Sea Serpents

Sea Serpents appear in stories around the world – and not only in the ocean but in large lakes as well, perhaps most famously of contemporary ‘lake monster’ stories is “Nessie” of Loch Ness.

All along the Pacific Northwest coast, we also have sea serpent stories. Along the Oregon and Northern California coast, the serpent is often associated with wealth. The sea serpent was regarded as a good power associated with good hunting and wealth by Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw people, and I think by the Alsea as well (although so far I have been able to find little about serpent lore that traces back uniquely to the Alsea). Coquelle Thompson told Upper Coquille and Upper Umpqua stories about a being he called ‘big snake’ that sounds like if it is not sea serpent it is a close cousin that, if a man trains spiritually, the snake will be a wealth power. And this serpent also causes rough water. Thompson said he did not like to go out in the ocean in a canoe, although some others did to get mussels. He said, “They said big snake live in ocean make big waves, but canoe captain talk Indian language to bigsnakes {sic} and ocean become glassy.” (Harrington 1942[19]:660b)

The serpent is also a potent symbol of wealth, but far more dangerous to approach by the Tolowa people. They say one lives at Lake Earl. If a man trains himself spiritually, he can approach it. It has a pair of horns that are dentalia on its head. If the man is worthy he can remove a ‘horn’ and becomes wealthy. If he is not worthy – well, he is never seen alive again.

In a story told by Jim Buchanan (a Hanis speaker originally from the Empire village of Wu’alach), a young woman finds what she thinks is a baby snake. She takes it home to raise as a pet. It grows into a huge snake with a pair of horns on its head. The snake goes into the hills to hunt. The family makes money by selling deer meat and hides. The has become the young woman’s wealth power. There is a word that refers uniquely to sea serpents in Hanis (we’ll get to that word in a bit), but in the story he is first called ‘snake’ (xuuwayas) but at the end of the story when he is acknowledged as the young woman’s wealth power he is ‘nephew’ (tewidech, son of one’s sister). Then, at the end of the story the serpent tells the young woman that he must return to the sea but he will leave gifts (whales) on the beach for her and her family. But he also tell her that whenever the water is ‘angry’, it is he who is making the water rough. It is stated in the closing lines of the story:

Wench iilt le sikinxom.

So it spoke to its headman/master.

Yiqa hantlawe nne, yantlawe qauwenisenii to xap.”

Nevertheless it is I when that water is angry.”

Wench tl’axom.

That’s how he was speaking.

Yantlawe me xixoch yixume,

Whenever a person travels in a canoe,

Yantlawe qauwenisenii to xap,

Whenever that water is angry,

Hantlawe xqahlin nyixumiiyat to ixiich to xap.”

I shall cause that water to go under the canoe.”

Ayuu xwench.

And so it was.

Balticha piixpii lo tewitech

The nephew went home to the ocean.

Hi’nii kw lo tewitech tiixtse.

There perhaps is the nephew to this day.

Tl’iich qaimisech, hi’nii tokelmitsqom.

It went out of the river bar, and there it dove.

Tsuu xwench kumiiye

So it is ending.

Frank Drew (Hanis Coos) said people must behave respectfully when out on the water in a canoe. When out on the ocean, people are not supposed to talk much, be careful so the ocean does not get angry. If one sees a sea serpent one must address it as nephew – he said k’ilmiyáwach (Hanis, usually translated as the son of one’s brother but occasionally as ‘niece’ as well) or t’ahdii (Siuslaw for son of one’s brother).

When Lottie Evanoff (Hanis) was asked about sea serpents, she said they had a name but she could not recall it. She said it was a little used word. Perhaps because they were so often referred to as ‘nephew’ (or niece). Luckily for us however, the word does appear in another one of Jim Buchanan’s stories.

