This story was first posted in April 2013. I’ve added a little more material from that first post.
Nuusgili (or nuusgili) is a Hanis and Milluk word that has been translated variously as ‘giantess’ or ‘ogress’. There is not much in the way of a physical description, but apparently they are taller than human beings, and wear skirts of pitchy bark. This characteristic renders them rather flammable, and in many stories the dread nuusgili are often dispatched by fire. They also eat food that humans regard as ‘unnatural’ and awful – newts and frogs. They are usually horrified by salmon. You can read three stories about them in Frachtenberg’s Coos Texts (see sidebar) – the stories begin on page 71. Annie Miner Peterson and Lottie Evanoff also told stories about them (Annie’s story can be found in Jacobs’ Coos Myth Texts, Lottie’s was unpublished but I’ve included it below).
Of the nuusgili, Annie said “There are various nuusgíli hechits (legends). They are rough women, dressed in pitch, and various obscenities may be told of them. They refer to these women as nuusgíli húumek’e (Hanis), ‘witch women’. They also call them ‘bad women’ ínta humek’e”(Hanis). (Jacobs 93:135)
In the stories, the nuusgili work alone or in pairs. Sometimes they steal children, and if a child is touched by one or even looks at one, that child dies. These stories were used as warnings to children to always get in the house at sunset, or else something dangerous (like an ogress) might come among them and cause death.
Nuusgili are also grave robbers and kidnappers of handsome young men. Some stories involve men kidnapped by an ogress to be a ‘husband’, and he has to use his wits to escape.
The Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw were also familiar with nuusgili but unfortunately the name for them in that language as forgotten. Spencer Scott tried to recall the name, but couldn’t so he called them mishk’lai which roughly means ‘dangerous being, devil’. It is an equivalent to the Hanis & Milluk word xuutluush.
Lottie Evanoff told this story to JP Harrington in 1942 about nuusgili:
Nuusgili is giant woman, ogress. It is a woman who steals a man. And if a woman sees a nice looking young man, and she marries him, they call her nuusgili.
One of these was getting camas, and as she earth-ovened it, she said, “Huh, I smell sákan (newt). She called salmon sakan cause she ate nothing but camas herself. But that woman’s husband managed to eat one salmon. That woman wore dress with pitch on.
When she was away from home, that young man, whom she was raising for a husband, there was something that made him return. One day there was a bird who told him: “Your heart is in the corner”.
He took it, put it under his arms and fled. The young man reached an Indian house & asked them to dig a pit. The ogress arrived and talked on a mat and talked together. “You stole something & came here And then they pushed her over in to the fire & from there into the hole & put a plank on top of the hole & she flopped around in there & died.
She was the one who was stealing a young fellow maybe 15 yrs old, while the ones at Rocky Pt were the ones who were stealing children. But those who lived at Rocky-Point were 1 man & his wife & wd be spoken of as child-eaters. (not nuusgili—translates child-eaters as: hiime dluwiwa) (Harrington 24:600ab)
Neighboring tribes had legends of similar beings. Wolverton Orton (Shasta Costa, an Athabaskan band from the confluence of the Illinois and Rogue Rivers) called them tl’asts’echu. Coquelle Thompson (Upper Coquille) called them the same, or it was also recorded as tł’ǝsechu. Wolverton said they were a kind of giant people that lived in the mountains and travelled only at night. They lived in a hollowed out mountain somewhere in the upper Illinois river country. Thompson told stories about them similar to that of the Coos Bay stories – giant women who loved to eat frogs and newts, and kidnapped men to be husbands and kidnapped children. Some of his stories about them are part of “Pitch Woman And Other Stories” edited by William Seaburg.
The Alsea and Tillamook people stories are a little more different, in that this ‘wild woman’, while dangerous, could also become a potent medicine power for Indian doctors. So far as I can tell, they were never a positive spirit power for Siuslaw, Lower Umpqua, Coos Bay or Coquelle doctors. The Alsea call them Asin. There is a story of one in Frachtenberg’s “Alsea Texts”. Red huckleberries were associated with her and it was not advised to eat many of those as it might draw her attention. But still, a doctor might dream of these ‘long haired women’ and gain her as a spirit power. For the Tillamook she is qek’u, often named in English as “Wild Woman”. There are lots of stories of her that Clara Pearson told and are compiled in “Nehalem Tillamook Tales”. Like her Alsea counterpart, red huckleberries are associated with her. As are spruce, and a woman who had her for a power was a great weaver. However, the power came at a price as Wild Woman often made it difficult or impossible for a woman to raise children. Men doctors also had her as a power, but I do not know if it impacted children they had as well.
There are counterparts of these child-stealing-wild-women throughout the northwest. It was one of the reasons that children had to come in to the house at sunset. Or they were in danger of being carried away by one of these dangerous beings.
Drucker, Phillip. 19343. “Ethnographic Field Notes.” National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.
Harrington, John P. 1942. “Alsea, Siuslaw, Coos, Southwest Oregon Athapaskan: Vocabularies, Linguistic Notes, Ethnographic and Historical Notes.” John Peabody Harrington Papers, Alaska/Northwest Coast. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
Jacobs, Melville. 1932–1934. “Coos Ethnologic Notes,” Notebooks 91–99, 101, Jacobs Collection. University of Washington Archives, Seattle.
Pearson, Clara. Jacobs, Elizabeth, ed. 1990. Nehalem Tillamook Tales. OSU Press, Corvallis, OR.
———. 1940. Coos Myth Texts. Seattle: University of Washington Press.