Nok’élehe: the-person-that-halloos, the hollerer, the thing that hollers. The word is the same in both Hanis and Milluk, based on the verb k’el- or k’al-; to holler, to yell. The story of the nok’élehe might be one of the most-told stories recorded from Coos Bay and Coquille people – multiple versions were recorded from several storytellers, and the story is still referenced by elders to this day.
Some versions say the nok’élehe was encountered only once. One story says it appeared again in the 19th century. Most versions agree that it begins with a lone man, carving a canoe, that encounters the strange creature. All versions agree it hollered (hence the name), was powerful, and had a single horn. Almost all of the storytellers (save one, which we’ll get to in a bit), after learning of exotic creatures from white settlers, thought the Hollerer was a rhinoceros!
Annie Peterson told two versions of the story – one in English only to Jacobs in 1933 (see Jacobs notebook 93 page 64) and later in Milluk which he reprinted in “Coos Myth Texts”. She said that Coos country was hot long ago, and there were alligators and rhinos and those sort of creatures who disappeared long ago. Here is the version she told in English in 1933:
“When they are in the woods they’d hear a person hollering, and if they’d answer this rhinoceros would come and toss a person on his horn till the person would be killed. The last one: a man was building a canoe near Ki’wé’et (the peninsula below Empire where the stave mill once was), and far back where he was building it he heard and saw this thing. He ran, the thing followed, he’d throw some of his clothes back, the thing would tear up and waste time with these fragments, then continue pursuing. At length he man got to his canoe. He tipped it over having no time to launch it. The rhino speared it and it got right on his head, and the being ran off holding the canoe over his face. The man ran on ahead and encountered an old blind woman. She advised him to get a heavy sharp hard tasseled [mud shrimp] digging pole and to stick it up the rear end of the rhino. No bow and arrow could kill him; that was the only way to kill him. So they all killed the rhino and they say this was the last one and they never saw or heard of another one again.”
Annie said this is why people did not answer a yell when they were out in the woods. Because the yell might not be coming from a human. It might be coming from some sort of deadly monster.
Annie’s niece Lottie Evanoff, and Coquille-Coos friends Nellie Wasson Freeman and Daisy Wasson Codding also knew versions of nok’élehe, which are very similar to Annie’s tale. The canoe maker was in the hills just above Second Creek, when he heard something hollering. He thought at first it was a person. He answered, and soon learned to his horror that the thing that hollered was not a person, but a large horned creature. He dodges it, hiding behind cedar trees because those are ‘soft’ (per Lottie) and the creature’s horn was most likely to get stuck in it. He fled north to Empire, where the Indians gathered together and its hide was too tough to pierce with arrows or spears. The only way they killed it was, as Lottie phrased it, “spear[ing] him thru the arse”. (The hollering monster isn’t the only thing killed this way in Coos stories – Night Rainbow Old Woman also killed a grizzly this way, with her digging stick made of ice).
Nellie and Daisy had heard this story from their Upper Coquille grandmother. They said that the old bay mouth was at Jarvis landing. When the outlet broke through where it is now, a horned creature came from the sea (not a serpent, however). Two men working at where Cammann road is now (above Second Creek) were chased by it, it speared their canoe. The two men ran and shouted, “Come out with your pitch! Come out with your spears! Come out with your sharp sticks!” People grabbed weapons, but found its hide to tough to pierce. As in the other versions, the nok’élehe had to be dispatched by stabbing it right up…well, you know. The people cut it up and burned its remains.
In an interview with Melville Jacobs in 1932 (notebook 92 page 65), Frank Drew claimed that his friend Jim Buchanan and a settler named “Dutch” Henry had encountered one of these nok’élehe:
“There was a white man (Dutch Henry) who married an Indian girl. They lived in early days on Coos River of Coos Bay. The woman (a relative of Jim Buchanan) was far up the Coos River with Jim Buchanan, where Dutch had a cabin. Jim heard someone hollering up in the woods, which were burnt and open. The thing kept up a continuous hollering, nearing all the time. Jim suddenly saw, coming upriver, on a side hill, the thing coming and hollering. He told her about it coming. She told him it was a rhinoceros, to lose no time, get in a canoe, and get downriver to where Indians were. This they did, they paddled downriver to the village, told the people what they had seen and what caused their flight. Dutch next day went upriver with a lot of natives to see what was the matter. His cabin was a strong one. When he got to it it was gone. The rhinoceros must have wrecked the house.
This was the same thing that tackled a man who was making a canoe…”
Coquelle Thompson, an Upper Coquille man, told this story to Elizabeth Jacobs (reprinted in Pitch Woman and Other Stories, edited by William Seaburg) and JP Harrington. His story is similar to the others in several respects, except for the identity of the Hollering Thing. It was not a rhinoceros, but a giant quail! The quail’s topknot was the dangerous horn.
In Thompson’s version, there was a man from Kammasdan (the Lower Coquille village near Bullard’s Beach) had been working on a canoe. Coming from a hill, he thought he heard a woman hollering. He answered. It hollered again. He answered. As it got closer, it hollered again he realized it didn’t sound like a human after all. But it was too late – he saw a large winged creature, which was a quail. The Quail charged at him, but he dodged it and eventually the thing crashed into a tree. The man hit it in the head with a rock and fled. The next day, he returned to find the creature, dead. Its horn broke off. In the longer version in JP Harrington’s notes, the canoe carver took the horn for a weapon. Elizabeth Jacobs said Thompson called the creature dectl’e, although elsewhere recorded the usual word for quail in Upper Coquille is dvshlh’e (where v = ‘uh’ and lh stands in for the barred-l symbol). So almost the same word.
This story, retold by so many, was often used as a warning to remind people to be cautious when out alone in the woods. If you hear something yelling in the distance, don’t assume it is a human. It might not be. And you might not want that nonhuman creature, whatever it may be, to find you. And if it does – well, run fast and remember to dodge from the front of a tree at the last moment – so that maybe it will knock itself out or get trapped in the tree!
Harrington, John P. 1942. Alsea, Siuslaw, Coos, Southwest Oregon Athapaskan: Vocabularies, Linguistic Notes, Ethnographic and Historical Notes. John Peabody Harrington Papers, Alaska/Northwest Coast, in National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.
Jacobs, Elizabeth. 1935. Upper Coquille notes, Notebook 119, Jacobs Collection, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle.
Jacobs, Melville. 1932-34. Coos Ethnologic Notes, Notebooks 91-99, 101, Jacobs Collection, University of Washington Archives, Seattle.
Jacobs, Melville. 1939. Coos Narrative and Ethnologic Texts. University of Washington Press, Seattle WA.
Jacobs, Melville. 1940. Coos Myth Texts. University of Washington Press, Seattle WA.
Maloney, Alice and Joe Maloney. 1933. Coos ethnographic notes from Joe and Alice B. Maloney. Melville Jacobs papers, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle WA.
Seaburg, William, ed. 2007. Pitch Woman and Other Stories: The Oral Traditions of Coquelle Thompson, Upper Coquille Athabaskan Indian. University of Nebraska Press.