women were represented to be maidens."

In the Yakima country there is a spring which, possibly to very this feminine monotony, is tenanted by the spirit of an Indian, who appears clothed only in the garb of Adam. He was wont to rise from the water, then suddenly vanish beneath his crystal roof. The Indians tell us that some forty years ago

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a number of old chiefs, Kamiakin among the rest, took a party of twenty men and went to dig out this wonderful apparition. They worked all day and stirred up the merman's residence with long poles, but strange to say, he failed to materialize.

The origin of fire, of which the Northwest Indian has almost as many mythical theories as there are lives of Columbus, is by no means the least interesting of their wild, fantastic dreams. We come back to Dr. Kuykendall, and select two of their explanations as we find he records them, quoting the briefest. Coyote, who appears to have been the Jupiter of their heathen Olympus, it will be seen, as usual, figures largely, being the master spirit in arranging for the comfort of his Indian friends. The doctor says:

"Another legend known to all the tribes from Klamath Lake to Northern Washington runs somewhat as follows: All the fires in existence was formerly in the possession of two wrinkled old hags, who would neither sell, loan, nor give it away. They were deaf to all blandishments or threats. Do what he might, no Indian could get any fire. Coyote was besought by the people to do something, to help them to obtain fire, for they were cold and needed cooked food. After much thought, coyote worked out a plan. He expected a hard struggle and a big race, and so he stationed the various animals out in a line reaching from the old grannies' place of abode to the animal people's country. The strongest and best runners he put on the station nearest the old hags, and tapered off with the weaker. Coyote appointed a man to secrete himself near the old women's lodge, and instructed him that at a given signal he should attack them. Everything being arranged, Coyote went up to the hut, complaining of cold, and begged permission to go in and warm himself." (It will be noticed that his plan in this instance was just the reverse of his strategy in overcoming the mosquito god. Then he wanted to warm; now he wants warming.) "The old hags, suspecting nothing wrong, permitted him to enter their wigwam. All at once the concealed man jumped up and rushed at the women. During the fighting and scratching that followed, coyote seized a firebrand and rushed off toward the Indian camps. The old hags, seeing their fire going, struck out after Coyote, pressing him hard. With lolling tongue and panting breath he came up to the panther, who took the brand and went

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on with it. Just as he was about to give out, the bear relieved him and carried it to another animal, and so the brand passed from one to another, the old hags al the while closely pursuing, trying to recover their stolen fire. Luckily the firebrand passed safely along the line until it fell to the poor little squatty frog. By this time there was not much left of the brand, and froggy was never much noted as a runner. With his slow and labored hopping the old women overtook him. It was of no use trying to run farther, as he was going to be caught. Just then he swallowed the fire and jumped into the river, going to the bottom with the coveted fire in his belly. Between the racing and the fire it had gone hard with the frog, for he had lost the tail of his youth, and was but a stumpy representative of his former self. He came up, however, and spit the fire out upon some pieces of wood. Consequently the Indians have ever since had fire, for it remained in the wood, and they could extract it by rubbing or twirling."

Another version places the fire in the hands of five old blind women who lived together. They had be five firebrands each (five appears to have been the mystic number of the Indians, as seven of the whites). These they were always engaged in counting over to see if they had lost any. Being very doubtful of each other, they were suspecting their sisters and guarding against an attempt to steal their brands. While they were thus engaged in counting them, Coyote, who never seems to do anything openly, slipped up and stole one. The old woman immediately discovered her loss, and accused the others of taking it. In the battle royal that ensued Coyote gathered the firebrands and ran off with them to the Indians.

It seems strange, and a proof that no nobility of nature enters into the character of the qualities the Indian attributes to his gods, that not only should they select that cowardly, cunning, an d contemptible animal, the lowest order of wolf, for the name of their superior being, but in all his actions for their benefit consistently endow him with the treacherous characteristics of the creature after whom he is entitled, the coyote. It is a curious question, too, from what source did they get the ideas so closely paralleling the mythology of the Roman gods? Did the mermaids or sirens suggest the "beaver women"?

Now, too, we find the guardian angel of the Swedenborgian

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or patron saint of the Roman Catholic closely copied in the spirit supposed to be specially appropriated by each individual and tribe. Whether as a unit or in the aggregate, every Indian believed himself to be specially under the watch-care of some familiar spirit, whose "totem" or charm he wore. Nor was this guardian always a living thing. The Tamwaters, for instance, above the Dalles had their mascot in a great white luminous stone, which flashed forth its fires to aid the Wishams in their nightly fishing. Coyote, however, appears to have had the general oversight of all, the individual or tribal gods being merely deputies and local agents to carry out his will.

