Sunday, July 22, 2012


Gonakadet, Sproat Lake, Vancouver Island, B.C., Canada.
Photo: Peter Faris, 1995.

Northwest Coast tribes reportedly identified a constellation which was identified with the Sea Wolf, known as Gonakadet by the Tlingit, and Wasgo by the Haida. Next to "Raven," the most popular subject for totem pole art was the Gonakadet. Known also to the Haidas as "Wasgo," this monster is generally depicted as an aquatic wolf with some aspects of the killer whale. He is often depicted with the body and fins of a killer whale and the head of a wolf.

The Myth of Wasgo, the Sea Wolf
 “Wasgo, the Sea Wolf” also known as Sea-Bear, is based on the Tlingit-Haida myth of “Gonakadet” the Lazy Son-in-Law. In one version, he appears as a half killer whale and half wolf, with two fins and a wolf’s tail. In a condensed interpretive version of the story, the son-in-law becomes the hero. His mother continually takes the young man as a lazy so-and-so in law. The young man, despite the chiding from the old woman, secretly trains at night and successfully traps the great mythological creature Wasgo. Stripping it of its coat and donning the immense fur, the young man is granted the supernatural powers of the great creature.
 The young man catches many sea animals such as salmon, seals and Killer whales. Each time, he would take his catch and place it on the beach in front of this mother-in-law’s house. All was accomplished before the break of dawn. The mother-in-law discovers the unclaimed bounty each morning, telling her people that she is a great shaman and has summoned the creatures up from the sea to feed the people of her village. The old woman continuously boasts of her catch, as it increases both in number and in size. At last, the young man brings in three Killer whales to please his mother-in-law. The battle was long, completely exhausting the spirit of the young hunter. Falling on the beach next to his catch the young man finds himself trapped within the heavy skin of the Wasco, dead to the world, as we know it. The mourning call of Raven, finalizes the death of the young hunter.

 The mother in law rises with the morning to discover the great whales and the unusual Sea Wolf. Looking into the Sea Wolf’s eyes, the mother in laws recognizes her son- in-law. She realizes that it was his talents all along that brought the great wealth to her people. The mother- in-law falls to the beach, and dies of shame.

I have not yet been able to find a reference which points to the actual constellation or group of stars in the night sky which represents the constellation Gonakadet/Wasgo to these people of the North American northwest coast. This is however, a clear reminder to us that indigenous people did not leave questions unanswered; they had an explanation for everything, just like we do. Their explanations just might not agree with ours.


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