This was first published 2/4/13.
The eshon (rhymes with the English word ‘ashen’) was a dangerous entity that lurked in lonely places in the hills. They are distinct from the Giant People/Forest people written about yesterday, as they are not regarded as malevolent. The eshon can be very dangerous to encounter.
The word meant ‘wild being’ and ‘spooky’. When Harrington interviewed Lottie Evanoff in 1942, she defined the word as meaning ‘spooky. Any kind of thing that is wild is this’. Frank Drew added ‘wild. Does not mean crazy. A spooky person’. But the stories associated with eshon hardly do this definition justice.
We’ll start with the tamer stories. Some eshon were people who had become lost in the woods, separated from the community, and forgot that he or she is human. They become eshon, the wild one. They go about naked, and may or may not grow hair all over their bodies.
Annie Peterson told one version in the Milluk language to Melville Jacobs, which he published on page 43 of “Coos Narrative and Ethnologic Texts”, titled eshoniiye gweis – A girl became a dangerous being of the woods. In this story, the girl reaches an important milestone in her life; she is tetsewis which is what girls at the time of menarche and their puberty ceremony were called. This was the time that marked a girl’s transition to adulthood, and was also the time she was most likely to seek out and gain spirit power. In the story, the tetsewis girl went out with other women to pick salmonberries. After the group had picked for awhile and was ready to go home, they noticed that young tetsewis girl was no longer with them. They called and called; the girl only whistled in answer. They finally caught a glimpse of her with an empty basket. They ran after her, but she fled. They could not catch her and finally all went home. The tetsewis became an eshon, and she ran about alone, naked in the woods. Eventually she was found by a wealthy young man who had been living alone (having left his family for a time having a sulk). He caught her, bathed her, fed her some grease, and she remembered she was human again. She became the man’s wife. They returned to his home, where they were greeted happily by worried family. She also went to visit her family, who were glad to see she was alive and well. She returned to her new husband, who (being a wealthy guy) got 2 more wives and the former eshon became the head wife (meaning, she generally ran the household and the co-wives did much of the work. Some gig!)
Annie said she had been told this story by relatives of her mother from the upper Empire village of ntise’ich. It was told as a teaching story to girls, so that during their tetsewis time they must NOT eat fresh foods of any sort, especially in the woods. If they broke these rules, something dire might happen – like becoming an eshon.
Red huckleberries in particular were associated with the wild beings:
If you pick them [red huckleberries] towards evening, when the sun is getting low now, you’ll see more and more, bushes are so thick full of them, but you should leave them alone then, and go home. Because you’d become an eshon. There may be some tale – Mrs P isn’t sure – of a person going eshon from doing this. They call them eshon berries – a few people got lost this way, and so they are careful. So when it’s late afternoon they carefully desist, to avoid becoming crazy and going eshon. (Jacobs 100:176)*
Annie also recounted a story of an eshon that happened when she was growing up at Yachats:
A man killed an elk in the woods near Yahatc. A bunch went out to pack it back. A Coos girl (Minnehaha)** went with [them] and got lost, they hunted for her a week, occasionally they saw tracks of her, but never found her again, though they found a few bits of her clothes. She became an eshon so they said. (Jacobs 100:176) Minnehaha was never seen nor heard from again.
And these are the lighthearted eshon stories. They get weirder. And creepier.
When a person was buried, the grave was to be watched for five days. It was said that the dead person’s ilwechos (heart, soul, spirit) lingered about his/her body and this world for 5 days, then departed for the Land of the Dead. It was believed that sometimes there were problems with the ilwechos and in improperly buried corpse. If the feet popped up out of the grave, it meant the corpse was trying to arise. (And you’ve all watched enough horror movies to know that this could mean trouble, right? Because yes. Yes it does). Anyway, if this situation is not taken care of (reburial, usually) then the corpse will emerge from the ground. If the corpse is not caught at this point, it will run away to the hills, to the deep woods. It will be naked, hairy and foul smelling.
Now you may be wondering – what if the just-emerged corpse is caught at that moment of emergence? Well, this is where things get really weird. (As if hairy zombie stories weren’t weird enough). The corpse could be brought to life again. Yes, if this arisen person – helgwexem (she/he arose from grave, in Hanis) – was taken to a powerful ilxqain (curing doctor) then that doctor could bring this person back to life and normalcy. There are actually a few stories in Jacobs’ notebooks and elsewhere about people returning from the land of the dead and being restored to life again. BUT, the danger was that if the helgwexem was not caught promptly, it became the eshon.
At this point, you might be thinking that this Coos-zombie-eshon might be rather different from forgot-she-was-human-eshon and why would these two beings have the same name? I think the commonality is that in either case they are beings who were once human but no longer are – either through death or becoming lost and madness, they lost their humanity and become a wild and fearful being. (That is my best guess anyway.).
