On Creating Unhumans

Wild Woman of the Woods

By Grant Keddie

This article was presented at the Anthropology of the Unknown conference held at the University of British Columbia in 1978. It was published in: The Sasquatch and other Unknown Hominoids. Edited by Vladimir Markotic and Grover Krantz. Western Publishers, Calgary 1984.

The other book published as a result of the 1978 Conference is: Manlike Monsters on Trial: Early Records and Modern Evidence. Edited by Margorie M. Halpin, University of British Columbia Press. 1980.

By Grant R. Keddie

On Creating Unhumans

The aim of this paper is to indicate 1) that there are at least two different classes of “humanoid monsters’’ recognized in Indian traditions on the northern and central Northwest Coast; 2) that in some Northwest Coast societies there are mental structures in which metaphysical humanoids play a role that does not demand a physical correlate.

Humanoid Classes

One class of humanoids is commonly called “cannibal women,’’ “basket women’’ or “wild women of the woods.” The second class of humanoids is associated with “spirits of the drowned” or “nearly drowned” people. The two “humanoid monsters” most often singled out as being equivalent to the Sasquatch include one from the first class and one from the second class (e.g. Green 1971:2; Hunter and Dahinden 1973:15).

Cannibal Women

The first class of humanoids which I will refer to as “Cannibal Women,” includes the Bella Coola “sn n q” (Mclllwaith 1948:435; the Bella Bella “la la” [Storie and Gould 1971:1. 44. 101\; the northern and central Nootkan “e ish-su- ish” and “ach niaky” (“her husband”) (Ernst, 1952:74); the Makah “ ka-ka-wa t’ sa-ach” (Ernst 1952:35); and the Kwakiutl “dzonoq’ a” (Boas 1935:144-6; Boas and Hunt 1902:431-436). A number of informants state that there are both male and female “dzonoq’ a” (personal communication, Abbott and Macnair 1975).

The cannibal woman is physically a large humanoid creature covered with long hair. Other characteristics vary from story to story and from region to region. For example, the sniniq “walks on its short hind legs, in an almost upright position, with its long forelegs touching the ground at intervals; these terminate in sharp talons.” It also has “the genital organs of a woman on its forehead.” The sniniqs’ great strength lies in the “ability to reverse their eye-balls, causing blinding beams to shoot forth and strike senseless anyone on whom they fall.” They are able to “reverse the course of streams, to cause light snow to fall, and even to raise up mountains when pursued” (Mcllwaith 1925:18).

The general behavior of a cannibal woman is antisocial; her behavior is the opposite of what is required of human beings. Instead of nurturing and caring for children, she steals and eats them. She also steals corpses from burial grounds (see Olson 1954:257; Ernst 1952:74; Storie and Gould 1973:44, 101; Boas and Hunt 1902:431-436; Boas 1898: 83-90).

The Mental Structure: Human and Un-human

One mental structure operating in those societies where cannibal woman is present, as in our society, is the distinction between human and un-human. In our culture we make a distinction between human and non-human on the bases of consciousness and culture. Only humankind has culture; only humankind is aware. On the Northwest Coast as in other shamanistic societies, this sharp distinction was not made. Animals and “mythological creatures” were certainly conscious and, at least in the mythological dimension, had human-like culture. The boundary defining humanity is much more difficult to delineate in these circumstances. One device for doing so is to create a clearly nonhuman foil which seems at first glance to be an image of a person but lacks the essential element which make one human. In what we understand to be the “natural” world only bears come close but they are not close enough. A more humanoid being is needed and may have to be created to fulfil this essential function. The cannibal woman does, in fact, have some of the material culture accoutrements of humans. She carries a basket, has a family and lives in a house, but these are like parodies of real culture: she obviously does not have what it takes to be human. The message or moral that these beings imparted is that one needs more than material culture to be human. It is through this function that the cannibal woman serves a vital role in defining humanity. It is by constructing a class of beings that is the opposite of human, or is in a state of un-humaness, that these cultures are able to circumscribe a definition for what constitutes being both human and cultural.

