Hero Grandmothers

I have been working on collecting examples of the Coos (Hanis and Milluk both) suffix -sha. This suffix is unusual in that it is the only one I know of that attaches to one and ONLY one word – huumik’, old woman.

In the course of chasing down examples of the suffix, I noticed an interesting character type that appeared in some Coos and Siuslaw stories – we could call the character ‘hero grandmother’. In one way or another, these older women characters face down danger, pass down power and knowledge to their grandchildren, although often they also survive devastating losses.

I’ll give a quick synopsis of four of the stories I am thinking of that have ‘hero grandmother’ type characters. They all come from Frachtenberg’s “Coos Texts” as told by Jim Buchanan (see blog sidebar for the book).

“Night Rainbow” follows the adventures of the Night Rainbow family. One of Night Rainbow Old Woman’s sons and his wife travel through a camas prairie. They see camas bulbs in piles, but see no one around. They pick up some camas. A grizzly comes running, saying it is his camas. He kills them both, takes the bodies home and props them up in his house. Grizzly goes on to attack their village and kills many people. Night Rainbow Old Woman lives alone, but soon Grizzly comes around to attack. She fights him, and kills him with a digging stick made of ice. She raises her surviving grandson, and when he is older he asks her to make a bow and arrows, which she does. He goes on to kill the last two Grizzlies, a male and a female, while his grandmother dances for him. He has come into his own power now. He and his grandmother work together to bring their murdered kin, long stores at Grizzly’s house, back to life. Those people return home. The story ends with more teaching from a paternal uncle, they go on to fight a downriver village but when the fighting is over declare that these people will be their kin.

“Spider Old Woman” is named in such a way – Winqas (‘weaver’ or ‘woven thing’) rather than the usual word for spider, wawa’atl – implying that she is wise. Once when she is away from home, people from downriver attack her family’s home and kill almost everyone and set the house afire. One pregnant woman hides under a fallen house board. When Spider Old Woman returns home, she finds the woman, who suffocated under the board but the baby is still alive. She is able to remove the baby, a boy, and raises him. When he is old enough, and he has learned to hunt, she tells him what happened to their kin and she trains him with Power so he can not be hit with weapons. She gives him his father’s weapons. He uses the weapons and the power his grandmother taught him to attack the people who killed his family. Then, just as in the Night Rainbow story (and indeed it is a trope that appears in numerous stories) they use power to bring their dead relatives back to life. The grandson marries, and that is the end of the story.

The next story is a Siuslaw story, as told by Jim Buchanan – the Five Grizzly Bears. It is about a family of five dangerous grizzlies who kill and attack travelers. The people around them plot to get rid of them, and eventually trick four of them to their deaths at Heceta Head. The fifth and youngest brother escapes – he falls down the cliff and swims away to the north, crawling ashore on the south side of the Alsea River where he meets and old woman, Wren. Now unlike the previous two stories, it isn’t mentioned if Wren has children or grandchildren (although it is likely she did). In this story she is living alone in a house by the beach, where Waldport is today. She recognizes the young grizzly for who and what he is. She pretends to be nice to him, then kills him. Since it is a myth age story of the animal people, she makes a formal closing to the story – that when human beings come into the world, grizzly will be an animal that runs from people.

The last story I have found with a hero grandmother is a bit different. It is not set, so far as I can tell, in the myth age of the Animal People. She is a human, who has an unfortunate encounter with Nuuskili, which are tall ogre women with pitchy dresses. In “Coos Texts” it is the “Third Giantess” story. This grandmother is babysitting two of her grandsons, and she teaches them dances. One night, two Nuuskili begin to creep into the house. Grandmother recognizes the danger immediately, and hides her 2 grandchildren. She tricks the Nuusgili to dance too close to the fire, so their dresses alight. The burning pitch-women flee. Grandmother checks the boys, and finds to her sorrow that they must have seen the Nuuskili, as both are dead. When the boys’ parents and aunts and uncles return, she tells them what happened. They track the Nuuskili and find them dead on the doorstep of their house. So, grandmother killed them, but at the loss of her two grandsons.

Perhaps I will find some more ‘hero grandmother’ characters. It’s interesting, as how often in stories do older women get to be a hero? Not often, it seems. But I am glad there are heroic Coos and Siuslaw hero grandmothers. That goes especially for Night Rainbow and her ice digging stick of doom – absolutely do not mess with her!


About shichils

Just sharing some fun on language
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