Saturday, August 25, 2012


Castoroides ohioensis, the Pleistocene giant beaver,
compared to a modern beaver (Castor castor).

            Many experts believe that a people’s mythology and legends begin as tales of actual events passed down by being told and retold through the generations. Tale becomes myth at some point when the actual connections of memory between the living generation and the generations in the stories are lost. Such myths and legends can properly be classified as cultural fossils making the study of creatures of myth applicable to the study of the influence of fossils upon the belief of the people. Many tribes granted a prominent place in their mythology to the giant beaver, including; the Cree, Chippewa, Hidatsa, Jicarilla Apache, Algonquin, Cheyenne, and others, but perhaps the greatest number of beliefs and legends came from the Northwest Coast peoples.

            The giant beaver (Castoroides) had evolved during the Pleistocene in North America. In North America Castoroides ranged from Alaska to Florida, and was particularly abundant around the Great Lakes. It lived in lakes and ponds bordered by swamp, and had short legs with large webbed feet, suggesting that it was a powerful swimmer. Adults were as large as a black bear, probably reaching 200 kg. in weight and 2.5 meters in length.

Kiksadi pole, Wrangell, Alaska. The bottom figure is
Wishpoosh, the giant beaver. Photo Peter Faris, 2001.

Among people of the northwest coast giant beavers were important totem and ancestral animals. The Kiks’adi totem pole in Wrangell, Alaska, was carved about 1895 by William Ukas. It shows the crests of the Kiks’adi clan of the Stikine Tlinget including the crest of the giant beaver Killisnoo.

A Yakima story entitled “How the Coyote Made the Indian Tribes” sheds some interesting light on the origin of the Columbia River. A giant beaver had inhabited Lake Cle Elum on the eastern side of the Cascades. His name was Wishpoosh and he abused the people so that Coyote decided to help them. Coyote and Wishpoosh got into a fight in Lake Cle Elum and caused an earthquake which made a large hole in the lake, and it began to rain. Wrestling with each other and refusing to give in, Coyote and Wishpoosh rolled down the eastern slope of the Cascades to Kittitas valley, where the waters made a great lake. The combat continued on, Coyote and Wishpoosh, struggling with the waters rushing behind in their wake. They cut the channel for the Yakima River, created a second lake, and tore through Union Gap. The waters overflow this path and form another lake in the Walla Walla country. The fight then took an abrupt turn to the left and the Oregon-Washington border channel of the Columbia was made to the Pacific Ocean. This Yakima story is echoed in several other tribal traditions where only part of the sequence is mentioned; the Colville, Sanpoil, and Okanogan tribes all repeat parts of this story.

            In 1953 Ella Clark published a myth that she attributed to both Colville and Lake Indian Informants that credited Coyote with the creation of the Columbia River in its present configuration. In that myth Coyote ordered the four kinds of salmon to swim up the Columbia and made the beaver their chief. “The people of many tribes will come here to fish,” Coyote said to Beaver. “You will be chief over all of them. You must share the salmon with everyone who comes.”
Beaver drawn from Haida button blanket,
1890. Peter Faris, 2003.

            In Northwest Coast symbolism Beaver is identified by two main characteristics. Although Beaver always has ears and rounded nostrils, the two most identifying symbols are the tail and the two large incisor teeth. – The incisor teeth are close together and not pointed as are the canines of the bear or wolf. Many of these characteristics are illustrated by the beaver image drawn from a Kaigani Haida button blanket collected ca. 1890. Now in the collection of the Philbrook Art Center in Tulsa, OK, the image was made by sewing mother-of-pearl buttons on wool and flannel fabric.

Tsagaglalal (She Who Watches), The Dalles,
Washington. Photo: Peter Faris, 2000.

            South of Puget Sound there are a few carved sites on the lower Columbia that reflect the classic Northwest Style. A noteworthy example is the pecked and painted head of Tsagaglalal (She Who Watches), a legendary woman ruler who was turned to stone by Coyote. It is very skillfully pecked into basaltic rock above the Columbia River at the present site of The Dalles Dam. Remains of red paint on the rock suggest that the lines of many of the petroglyphs were originally filled with paint that has eroded away.

            Tsagaglalal overlooks the cemetery area of the Wishram Indian town of Nixlu’idix at The Dalles. This was a trading center which had attracted people from throughout the Columbia Plateau, and even farther. Traders came here in ocean-going canoes from southern Alaska, and northern California, and horse-men came from the Mandan villages in North Dakota. Trade flourished and tons of salmon and other goods changed hands in the trade fairs that attracted thousands of people each year. Lewis and Clark came to Nixlu’idix in October 1805 and recorded in their journals twenty large wooden plank houses, each home to three families. From April through mid-October the various species of salmon migrated upriver to their spawning grounds providing the Wishram with large quantities of fish. Clark recorded 107 stacks of dried salmon and estimated their total weight at over 10,000 pounds.

In a 1990 paper James Keyser wrote on possible interpretations of the Tsagaglalal petroglyph. “The ethnographic approach to interpreting this petroglyph has considerable historical depth. Before 1910 Edward S. Curtis reported the story of the ancient Wishram woman chief which is associated with the petroglyph. Coyote got to Nixlu’idix, the furthest upriver village and asked the villagers, “Are you living  well?”“You must ask our chief,” said the people, “she is living up there in the rocks.” “She sees everything that is going on.” So Coyote climbed up to her and said, “Soon the world is going to change and women will no longer be chiefs. You stay here and watch the people who are coming.” With that, Coyote threw her up onto the rim rock to watch from there forever (Keyser 1990: page S-3).

            Keyser relied on this ethnographic data for interpreting Tsagaglalal and, noting the proximity of the petroglyph to the above-mentioned cemetery, assigned a funerary interpretation to the image of Tsagaglalal. They may, however, be completely unrelated with the petroglyph predating the cemetery. In such a case the Wishram may have considered Tsagaglalal to have a funerary significance that had nothing to do with the idea behind its original creation.

            I believe that we need to go back to earlier mythologies and folk-memories to identify Tsagaglalal. In style the petroglyph is recognized as representing stylistic elements of Northwest Coast rock art. In Northwest Coast portrayals of Beaver the ears are rounded and the mouth is shown as slightly open with a square in the middle representing the beaver’s characteristic incisor teeth. Tsagaglalal also has these characteristics. Additionally, we have seen that among the mythologies of people of that area Wishpoosh the Giant Beaver was instrumental in creating the features of the landscape, particularly the Columbia River and many of its falls, rapids, and other features. I suggest that Tsagaglalal portrays the Giant Beaver, chief of all the salmon and thus the benefactor of the Wishram people who resided there and depended upon them for their living, looking out over The Dalles which it created, and which proved to be so vital to the fishing economy of the Wishram people who lived there.


Clark, Ella E.
1966    Indian Legends of the Northern Rockies, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Keyser, James D.
1990    Tsagaglalal – She Who Watches: Rock Art As An Interpretable Phenomenon, Journal of Interpretation, Volume 14, Number 2.

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