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.

Saturday, August 18, 2012


I recently received this picture and comments from Richard Coleman concerning New Mexico rock art in the Galisteo Basin south of Santa Fe. 

Hispanic rock art image. Galisteo Basin, New Mexico.
Photo: Richard Coleman, August, 2012.

"During some additional explorations in the Galisteo Basin, near Santa Fe, NM; I came across of basalt "dike" on top of range of hills. The face is native american. The initials are dated 1901. The graphic in the middle: rancher brand, religious symbol, or ???
Richard Coleman."

The question involves the symbol in the center of the photograph. After looking at it for a while I felt I could hazard a guess as to what it represents. The Hispanic culture of that area has historically been very devout Catholic and we know that processions are a major factor in the public face of that belief. I believe that the symbol in question represents a carreta (cart or wagon) with a crucifix on it for just such a public procession. There may be some other good guesses out there, maybe you have seen it before? Let me know and send your pictures.

Saturday, August 11, 2012


The period around ca. AD 1300 was a time of upheaval in the Rio Grande valley area with the migration of Anasazi in from the four-corners area to the northwest, which was being abandoned due to drought.  Such periods of social change are often periods of intellectual change as well as people strive to adapt their beliefs and understandings to the new conditions.

In late summer AD 1301 there was a spectacular appearance of Halley's Comet in the skies. Other spectacular comet appearances that were recorded from about that time in European or Chinese records, or both, date from AD 1264, AD 1299, and AD 1337, but the AD 1301 appearance of Halley's Comet may have been the most spectacular. Descriptions indicate that its tail was impressively long, it is estimated to have subtended an angle of as much as 70º across the sky.

Hopi Nangasohu Kachina, Star or Chasing-Planet Kachina.
From Hopi Kachinas, Barton Wright, 1977, Northland Press,
Flagstaff. Four-pointed star painted on front of case mask,
and feathered ruff headdress representing eagle tail.

The Hopi Nangasohu Kachina, the Chasing Star or Meteor Kachina of Oraibi is pictured wearing a case mask with a big star across the front and a ruff of eagle feathers across the top.   This combines two related sky concepts into one: the star of the night sky and the eagle, beast god of the above. Both of these themes can be identified in rock art of the Anasazi and their merging can be followed in rock art of the upper Rio Grande. The Hopi word nanga means "to pursue" and sohu means "star." A beautiful figure, Na-ngasohu appears in the Bean Dance Procession and carries a bell in his right hand.  He wears a large eagle plume fan behind his head.

Galisteo, NM. Star Petroglyph with facial features, Eagle tail, and 
eagle's taloned legs added. This represents a fusion of the star theme
with the sky theme of the Eagle. Photo: Peter Faris, 1988.

The cruciform or four-pointed star is found throughout North America and innumerable examples are illustrated in rock art. These examples range from the simplest pair of crossed lines to more ornate examples, some with single or even double outlines. The variation developed by the Anasazi of the Rio Grande area portrays each arm of the star as a triangle with their bases coming together in the center as do the arms of our traditional five-pointed star. This center was often portrayed with a circle inside it which, in turn, was frequently converted to a simple face by the addition of marks representing two eyes and a mouth.

The added facial features imply personification, the star is not just a light in the sky - it is now a being. It would seem only natural to identify the star as a sky spirit and perhaps various star portrayals were considered by their creators to portray various spirits or deities from their pantheon.

With the important position that the eagle held among these sky-related beings it would only seem natural to find examples of stars combined with the characteristics of eagles.  Examples show the star with facial features and legs ending in eagle talons. Further examples add the eagle's tail and this is illustrated in petroglyphs from West Mesa at Albuquerque, NM, as well as from the Galisteo Basin. These final examples demonstrate that the integration of the Star theme with the Eagle is complete.

Star personage, Galisteo, NM. Photo: Peter Faris, Sept. 1988.

These images from the Albuquerque area are dated from the Pueblo IV period, ca. AD 1300 - 1540, and those from the Galisteo Basin are assigned to the post-ca. AD 1300 period. The fusion of the Star and Eagle concepts developed an image in which the star was portrayed with the tail of an eagle projecting upward, perhaps to illustrate the eagle in a stoop or a dive. This is virtually identical with the Hopi Nangasohu Kachina identified as the Chasing Star or Meteor Kachina and described above. Indeed the combination of the concepts of the stooping eagle and a star would very strongly suggest the appearance of a comet with its tail of light.

