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Help with a Cultural Holiday Present: Identify This Story
~ Maureen Brucker
Saving something that might otherwise
be lost – a Northwest Coast Mosquito Tale.
In many Native cultures, the telling of stories
is an activity reserved for the time of the year
of growing darkness. It is often delineated by
a time without thunders, a time without
snakes or bears. While conveying lessons,
tales were also the main form of entertainment during the moons of inclement weather when few beyond hunting parties in time of low stores left the villages. From coastal beaches to mountains and high plains, the rhythm of the cold season in the middle section of Turtle Island settled into a quietness and rest.
There are stories that speak of creation and deeds of long ago. There are also tales meant to impart lessons to be applied during the warmer months when it would be more difficult to gain people’s undivided attention.
One such tale from a tribe on the Northwest coast concerns a cannibal monster and the first mosquitoes. I do not know whether this story is still told or not. I first came across it in a Canadian First Nations story book I picked up on Vancouver Island in the 1980’s. It is from a northern tribe – Tsimshian, Kwakwaka’wakw, Haida or the like. As one who is allergic to mosquito bites, the story fascinated me. I have attempted to track it down but have been relatively unsuccessful. (note reference to the most complete on the internet at the moment.)
I offer it here for two reasons: first, it needs to be saved and secondly, perhaps someone is more familiar with it and can fill in the blanks. If you have further information, my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Perhaps we can provide the information in a follow-up article.
There lived a young man in this very prosperous village. He was training to be a hunter. He was industrious and quick to learn. He also was neither royalty nor an artisan. His family was poor and of a low caste in the village just above the slaves.
Day in day out, he watched the head man’s daughter as she went about her chores. His friends worried about him because they were well aware of his lofty ambitions. If only he could be interested in some of the hunters’ or craftsmen’s daughters he would find happiness someday.
Eventually, as his frustration with his place in the village grew, he sought the wise counsel of a holy man. The hunter had conscientiously spent his years of training and had become one of the most renowned hunters in the village. In fact, although he could have had his pick of many of the eligible maidens, he was still living at his parents’ fireplace. The holy man was gentle and kind and had been watching the young hunter for a number of years. He not only noted the success in the hunt but how the young hunter always made sure the elders were taken care of when game was brought back to the long house. It was the generosity and kindness that most impressed this elder. Those traits and the longing in the hunter’s eyes when he watched the head man’s daughter spoke to this generous man.
As winter turned to spring in the village people began to travel into the forest again for bark and wood, for early shoots and the prized fiddle heads. Hunters sought game and fishermen took their boats out to fish. Along the river, salmon was again caught with nets and spears.
One day, when the women went out to gather bark, one of them did not return. Those who did bore the news that Klu Tikl, the cannibal monster had returned and had captured her. Unfortunately, everyone knew there was no escaping him. It was hoped that with one sacrifice this early in the season, the village would be spared further heartache.
Ceremonies were performed for both the woman lost and also that the monster would be appeased. As a further precaution, an escort system was established to protect women going into the forest for gathering of any kind. This proved satisfactory for a bit more than a moon cycle. In that time, there was great hope that the village would be spared further loss.
After the first run of the salmon was finished, several young men went into the forest to bring back planks for the artists to add to the front panels of the long house. The three headed out with word of where they would be and the fact they would return in time for dinner. Dinner came and went. The village anxiously watched for any sign of the three. It was decided that if they did not return by morning, a party of warriors would go in search for them.
The next morning, the party assembled. In their ranks was the young hunter. They headed straight for where the planks were to be harvested from the trees. The slash was neatly piled to one side. One plank had been harvested and the ropes had been moved to the second tree. The plank from that tree was almost cut clear through. The ropes were still in the tree. Work had been stopped. After careful checking of the sight one of the warriors determined that there had been a fight. Then the young hunter stumbled over what turned out to be the arm of one of the woodsmen. There was no doubt about what happened with bites and teeth marks on the flesh. The tattoos were well known. The village could ill afford these losses. Who would be next?