Jim told the story I mentioned above, about the young woman who raised one from a baby and it became her power. He also told a story about a woman who married a sea serpent, and she brings wealth in the form of sea otter hides to her family. He never used the word specific to sea serpent in the first story, but in this one he did – qaskiiwas.(Unfortunately I have not yet found it’s equivalent in Siuslaw). This story is found in Frachtenberg’s “Coos Texts” (on the blog side bar) page 157. Unfortunately, he gave it the title “The Woman who married a Merman”. Frachtenberg did not collect this story himself when he worked with Jim Buchanan in 1909. St Clair did in 1903, and Frachtenberg printed St Clair’s stories in “Coos Texts”. For whatever reason, even though sea serpents are mentioned explicitly in the text, he decided to title it ‘Merman’. This error has been perpetuated many times, as the story has been included in later anthologies under that title in several books such as Ella Clark’s ever popular “Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest” and Jarold Ramsey’s “Coyote Was Going There”. Another error going uncaught by most people is that it is not a Coos story, but a Lower Umpqua one. (Jim was married to a Lower Umpqua woman and grew up among both Coos Bay and Lower Umpqua people at Yachats; he learned stories from them as well as Siuslaw ones). The story begins with a young woman living in the Lower Umpqua village of Takimiya (near Winchester Bay). She marries a man who takes her to live in the sea. She comes back from time to time to visit her relatives, but they notice her changing – her shoulders are becoming ‘tsatltsitl’ (Milluk: tsatltsitl) a word used to describe the blubbery skin of a whale. Which is the type of skin sea serpents have.

So what we can glean from the stories so far is that they are big, have dark whale-like skin, and have a pair of horns.

There are also many stories about sea serpents hanging out in lakes, creeks, dunes and in the forests. Lottie said a small one escaped into the sea from a canal near Cut Creek that had been made by miners. Serpents were also spotted at Cleawox and Clear lakes in Florence, as well as the surrounding dunes. Frank Drew told the story in 1942 to JP Harrington:

Buck Lake is the English name for it, Cleawock [sic; Cleawox] Lake is the newfangled [name] for it. There was a fellow named John Lester (Clay Barrett’s maternal uncle) & he was traveling on horseback in the night when it was low tide & while riding along his horse got frightened. He tried to make it go, and it wouldn’t go. His horse veered out towards the ocean, there was no wind, and when he got down to near to the breakers he noticed a black object lying on the ocean beaches, the farther he went towards the east the bigger it looked, and he thought: This must be the snake that I have heard about from my old people, & when he got home he told all about it.

[some] of the Sius tribe even over there to look and they satisfactorily saw a track where the serpent had gone into the lake. (Harrington 1942[23]:571b-572a)

Frank also said serpents were also seen around Sutton Creek:

The Indians claim that pretty near every lake in this region has some kind of animal living in it.

An Indian named Alec Jefferson (he was Jeff Harney’s half-brother, he was Martha Johnson’s uncle) he once visited Frank at Frank’s homestead on Sutton Ck telling Frank that on arrival that he had noticed tracks as if of a serpent as he came by Clear Lake & followed it he followed it circa half mile toward the ocean, (ie towards the west) & on examining the track he saw slime.

And by the ocean it had chewed up all the common-sandhill-huckleberries in a circle, app. Making a bed for himself there.

And not only Alec Jefferson saw this snake’s track but my youngest brother-in-law Hasett Barney, about a year later describing the track just the same. He described the track as big & wide, as if the snake were big & heavy. It must be that that animal periodically leaves that lake (Clear Lake) (Harrington 1942[23]:360b-361a)

There were several stories about sea serpents going into the mountains to hunt for deer and elk. They caused powerful winds by sucking in air to drag deer and elk toward them. Just as the serpent did in Jim Buchanan’s story, where the serpent dragged deer and elk home for the human family who had raised him.

Frank and Lottie, because they grew up at Yachats, had heard Alsea stories that Cook’s chasm at Cape Perpetua was a road into the hills for sea serpents to go hunting. But they could be seen anywhere in the hills. If a hunter was on one mountain, and he looked at a neighboring mountain and trees were moving in a wind there but was quiet where he was, it meant a serpent was over there hunting, causing that wind.

The snake bored a hole [Cook’s chasm] from the ocean up to the mountains, and went in there and sucked the elk, and timber all wiggles, sometimes you hear just like a storm (sound of winds) in the timber, and when you hear that noise, don’t you go near there, he suck elk and trees all wiggle, and like a big wind. They don’t call that snake, they call that niece. Then when he have a good feed, he go back to the ocean.” (Lottie Evanoff in Harrington 1942[24]:596ab)

Frank recounted this story of sea serpents hunting east of Yachats:

The sea serpent, they have these back in the mountains. Once there were some people went back into the mountains to hunt elk or deer, & all the time they hunted they had no success, they hunted for several days, it was something unusual, generally there was lots of game at that very place where they were, they wondered why all the game should go off & leave that place. They pickt out the highest mt, which was back of Yahach somewheres…& they got up on top of that mountain & had observation north, southeast & west & sat there for a long time & at last they noticed towards the east across from the mountain where they were they could see a tree fall every once in awhile, & there seemed to be a big storm there, & there was no wind where they were, & they saw them trees falling, & they saw a big band of elks there & every time one of them trees fell, it would disappear!

