Myths & Legends


Chinookan: The Heaven-sought Bride

The Chinookan were a Sparta like people in the Americas. The Chinookan peoples were hunters and fishers with salmon a mainstay of their diet. They had a society marked by social stratification, consisting of a number of distinct social castes of greater or lesser status. Upper castes included shamans, warriors, and successful traders, a minority ruling over the wider population. Members of the superior castes are said to have practiced social discrimination, limiting contact with commoners and forbidding play between the children of the different social groups, much like the Spartan citizen relation to the helots.

No officially recognized group of Chinookan exist today. Fortunately their legends survived, and what follows was collected by Lewis Spence in the Myths of the North American Indians. A tale of the Supernatural People and their intercourse with the Mortal Chinookan.
— Orly

The Heaven-sought Bride

A brother and sister left destitute by the death of their father, a chief of the Chinooks, were forced to go hunting sea-otters every day to obtain a livelihood. As they hunted the mists came down, and with them the Supernatural People, one of whom became enamoured of the girl. The ghostly husband sent his wife gifts of stranded timber and whale-meat, so that when her son was born she might want for nothing. The mischievous Blue Jay, hearing of the abundance of meat in the young chief's house, apprised his own chief of the circumstance and brought all the village to share it. The Supernatural People, annoyed that their bounty should be thus misused, abducted the young chief's sister, along with her child.

The woman's aunt, the Crow, gathered many potentilla and other roots, placed them in her canoe, and put out to sea. She came to the country of the Supernatural Folk, and when they saw her approaching they all ran down to the beach to greet her. They greedily snatched at the roots she had brought with her and devoured them, eating the most succulent and throwing away those that were not so much to their taste. The Crow soon found her niece, who laughed at her for bringing such fare to such a land.

"Do you think they are men that you bring them potentilla roots?" she cried. "They only eat certain of the roots you have fetched hither because they have magical properties. The next time you come bring the sort of roots they seized upon—and you can also bring a basket of potentilla roots for me."


The Whale-catcher

She then called upon a dog which was gambolling close at hand.

"Take this dog," she said to the Crow. "It belongs to your grand-nephew. When you come near the shore say, 'Catch a whale, dog,' and see what happens."

The Crow bade farewell to her niece, and, re-entering her canoe, steered for the world of mortals again. The dog lay quietly in the stern. When about half-way across the Crow recollected her niece's advice.

"Catch a whale, good dog," she cried encouragingly.

The dog arose, and at that moment a whale crossed the path of the canoe. The dog sank his teeth in the great fish, and the frail bark rocked violently.

"Hold him fast, good fellow!" cried the Crow excitedly. "Hold him fast!" But the canoe tossed so dangerously and shipped so much water that in a great fright she bade the dog let go. He did so, and lay down in the stern again.

The Crow arrived at the world of men once more, and after landing turned round to call her wonderful dog ashore. But no trace of him was visible. He had disappeared.

"The mists came down, and with them the Supernatural People"

Once more the Crow gathered many roots and plants, taking especial care to collect a good supply of the sort the Supernatural People were fond of, and gathering only a small basket of potentilla. For the second time she crossed over to the land of the Divine Beings, who, on espying her succulent cargo, devoured it at once. She carried the potentilla roots to her niece, and when in her house noticed the dog she had received and lost. Her niece informed her that she should not have ordered the animal to seize the whale in mid-ocean, but should have waited until she was nearer the land. The Crow departed once more, taking the dog with her.

When they approached the land of men the Crow called to the animal to catch a whale, but it stirred not. Then the Crow poured some water over him, and he started up and killed a large whale, the carcass of which drifted on to the beach, when the people came down and cut it up for food.


The Chinooks Visit the Supernaturals

Some time after this the young chief expressed a desire to go to see his sister, so his people manned a large canoe and set forth. The chief of the Supernatural People, observing their approach, warned his subjects that the mortals might do something to their disadvantage, and by means of magic he covered the sea with ice. The air became exceedingly cold, so cold, indeed, that Blue Jay, who had accompanied the young chief, leapt into the water. At this one of the Supernatural People on shore laughed and cried out: "Ha, ha! Blue Jay has drowned himself!" At this taunt the young chief in the canoe arose, and, taking the ice which covered the surface of the sea, cast it away. At sight of such power the Supernatural Folk became much alarmed.

The chief and his followers now came to land, and, walking up the beach, found it deserted. Not a single Supernatural Person was to be seen. Espying the chief's house, however, the Chinooks approached it. It was guarded by sea-lions, one at each side of the door. The chief cautiously warned his people against attempting an entrance. But the irrepressible Blue Jay tried to leap past the sea-lions, and got severely bitten for his pains. Howling dismally, he rushed seaward. The young chief, annoyed that the Divine Beings should have cause for laughter against any of his people, now darted forward, seized the monsters one in each hand, and hurled them far away.

At this second feat the Supernatural Folk set up a hubbub of rage and dismay, which was turned to loud laughter when Blue Jay claimed the deed as his, loudly chanting his own praises. The Chinooks, taking heart, entered the lodge. But the Supernatural Folk vanished, leaving only the chief's sister behind.

The Chinooks had had nothing to eat since leaving their own country, and Blue Jay, who, like most worthless folk, was always hungry, complained loudly that he was famished. His brother Robin sullenly ordered him to be silent. Suddenly a Supernatural Being with a long beak emerged from under the bed, and, splitting wood with his beak, kindled a large fire.

"Robin," said Blue Jay, "that is the spirit of our great-grandfather's slave."

Soon the house was full of smoke, and a voice was heard calling out for the Smoke-eater. An individual with an enormous belly made his appearance, and swallowed all the smoke, so that the house became light. A small dish was brought, containing only one piece of meat. But the mysterious voice called for the Whale-meat-cutter, who appeared, and sliced the fragment so with his beak that the plate was full to overflowing. Then he blew upon it, and it became a large canoe full of meat, which the Chinooks finished, much to the amazement of the Supernatural People.




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