It was after the ceremonies for his departed friends, that the hunter approached the elder. “I want to do more, for them…in memory.” He said. “They left families. We cannot lose others. How can this monster be stopped?”
The elder took the hunter to a quiet corner of the central fire place. Cedar was burned in preparation for the imparting of sacred knowledge. Personal preparations and prayers would have to be made before such a sacred mission was undertaken. The elder would provide the information as to the kill method as well as informing the head man that the hunter was preparing to take up the challenge.
In view of the urgency, the young man began his prayer and fasting that very night. As others were enjoying their evening meal, the elder brought the hunter to a cold dark corner of the long house. Wrapped in a borrowed blanket, he settled in for his preparation.
The next evening, his mentor arrived and asked if he still wanted to do this. The hunter affirmed his intention and was promptly left alone for another night.
The second evening he was again asked about the hunt. When he repeated that this was what he wished, the elder told him the monster must be bound to a pole. With that, the young man was again left with his thoughts and prayers.
The third evening after the question and answer, there was information about preparing a very large fire pit.
On the fourth night, after affirming his desire to complete the hunt, he was given a dipper of water to drink. When he had drunk his fill, he received the last of the directions. The bound monster was to be burned in the pit and no parts of the monster were to escape.
The next morning the young hunter chose his helpers. They were all young and strong. None had families of their own as this would be a dangerous mission. Four bear skins were sewn together by the young men as a cover for the pit.
The following day, a pole was taken in a sacred way. This pole would hold the monster. The families of those died got together and made the rope that would be used.
After these preparations, the young men were blessed by the holy man, had a reasonable night’s sleep, and assembled in front of the long house. The village was gathered to send them off. Travel foods were given to them and a small breakfast was served. Sharpened clamshells were placed in travel baskets so the pit could be dug. The head man’s daughter gave the hunter a basket of dried salmon and before she stepped away, she placed her finely woven waterproof hat on his head. He was the only one in the group too poor to own one, and he would need something to create a dry space to start the fire in the rain.
The second day out they felt they had gone far enough to dig the pit. Some dug while others gathered dead dry branches. When people grew tired of one task they switched off. In two days, they were satisfied with their creation.
Leaving the pit, they moved to an area between where the bark gatherers and the woodmen had been. There they set up camp. There was a hope that by looking relatively unprotected they would be able to lure the monster to them.
It took days for them to see even signs of the monster. The hunter encouraged his crew, and they all spent any spare time in prayer and meditation. Slowly, they began to see and hear signs. At first it was grunting at night. Then there were footprints nearby. Watches were doubled but several, including the hunter, chose to sleep in the open in order to use themselves as bait. It was particularly uncomfortable for the hunter as not only was he sleeping on a coil of rope as the others were but he also used his body to shield the pole from view. On the third night, chaos struck the camp. However, the small party was more than ready.
The cannibal monster made an attempt to grab the young man sleeping at the edge of the clearing and the trap was sprung. In a flurry of activity, the monster was bound and tied to the pole. The hunter ran to the pit and lit the branches. The others struggled with the monster on the pole dragging him to the edge of the pit and tossing him in. It was then that someone remembered the bear robe and with a great deal of effort, it was eventually moved into position on top of the hole.
As luck would have it, before the robe was fully in place, some of the ashes escaped.
Upon the party’s return to the village, there was a great deal of celebration and relief. While all were feted, the young hunter was especially extolled for his bravery and dedication to the village. That evening, the head man’s daughter spent time exclusively with him. At the end of the evening she told him she would marry him because such selfless generosity and sacrifice for the tribe was more important than station.
Unfortunately, as the sun was going down, the cannibal monster had his revenge. Tiny insects, never seen before invaded the village. Much to the annoyance of one and all, as they alighted on bear skin, they proceeded to suck blood from their victims. The ‘ashes’ that had escaped from the pit before the bearskin was set in place were actually tiny flying reproductions of the monster himself. Thus, while the cannibal monster no longer feasts on whole humans, stealing them as they wonder the forest; its insect relatives feast to this day on those who wander, particularly near fresh water at dusk.