Galisteo, NM. Star-Kachina petroglyph.
Note Eagle tail headdress and star head.
Photo: Peter Faris

This suggests that the record preserved in the rock art of the Galisteo Basin and the upper Rio Grande area in New Mexico records the spectacular appearance of Halley's Comet in AD 1301, as well as its evolution into a specific sacred being among the kachinas of the Ancestral Puebloan pantheon, and its subsequent influence on their culture.

Saturday, August 4, 2012


Michi-Peshu, a canoe full of paddlers, and two giant underwater
serpents. Agawa Rock, Lake Superior Provincial Park, 
Ontario, Canada.

            Michi-Peshu, the underwater panther, has primacy among underwater monsters in the Great Lakes region. In this realm the underwater horned serpents are relegated to the role of Mishi-Peshu’s helpers. According to Conway:

            "The supernatural feline guardian of Lake Superior, Mishi-Peshu is an amalgam of a tufted-cheek lynx, a dragon with spines running from head to tail, and a minotaur with curved horns. Mishi-Peshu represents a bold abstraction of Lake Superior's power and fury - the unrivaled forces of the world's largest freshwater lake. The composite mythological animal mimics the tension between natural elements.
            To Algonquian speakers, the generic peshu can conjure up cat, lion, panther, or lynx, depending on circumstance or a well-chosen adjective. Following a native worldview, where interrelatedness is more important than divisions between living creatures, they are simply “cat”. Even artistic conventions are reinforced by folklore in the case of Mishi-Peshu. Over half of the Ojibwa and Chippewa tales describing the underwater lion mention its spine-covered tail. The three dream portrait pictographs of Mishi-Peshu marking Agawa Rock strongly emphasize this feature of the lord of the depths.” (Conway 1993:66)

            The red pictograph of Mishi-Peshu at Agawa Rock, in Lake Superior Provincial Park may be the best-known rock art image of the underwater panther in existence.  It is portrayed in red paint with a canoe full of paddlers behind it and its two giant underwater serpent helpers below.

            According to Dewdney and Kidd, portrayals of Mishi-Peshu are common throughout the Great Lakes region. Another mythological creature of great interest that may also be associated frequently with the pictograph sites is Mi-shi-pi-shiw, literally the Great Lynx, actually the Ojibwa demi-god of the water. At Agawa we have an authenticated likeness of this sinister deity of swift or troubled waters. In 1851 Henry Schoolcraft, the Indian Agent at the American Sault Ste Marie whose collection of Ojibwa legends was the basis for Longfellow’s Hiawatha, published his Intellectual Capacity and Character of the Indian Race. Included in it were birch bark renderings of two pictograph sites painted by an Ojibwa shaman-warrior who claimed the special protection of Mishipizhiw (Dewdney 1967:14).

Michi-Peshu, a canoe full of paddlers, and two giant underwater
serpents. Agawa Rock, Lake Superior Provincial Park, 
Ontario, Canada. Pen and ink, Peter Faris, 2004.

The scales covering Michi-Peshu are made of pure copper which is confirmed by the discovery of native copper deposits at locations in the Great Lakes region. Six thousand years ago, descendants of the first settlers of this area were utilizing native copper from the Keweenaw Peninsula and other locations on the shores of Lake Superior. These copper deposits served to confirm the truth of the legends about Michi-Peshu.

Michi-Peshu, woven bag, Potawatomi indian, 
Wisconsin, ca. 1840-1880.

Such was the awsome power of Michi-Peshu, that he was chosen to represent the underworld on native woven bags of the Northeastern woodlands and Great Lakes Region. Such bags were almost invariably decorated with the Michi-Peshu on one side, and Thunderbirds on the other side representing the above world. This theme expresses the dichotomy of existence with the contents of the bag, and thus by extension the person carrying it, representing this world between the above and the below.

I have previously written about the ubiquity of underwater serpents among the mythologies of native North American People (Water Monsters – Unktehi and Uncegila, April 10, 2011). What is fascinating to me about Michi-Peshu is that his myths also include giant underwater serpents, but they are only his helpers. What a wonderful creature, mythological or otherwise.


Conway, Thor,
1993    Painted Dreams: Native American Rock Art, Northword Press, Inc., Minocquia, WI.

Dewdney, Selwyn, and Kenneth E. Kidd
1976    Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes, Second Edition, University of Toronto Press.