Legends of Myself 55

Posted on January 8, 2013



Continued from Legends of Myself 54

Tsimshian Wolf Crest55.  Two Stories from Spaksuut

The Wolf, Deer and Salmon People.  My brother Aleck, who is bound to know these things better than I, told me a story which he said belonged to the Wolves of Spaksuut.  By Wolves, he meant Wolf Clan, which I belong to through my mother.  Everybody on the North Coast inherits their clan through their mother, if they have a clan to inherit.  The Wolf is a crest figure.  My mother’s clan also claims the right to a Grizzly crest figure.

A crest, I should explain, is not a totem, contrary to the naming of crest poles on the Northwest coast.  There is no worship of wolves, bears, eagles, ravens, blackfish, frogs, etc. or their spirits involved in belonging to a clan.  These are merely figures which different clans claim the right to exhibit, along with accompanying stories, which are subject to a kind of property right.

To understand the story my brother told, it is better to understand a little bit about traditional Tsimshian worldview, which resembles the worldview of many people on the Northwest Coast.  According to the traditional Tsimshian way of explaining the world, animals and creatures which we meet in the real world are merely cloaked in the shapes they have.  In their homes, which usually exist in places beyond human experience—although humans can occasionally contact them—they throw off their animal cloaks and walk and act fairly much as humans do, in villages that would be quite familiar to any Tsimshian.

Thus there are the Salmon People—who at home are just people—who must be placated and shown respect for coming every Spring and giving of themselves to feed the human people.  This was the First Salmon Ceremony which was widespread among all the cultures of the NorthwestCoast, and was our Thanksgiving.

When creatures of any sort throw off their animal cloaks at home, they still maintain their essential qualities, although presenting pretty much as human superficially.

Thus when the Wolves came to the village of the Deer People, in the story which Aleck told me, it was still as Wolves coming among Deer.  But the Wolves didn’t know about the Deer for a certainty.  When the Wolves opened their mouths, they displayed the fierce teeth of meat-eaters.  But the Deer People, who had the teeth of deer, didn’t want to open their mouths and thus display their weakness in the presence of wolves.  They tried to keep their mouths closed, speaking with their lips close together.

The Wolf People, on the other hand, were keenly interested in what was in the Deer People’s mouths.  They began telling jokes, and the Deer People laughed, tee-hee-hee, and snorted through their noses.  But when joke followed joke as the evening progressed, the Deer People became merrier and had to press their sides with their hands to contain the laughter in their bellies.  But eventually the laughter broke out of their mouths.

And so the Wolf People saw their flat deer teeth, and knew who the Deer People were.

This drawing of Dogfish Woman, by Haida artist Daxhiigang, was made in Port Essington in 1897.  It refers to a Haida woman captured by a Dogfish chief, who eventually becomes dogfish herself.

This drawing of Dogfish Woman, by Haida artist Daxhiigang, was made in Port Essington in 1897. It refers to a Haida woman captured by a Dogfish chief, who eventually becomes dogfish herself.

Raven and the Dogfish Women.  The second story I actually heard in Port Essington, but I didn’t hear the whole of it or even understand its significance until encountering it again, more than forty years later, in Robert Bringhurst’s, A Story as Sharp as a Knife.

To understand the story, you have to understand about Raven and about dogfish, both.

Raven was the Trickster of the NorthwestCoast, always doing, shaping, not always wise but ever curious, sometimes getting himself into hilarious trouble, sometimes causing it.  Ever resilient, his comeuppances are always temporary, if real enough for the purposes of the story he’s in.

Dogfish are sharks, of course.  The skin of dogfish were used as sandpaper on the Northwest Coast, smoothing the hulls of the ocean-going canoes, for instance, or the surfaces of bentboxes or other cedar artworks.  Dogfish were also noted for having double sexual organs, two organs that were identified as penises, two organs that were identified as vaginas, and human-like sexual practices.  That is, sex.  Unlike salmon, for instance, who in nature merely laid their eggs in the stream bed, with the male swimming by later to fertilize them.  The Dogfish People thus had a reputation for sexuality.

The early version of the story of Raven and the dogfish women comes to us through the Nisga’a ethnographer Gwüsḵ’aayn, a.k.a. William Beynon, who, in his turn, heard it in the 1930s from a Tsimshian named Arthur Lewis.  In the story, which, as it has come down to us, is a simple one, Raven encounters a village of beautiful women.  All of the women entice Raven to have sex with them one by one, and Raven being who Raven is, not one to turn down such an opportunity, accepts the offer.  But the women are Dogfish women, sandpaper women, and Raven’s penis suffers some wearing down because of it, until, well, it’s much less than it was before.

It’s a droll tale, adult fun, but it was not from adults but my precocious cousin Artie, then 10 or 11 years old, that I heard the story when I first encountered it in Port Essington, 1958 or ’59.  He told it after hours, Reynold and I as his audience, in the bedroom we all shared upstairs.  I hardly knew what Art was on about then, knowing nothing at all about sex, but I subsequently, in later years, interpreted it to be a story discussing the general sexual potential of women as compared to men.  I’m sure that underlies the story.

But the joke about Dogfish Women, intrinsically doubly potent sexually anyway, and their sandpaper nature, was a joke on Raven particularly, and on who he was.  It was entirely in Raven’s character to get into just that kind of trouble.  I missed understanding that part until the whole story became known to me later.

Raven was serious stuff, but that didn’t mean he could not make you laugh.  Life is serious stuff, but it makes you laugh all the time.

Continued @ Legends of Myself 56