Friday, 2 July 2010

The Sasquatch / Bigfoot in Native American folklore

The oldest sources of stories about the Sasquatch are the native peoples of North America. As might be expected each tribe had its own name for these creatures. The Iroquois called them wendigo or wittiko, the Micmac called it chenoo and the Penobscott used the name kiwakwe. European folklorists who were the first to come across these stories in any number used the general term of Wendigo. They treated the tales as little better than fairy stories, and concentrated on the story element of the tales, no matter how much the native peoples insisted that the creatures were real. The problem with these early reports, from a scientific point of view, is that they are not only rather vague but contain no details of time or place. They simply talk about the animal as they might talk about bear or elk. The creature is described as looking like a very large human, covered all over in fur. It is said to live in remote forested areas, to be active mostly at night and to avoid humans.

Interestingly the further away from forested mountains that researchers got, the more the stories they collected about this creature became detached from reality. While the tribes of British Columbia treated Sasquatch as just another animal, albeit a rather special one akin to humans, the Ojibway of the plains regard it as a messenger from the gods. The appearance of a Sasquatch is seen as a bad omen, a sign that supernatural trouble is on the way.

The name Sasquatch comes from the writings of J.W. Burns who was a teacher on the Chehalis Indian Reserve in British Columbia. It is an anglicisation of the word that is more properly rendered as sesqec. The name has stuck and although it was at first used more widely in Canada than the USA, many researchers now prefer it to the tabloid-sounding Bigfoot. So far as Burns was concerned he was collecting folktales and legends with no basis in reality. Like others working with the indigenous peoples, he did not take seriously the stories of gigantic hairy man-apes.

Having coined the word, J.W. Burns soon realised that the tribesmen considered the Sasquatch to be a very real animal. In May 1938 Burns was at a local festival when an official from the Canadian government touched on the subject. “Of course,” the speaker said “Sasquatch are merely imaginary Indian monsters. No white man has ever seen them and they do not exist.” The speaker then found himself pushed out of the way by Chief Flying Eagle of the Halkomelem.

“The white speaker is wrong,” declared Flying Eagle. “Some white men have seen Sasquatch. Many Indians have seen them. Sasquatch are still all around here. I have spoken.”

Chief Flying Eagle was right, white men had been reporting seeing the hairy ape-man of the woods for some years. As far back as 1793 the Boston Gazette was reporting on a big, hairy and unidentified creature called the chickly cudly, a term that seems to be an anglicisation of a Cherokee word translating as “hairy man thing”. Details of what the creature looked like or what it did are, however, lacking.

This is an extract from Sasqutch by Rupert Matthews.

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