The Indian, who must have a reason for everything, refer all that he cannot understand in the operations of nature to Coyote. He is, moreover, the general benefactor of their tribes. It is he who brings the salmon, rules the rides, controls the winds, and rides upon the storm. An eclipse to them means a surreptitious attempt, for the time being causing great anxiety, of a huge codfish to swallow the darkened luminary. The roll of the thunder is nothing more than the noise produced by the flagellation by the Great spirit of his rebellious wife, a mode of domestic discipline much in vogue with the primitive savage. Indeed, the writer was told upon the plains that the squaw who passed six weeks without such a visitation regarded herself as a neglected wife.

The Chinook wind, a warm breeze familiar to every dweller on the Sound, the Indian supposed to be the production of five brothers; and his rival and foe, the Walla Walla wind, the cold, they ascribe to a similar agency--a state of affairs which engendered hatred, ending ina challenge and wrestling contest--boxing seems to be unknown to any but our own savages--whose consequences were to dire and far-reaching to be recorded in detail here.

Their ideas of heaven, with its music, fair fields, every-flowing streams and flowers, has, of course, more of the sensual nature of the Turkish paradise than that of the Christian's rest. Nevertheless, they accord with both their belief that good and evil in the earth life seals or discredits their passport to the "happy hunting-grounds."

But when it comes to a practical application of this belief to the mortality or honesty in their every-day life, its influence is

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as nought compared with the temptation to pleasure or wrong-doing, in which respect they are not unlike the average white man.

We regret that our space does not permit us to give the details of their weird and most dramatic legend of the "Island of the Dead," where "the Indian girl follows her dead lover to the spirit land, and is reunited with him there in his early form, to find herself in the morning clasped in the arms of a hideous skeleton with sunken eyes and grinning teeth. The air was filled with stench; she was surrounded by mouldering corpses. With a shriek she sprang from her bridal couch and fled to earth again; but here she found but cold welcome in her childhood's home. She had been duly paid for when betrothed, according to Indian custom, and was directed to return, being assured that she should have slept all day and not by night, and she would not have been aware of the mouldering corpses. So she returned, and was received with great warmth and pomp of ceremony. She found her lover there, bright, beautiful, and happy as ever. They enjoyed together the spirit pleasures of the night, and slept through the revelation of the day. In process of time a wonderful child was born to them in this spirit land, half spirit and half mortal mould. The young man, " says Kuykendall, "was anxious, as most young husbands and fathers are, to have his mother see the little stranger, and told his spouse they would send for baby's grandmamma, to come, and that the baby and its mother should then return to the land of the living, and he himself would afterward follow and bring with him all the dead people to live on earth again. a spirit messenger was accordingly sent, who told the grandparents how happy the young people were in the spirit land, of the wonderful baby, of the plan of the father to bring back all the dead people to live on earth again, and desired the grandmother to go with him that she might accompany the mother and her child on their return to the homes of the living. This was good news to the old folks, who had heard nothing from their daughter for some time. So the grandmother went to the land of the dead and was joyfully received by her children. She was cautioned, however, that she must not look upon the baby yet. There was to be a penance of ten days. The old grandmother was very anxious to see the baby, and the longer she waited the more

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anxious she became. She finally concluded that she would lift up the cloth that covered the baby-board and just peep in once. One little look could do no harm, and no one would be the worse for it. Her curiosity and anxiety thus overcome her prudence, and she peeped in and saw the sleeping beauty. In consequence of this stolen look, the baby sickened and died. This very much displeased the spirit people, and they decreed that because of her sin the dead should never return to the living again. So the grandmother was sent back, and never heard of the young couple any more.

Strange parody this on the biblical version of the bitter feast which blossomed from the sweeter, when our common mother, Eve, yielding to the same sin of curiosity, ate the forbidden apple in Eden, and wrecked the happiness of a world! From whence did they get the foundation upon which they build in this their legend of the dead man's else?

It has another version, which Kuykendall thus relates: "Coyote was returning to earth with all the dead people safely housed ina basket" (it must have been a most capacious one) "on his back, he was cautioned not to look behind him on any account whatever, no matter what noises were made or what happened. He heard the spirits talking and rustling about, and was very curious to see what they were doing. Finally, unable to stand it any longer, he looked over his shoulder into the basket, whereupon the spirit people flew off in every direction and vanished, leaving Coyote foolishly standing with an empty receptacle."

The corpse light of the European finds its mate in that of the coast Indians, who sometimes left their dead in the shallow water among the reeds. They claim to have seen witch firs hovering about the bodies, doubtless the ignis fatuus of natural decomposition.

With the white man, the Indian talks eloquently of his happy hunting-grounds, their land of everlasting bliss beyond the setting sun; but nevertheless, like the paleface, he is seldom anxious to forestall the time and prove their pleasures, being quite content to enjoy his terrestrial paradise, and take the higher excellencies of the celestial for granted.

 

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