Northwest Indians

Myths and Legends

The Indian Tribes of the Pacific Northwest believed that the earth was controlled by many gods. While the idea of a supreme diety varied from nation to nation there was a general attitude that there were no friendly gods. The indians, therefore, felt powerless against the gods who made the earth and the forces of nature which he could not understand. In the tragedies of the forest he saw the weaker, smaller creatures escape the larger ones only by cunnings. Thus, in order to escape the anger of the gods, he to must be cunning. The crafty animals became his earth gods and in time, his helpers. Coyote, the weakest but craftiest of all the animals, became, on the coast, "the chief of all animals." Fox ranked second.

The mountains were the home of supernatural beings and considered sacred. Avalanches and volcanic eruptions on Takhoma, "the White Mountain", now called Mt. Rainier, were caused by tomanowos and nothing could tempt the red man to climb high above the snow line. Takhoma was associated with mystery and danger. Tatoosh, the Thunder Bird lived in the mountains. He shook the mountains with the flapping of his wings and the flashing of his eye was the lightning. In order to soften his anger his picture is painted everywhere. Often he is represented by a single eye which is woven or painted on their possessions.

The earliest legends were stories of how the world was created, the origin of the races, the discovery of fire, the salmon, and those relating to the physical features of the country. Many of the early myths and legends give the animals the same abilities as man. Later on, the stories began to show traces of the white man's religion and customs.

CREATION OF THE WORLD: Stories relating to the creation of the world varied from nation to nation: The Klamath believed that Kemush, Old Man of the Ancients, had sprung from the ashes of the northern lights and made the world at the call of the Morning Star. At first, Kaila, the earth, had been flat and bare. Then Kemush planted the grass and roots and trees. He added the ducks, geese, deer, fox, sheep and bear. But Maidu, the Indian, was not yet created. Kemush, with his daughter, Evening Sky, went to the Place of the Dark. For five nights he danced in a great circle with the spirits of the dark. The spirits were without number, like the leaves on the trees. But when Shel, the sun, called to the world, the spirits became dry bones.

On the fifth day, when the sun was new, Kemush rose and put the dry bones into a sack. Then as he followed the trail of Shel, the sun, to the edge of the world, he threw away the bones. He threw them away two by two. To Kta-iti, place of steepness, he threw two. To Kuyani Shaiks, the crawfish trail, to Molaiksi, steepness of snow, and to Kakasam Yama, mountain of the great blue heron, to each he threw two bones. Thus people were created. The dry bones became Maidu, the Indian; Aikspala, the people of the chipmunks; and last of all, Maklaks, the Klamath Indian.

Then Kemush followed the trail of Shel, the sun, climbing higher and higher. At the top of the trail he built his lodge. Here still lives Kemush, Old Man of the Ancients, with his daughter, Evening Sky, and Wanaka, the sun halo.

The Hat Creek indians tell of how Silver-Fox climbed down from the sky to the water below and made a small island on which to stay. After a night of ceremony and rituals, Silver-Fox sat on the island and pushed with his foot, stretching out the earth in all directions, first to the east, then to the north, then to the west, and last to the south. For five nights he repeated this until the world became as large as it is today. Then Silver-Fox made trees and springs and animals.

According to the Chinook the origin of the tribes took place long ago in Lake Cle-el-lum, where Wishpoosh, the monster beaver lived. Cle-el-lum was beautiful. It was also full of fish. The animal people wanted to fish there but Wishpoosh would not let them. Many animal people were killed by Wishpoosh.

At last Coyote decided to kill Wishpoosh. He fastened a spear to his wrist with a strong cord and began to fish in the lake. Soon Wishpoosh attacked him. Coyote speared the beaver. Then Wishpoosh plunged to the bottom of Cle-el-lum and dragged Coyote with him. But Coyote fought hard with Wishpoosh.

They fought so hard, they tore out the banks of Cle-el-lum. The waters rushed through the break, then through the mountains and down the canyon. They rushed into Kittitas Valley. The water formed another lake in Kittitas Valley.

Coyote and Wishpoosh fought so hard they tore out the banks of the new lake. The waters rushed down into the basin of the Cowiche, Nachess and Atahnum. The water formed a larger lake. Yakima was flooded and a very great lake formed at Toppenish.

Coyote and Wishpoosh fought so hard that they tore out the banks of this very great lake. The waters rushed to the meeting place of the Yakima, the Snake and the Columbia Rivers. The waters here formed a very, very great lake.

Coyote and Wishpoosh fought so hard that even the banks of this lake were torn out. Then Wishpoosh dashed down the Great River. Coyote was out of breath. Coyote wanted to stop Wishpoosh. He caught at the trees and stones along the banks of Great River. Nothing could stop Wishpoosh. At last Coyote and the beaver reached the breakers at the mouth of the Great River, reached the breakers of the Bitter Waters.

Wishpoosh was very angry. He killed salmon and swallowed them. He killed whales and swallowed them Coyote saw that Wishpoosh was very strong. Then he remembered that he was Coyote, the wisest and cunningest of all the animals. So Coyote changed himself into a branch, a tree branch. He drifted toward Wishpoosh. Wishpoosh swallowed him. Them Coyote changed himself back into Coyote again. He took his stone knife and cut the sinews inside of wishpoosh making Wishpoosh die.