And they couldn’t acct for it, why the tree should disappear like that when it fell, & by looking very closely towards there from where they were they saw an object lying on the ridge they figured out what it was – it was a seaserpent, how it got there they did not know, that seaserpent had its mouth wide open & by drawing its breath it creates a powerful current that took everything in the direction in which he had his head directed, he by suction drew a whole band of elks into his mouth – that was his breakfast. (Harrington 1942[24]:607b-608b)

There was a serpent who apparently had a full time residence on the Coquille River, causing a dangerous eddy that canoes had to go around. On the adjacent land nearby, there were always many garter snakes. Lottie said she had learned from Lower Coquille people that the place was called xwá’yasich, snake place:

There is a place several miles downriver from Coquille city but way upriver of Prosper where there is an eddy, which the Indians. Traveling by canoe always avoided by skirting at that danger-place the timber-side (the east side-by which she evidently means the south side). The Indians say that if the water sucks you there & you go underground & come out at the ocean beach. The woods at that place are full of garter-snakes. (Harrington 1942[23]:1053a)

To the north, among the Tillamook, the sea serpent was also a powerful being. Some Indian doctors had him for a power, and he could bring wealth as well. Clara Pearson, Tillamook storyteller whose traditions are recounted in “Nehalem Tillamook Tales” and “Nehalem Tillamook ethnography”, said that if a man went out in a canoe into the ocean to look for sea serpent, he would become wealthy.

Clara also told a story about a tsunami and a doctor with sea serpent power:

Once there was a man living at Nehalem who must have had a Sea Serpent power-he had a power to be lucky, easy to earn anything, and to get wealthy. One day he was dragging a canoe along the beach from Manzanita towards Nehalem. As he went along a huge wave came against the canoe and knocked it so roughly against him that it broke his ankle. This was an awful funny thing to happen, it wasn’t a stormy day or anything, it was more like summer, so he started to sing his power song to take care of himself. As he sang, he said, ‘If I’m not going to die a big tidal wave will come, just one, if I’m not going to die. All of you people put your things up on the hillside and carry me up there too, this will be sure to happen if I’m not going to die.’ The people all did as he said except a few, who simply couldn’t believe that was going to happen on such a nice sunny day with no wind or rain. Pretty soon that old ocean got higher and higher and a big wave came and swept everything away, houses and all; lots of people lost things that had not been carried far enough up the hill. He said then, ‘I guess I’ll live through it. Go back now and build your houses. There won’t be any more, now”. (Jacobs and Seaburg 2003:187)

The Tillamook also had sea serpent designs painted on special bows for canoes when going to war. Clara Pearson said that both the bow and stern were “fitted with detachabel pieces that were fastened to the canoe with spruce root thongs and waterproofed with pitch. On a war trip these were replaced with specially decorated and painted parts, which were removed after the return. A sea serpent design was placed on the bow”. (Jacobs and Seaburg 2003: 71)

Sea Serpents loom large in Oregon coast stories – symbols of wealth and power, cause of rough water and eddies. Just remember, if you happen to meet one just be polite and call him nephew (or her, niece), recalling an ancient and friendly relationship between our people and beings from the water.

Drucker, Phillip. 1934. “Ethnographic Field Notes.” National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

Frachtenberg, Leo. 1913. Coos Texts. Columbia University Contributions to Anthropology 1. New York.

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, Elizabeth. Seaburg, William, ed. 2003. “The Nehalem Tillamook: An Ethnography”. OSU Press, Corvallis OR.

Jacobs, Elizabeth, ed. Pearson, Clara. 1990[1959]. Nehalem Tillamook Tales. OSU Press, Corvallis, OR.

Jacobs, Melville. 1932–1934. “Coos Ethnologic Notes,” Notebooks 91–99, 101, Jacobs Collection. University of Washington Archives, Seattle.

———. 1940. Coos Myth Texts. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Seaburg, William, ed. 2004. Pitch Woman and Other Stories: The Oral Traditions of Coquelle Thompson, Upper Coquille Athabaskan Indian. University of Nebraska Press.

St. Clair, Harry Hull. 1903. “Coos Field Notes.” Office of Anthropology Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washignton DC.

About shichils

Just sharing some fun on language
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