Frank Drew said that sometime around the 1870s or 1880s, a Siuslaw man named Piidosh (Peters) encountered one of these things in the woods. He never was the same after his encounter:
The eshon could make himself into many forms, all frightful. A person in the mountains, especially at night tho not necessarily so, who is just normally hunting or something – when you smell something strong, as of something burning perhaps-if you are familiar with that you KNOW what it is, you escape from that locality as fast as you can. Of course the eshon go as fast as they please, but they might not bother to pursue. An eshon can simulate a person, do just about anything in the way of disguise. Buchanan told Drew the following: sometimes if one is going along, a poor person, not wealthy, say; the eshon have power of doing good or hard-make your memory bad-going along on a trail-you see a person, a dead person, wrapped up. You stop-it’s night-look at it, then of a sudden “you don’t know anything,” you fall to the ground.
There was a Siuslaw fellow named Piidosh, Peters, he was coming across in the jungles in evening time making a short cut thru woods, and he had a rifle, he heard a noise as of voices, he didn’t know what it could be, right behind him. He got frightened, he tried to run along to escape it, he couldn’t make any headway, he thought he was going but he wasn’t moving. The eshon got hold of him, it took his clothes off, stripped him, broke his gun, hung his clothes on the limbs. He lay there “dead” he didn’t know how long. When he revived he found his now broken gun and his clothes on pine tree limbs. He put them on. He got to the village late at night. When he got home he acted peculiar, out of his mind sort of. He had a peculiar odor about him. He then told what had happened. And they told him then it was eshon that had tackled him. From then on Peter himself never was in his normal mind any more, he was nutty, foolish, for the rest of his days. This happened 50 or more years ago. Drew heard it told about. The doctor worked on Pete, but couldn’t bring him to normal. The doctor stripped him, washed and cleaned him, but couldn’t take anything out of his body. (Jacobs 91:100)
According to Frank Drew, the eshon were also rather like boogeyman making obnoxious noises at night trying to scare people, and bringers of nightmares:
Doors were carefully fastened at night for fear of dangerous, bad things. You might hear somebody at night outside piling wood up, stacking up wood, you’d imagine someone was out there. The old people knew who that was. They were careful not to tell the youngsters what was out there, for fear of frightening the youngsters. It’s really an eshon out there. He came merely to frighten the dwellers within, just malicious trickery and sadism on his part…(Jacobs 92:16)
A person who talks in his sleep is under the influence of an eshon. He isn’t talking to the departed. If you have a dream and others heard you talk out, that means you better try to forget such a dream; it’s a sinful dream. A nightmare you want to forget quickly: it’s an eshon. The thing will recur next night if you don’t forget it. It can come mildly or severe. A nightmare or terror or night is caused by an eshon. It’s no good at all, they don’t want it; the sooner you get your mind off it the better for you. If you yell and holler in sleep it’s an eshon. You are frightened, he’s after you. You don’t have such a bad dream unless it’s an eshon coming after you in the form of a bear, or in the form of a frightful looking or disfigured person, with mouth drawn to one side or distorted eyes. If you dream, in fright, that there’s something bad outside, then if you dream that you went outside to show your spunk and drive him away, if you do go outside evil will befall you, you are, or course incapable of going outside. (Jacobs 92:26)
So, we seem to have two different creatures who fulfill different aspects of the contemporary Bigfoot/Sasquatch stories: the shillhlwaya which are giants, live in the woods, make high pitched noises, often described as having long hair; the eshon which are not giants but can be hairy and foul-smelling (these last 2 qualities – fur and smell – are a common part of contemporary Bigfoot stories). So, I guess you could say in our traditional lore we do not have an exact analog of the Sasquatch, yet all the elements are there, just split up among at least two different creatures.
*Interestingly, the Coos people were far from the only ones to have associations of red huckleberries with dangerous beings. Among the Tillamook, for a full year after a young woman’s puberty ceremony, red huckleberries were one of the forbidden foods to her. These berries could hurt a young woman during this time, cause her sickness, because they were associated with Wild Woman. Wild Woman was a kind of Ogress-slash-Power figure. (There are many Wild Woman stories in “Nehalem Tillamook Tales” edited by Melville Jacobs, which I strongly urge you to check out. Can also read on Tillamook culture in “The Nehalem Tillamook:An Ethnography” by Elizabeth Jacobs and edited by William Seaburg).
The Alsea people had stories of Asin ( a name similar to Eshon) who was a wild woman of the woods, also associated with red huckleberries. She was also known in Alsea as Tlxalwa’na, person-living-in-woods. Her story can be found on page 224 of Frachtenberg’s “Alsea Texts”.
**Minnehaha was probably named in 1856 by a soldier. At the time the Coos and Lower Umpqua Indians were forced into Fort Umpqua many of the Indians were given ‘white’ names.