Now Coyote was very tired. He asked Muskrat to help him. Together they pulled the great beaver to land. They cut him up and threw the pieces over the land.

From the head of Wishpoosh, Coyote made the Nez Perce, great in council. From the arms he made the Cayuses, powerful with the bow and war club. From the legs he made the Klickitats, famous runners. From the ribs he made the Yakimas. From the belly he made the Chinooks, short, fat people with big stomachs. Coyote at last had only the hair and blood of Wishpoosh. These he flung far up the valley to the east. They became the Snake River Indians, a tribe of war and blood.

Thus Coyote created the tribes. Then he returned up the Columbia.

Now in making the Chinooks and the coast tribes, Coyote forgot to give them any mouth. The god Ecahni, traveling along, noticed this. Then Ecahni called the tribes to him and with a stone knife gave each one a mouth. But for fun Ecahni cut them crooked. He made some mouths very big. Thus the coast tribes do not have perfect mouths.

DISCOVERY OF FIRE: There are many stories regarding the discovery of fire. One theme that is repeated from nation to nation and story to story is that it was stolen from the spirit world by an animal. How it was stolen varies from story to story.

One version states that in days long ago the only fire in the world was on a mountain top, guarded by three Skookums. They guarded it carefully so that man could not steal it.

Coyote was a friend of man and wanted man to be warm and happy. He devised a plan to steal the fire. At dawn when the time was right the Coyote seized the fire and ran down the mountain. The Skookum followed him but before she could catch him he gave the fire to Wolf. Wolf ran on ahead and just before Skookum caught Wolf he handed the fire to Squirrel. Squirrel reached Frog who hopped away with the coals in his mouth. Before Skookum could get the fire from Frog he spit it out on Wood and Wood swallowed it. Skookum did not know how to get the fire out of Wood. But Coyote did. Coyote showed the Indians how to get the fire out of Wood by rubbing two dry sticks together.

The Nez Perce told of how, in the early days, Pine Tree held the secret of fire. No one was allowed to have fire, no matter how cold it was unless he were a Pine. One winter it was so cold the animals almost froze to death. They called a council and determined they would steal fire from Pine Tree.

Pine Trees were holding a council at Grande Ronde and had built a large fire. Beaver hid next to a river bank where he would not be seen. After a while a large coal rolled down the bank near Beaver. He hid it in his breast and ran away. Pine Trees chased him all the way to where the Grande Ronde joins the Big Snake River. Beaver swam across the river and gave some fire to Willows on the opposite bank. Farther on he gave fire to Birches and to other trees. Ever since then animals and Indians can get fire from these woods by rubbing two pieces together.

The Bridge of the Gods:
Long ago, when the world was new, Tyhee Sahale with his two sons, came down Great River (the Columbia River). They came near where the Dalles now are. The land was very beautiful and each son wanted it. Therefore they quarrelled. Then Sahale took his bow and shot two arrows. One he shot to the north; the other he shot to the west. Then Sahale said to his sons, "Go. Find the arrows. Where they lie, you shall have the land."

One son went north over the plain to the country of the Klickitats. He was the first grandfather of the Klickitats. The other son followed the arrow to the Willamette Valley. He was the first grandfather of the Multnomahs.

Then Sahale raised great mountains between the country of the Klicitats and the country of the Multnomahs. This he did that the tribes might not quarrel. White men call them the Cascade Mountains. But Great River was deep and broad. The river was a sign of peace between the tribes. Therefore Sahale made a great stone bridge over the river, that the tribes might be friends. This was called the Bridge of Tomanowos.

The tribes grew, but they did evil things. This displeased Tyhee Sahale. Therefore the sun ceased to shine, and cold and snow appeared. The people were unhappy for they had no fire. Only Loo-wit had fire. Therefore the people sought to steal the fire of Loo-wit. Then Loo-wit fled and because the runners were stiff with cold, they could not catch her.

Then Loo-wit told Sahale of the need of the Indians. Loo-wit said the Indians were cold. So Sahale gave fire to the people. Thus Sahale built a fire on the bridge of the gods, and there the people secured fire. Sahale also promised to Loo-wit eternal youth and beauty. Thus Loo-wit became a beautiful maiden.

Then began the chiefs to love Loo-wit. Many chiefs loved her because she was so beautiful. Then came two more chiefs, Klickitat from the north and Wiyeast from the West. To neither would Loo-wit give an answer. Therefore the chiefs fought, and their people fought also. Thus did they anger Sahale. Therefore, because blood was shed and because Great River was no longer a sign of peace, Sahale broke down the tomanowos illahee. Great rocks fell into the river. They are there even to this day. When the water is quiet, buried forests can be seen even to this day. Thus Sahale destroyed the bridge of the gods. Thus the tribes were separated by Great River.

Then Sahala made of Loo-wit, Klickitat, and Wiyeast snow peaks. Always they were to be cold and covered with ice and snow. White men call them Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams, and Mount Hood.

Long after this time, Klicitat and Wiyeast still quarrelled over Loo-wit. When they quarrelled, sheets of flame burst from their peaks, and they threw great rocks at one another. But Klickitat and Wiyeast did not throw far enough. The rocks fell into the Great River and blocked it. Therefore, the river is very narrow and very swift at that point. It became known as the Dalles.


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