First published October 30, 2012.
Annie Miner Peterson told the story of ‘The young man who stepped on Snail’s back’ some time in 1933 or 1934 in Milluk, and Melville Jacobs published it on page 54-56 of “Coos Narrative & Ethnologic Texts”. I’m putting it up here, though I am breaking up the paragraphs a little differently so maybe it is easier to read on a screen:
A young fellow was always going about here and there. His parents were dead. It was his older brother who raised him. One day he was running about, and then he stepped on a snail, and it broke the snail shell.
That was the way a tiny piece of it got stuck in his foot, and he was unable to get it out. Then he just gnawed at his foot, and while gnawing at his foot, and while gnawing at it the blood got in his mouth. “Oh how sweet tasting that blood is!!”
Unable to take out the piece of shell, he just went back home. Now then he began to eat up his people. He ate up all the people in his village.
He had one younger sister. Now his younger sister arrived and she saw no one there. Only her younger brother was living there. The girl had a small baby. “Give the baby to me!” [he said]
“Not just yet younger brother!” She deliberately pinched her baby, and indeed it cried. “I will give it to you after a while. I will nurse it first, then I will give it to you.” She pinched her baby again, and indeed it cried. “He is so afraid of you, I will bathe him first. Then I will give him to you.” She bathed it in the evening. Then she packed her baby, and now the girl fled. She went back to her husband.
Then she hallooed, “Come over quickly and get me! There is something pursuing me!” Indeed 3 persons went across by canoe so that they could get quickly to her there. Just as the canoe neared the beach the girl leaped immediately into the boat. “Go quickly! A dangerous being (xuutl’uush) is pursuing me.” Then indeed the made haste. When they beached she told her husband, “My younger brother is a dangerous being. You will have to kill him. He ate up all the people.” Then they did indeed they got ready.
He was already hallooing too (from the other side). Now they piled rocks onto the fire. And they dug a hole, and they got planks. Now the rocks were getting hot, so they put them down into the hole there, and they lay the boards over it.
Now they went across to fetch that dangerous being. “Ho, brother in law! You will eat well.” Indeed they brought him back home, gave him food. Then in the middle of his eating they pulled off the lumber, and so he tumbled into the hole.
Now they piled up there on top of the lumber, now the people were on top of it there. Indeed he burned up down there. That is how they killed him.
That is why the people fear snail shells.
Annie told Jacobs that she recalled hearing this story told by her brother in law Chief Doloos. She said people avoided stepping on snail shells because of this story. Jacobs noted there are other versions of this story in the northwest.
There are variations on it too in northern California and southern Oregon. Years ago I picked up an old copy of “Yana Texts” compiled by Edward Sapir (the Yana are related to Ishi’s people). In it there is a story of Bobcat’s Rolling Skull. Bobcat has a very bad dream, becomes a giant cannibal skull that now rolls around eating people. The people flee, many holing up in a roundhouse sweatlodge for safety. Coyote hears about this, puts on a disguise, builds a pit with hot rocks (just like in the Coos story), and tricks Skull into it. Skull bursts from the heat. Coyote goes and tells the people Skull is gone, and they are safe now.
There were also similar stories apparently known to the Takelma in southern Oregon. Sapir recorded on here.
Frank Drew said once that a man found a talking skull near Siltcoos River. He said:
The skull of a human. There was a fellow 100 or 200 years ago, coming from Umpqua to Siuslaw, low tide, walking along in the night on the open beach. Traveling along, he heard someone along the seawall talking, but he could not make meaning of it; this voice kept along with him. At 10mile creek [Siltcoos; Frank often called it 10mile creek] he heard the fellow still talking, over there, inland. He thought he’d go over and see WHO was doing all this talking. So he discovered about where the talker was. But he saw no person at all. Still, right there close by now, it was continuing to talk. He walked closer and closer. He got now to a log, behind the drift log the person was still talking. He peered forward, he saw whole skull of a person, it was still talking!!!
Loose skulls move slowly in the nighttime, on the sand, eventually they roll, move back again, into the thicket it came from. The tracks of its movement can be seen in the sand. While it travels like that, it makes a peculiar noise, like day old chicks, chirps lightly, it’s only barely audible, and then only when it travels slowly along. But Drew doesn’t know why it moves, or makes this little noise. In daytime a skull found on top of the ground would be reburied. (Jacobs notebook 92:21)