A Bella Coola story about the “alakwis”, which once “lived as human beings,” illustrates the point of what physically happens in the creation of un-humans. The “aldkwis” become isolated and “in (the) course of generations, they grew hairy and lost their human characteristics” (Mcllwaith, 1925:20). Hairiness is certainly one of the more visible characteristics of an un-human- ess. Other attributes seem to include: being socially elusive; having claws instead of nails; lacking of human speech; and having other traits such as foul breath and, especially, staring eyes. It is this combination of antisocial behavioral characteristics and animal traits that serves to distinguish between human and un-human.

Drowned Humanoids

The second class of ‘‘humanoid monsters,” which I will refer to as drowned humanoids, includes among others, the Kwakiutl “bdk’ ds” (boas 1935:146; Boas and Hunt 1902:251-270); the Tlingit “kucda-qa” (de Laguna 1972:744); the central and northern Nootkan “puqmis” (Drucker 1951:153; Ernst 1952:69- 70); The Makah “pukwubis” (Ernst 1952:16, 17, 34) and the Bella Coola “boqs” (Mcllwaith 1925:18), “po.qwais” (Mcllwaith 1948:436), or “boo’qwiss” (Storie 1973:84). Linguistic cognates provide a direct connection between many members of this class. Rigsby (1971) provides a good example of cross-genetic lexical borrowing in a set of forms clustering about “bdk’ ds.”

These hominoids exhibit extensive variability. The Nootkan ‘‘drowned humanoids” are described as very large men that are ‘‘ugly-white colored” with protruding eyes ‘‘that looked like icicles” (Drucker 1951:153). The descriptions give one the impression of a body that has been in the water for some time.

The pukmis is a “transformed spirit of a person who nearly drowns, then goes wild in the woods” (Drucker 1951:325; also see Ernst 1952:34). Among the Nootka the spirits of drowned persons (as opposed to “nearly drowned” persons) became owls (Ernst 1952:134).

The bdk’ ds and the Bella Coola boqs are described as being shorter than the average person. The bdk’ ds was similar to the pukmis in that it was “cold, just like ice, for he was indeed a dead person” (Boas and Hunt 1902:252). Within a myth recorded by Boas and Hunt (1902) the bdk’ ds described himself: “I am the chief of woodmen. These are the ones to whom your drowned people go. This is the country of the ghosts.. . .This is the country of all those who die in the water when their canoes capsize. This is the place to which their souls come.”

The bdk’ ds turns people into ghosts by appearing to them in the form of relatives or friends and getting them to eat its food, which is really transformed rotten wood (Boas and Hunt 1902:251-270). The accomplices of the bdk’ ds, the spirits of the drowned, are represented as “transformed land otters.”

The Tlingit kucda-qa “look like human beings” that are covered (except the face) with long hair (de Laguna 1972:746). Although they usually appear in near-human form, they are believed to be (like the Kwakiutl spirits in the country of ghosts) transformed land otters. They can, and sometimes do, appear as anything transitional between a land otter and a human (see Emmons c. 1933, Ch. VI:28).

The kucda-qa or “land-otter-man” is in fact, defined as a spirit of a land otter as well as the transformed spirit of a person who has been drowned or lost in the woods (de Laguna 1972:744, 766; Emmons c. 1933 Ch. VI:28; Oberg, 1973:18). As de Laguna (1972:744) points out,

land otters (kucda), unlike ordinary animals, are really transformed persons. If, in theory, not all are such Land Otter Men (kudca-qa), yet the natives, even today, are ready to behave towards them as if they were. In the last analysis, there seems to be no clear distinction between the in-dwelling spirits or ‘souls’ of the land otters, or ‘land otter people’ (kucda-qwani), and land otter men kucda-qa.

Like the bdk’ ds, the kucda-qa tries to steal or “save” souls of people who have drowned or are lost in the woods (de Laguna 1972:744; Swanton 1909:86; Oberg 1973:18). This is also done by appearing in the guise of a person’s relatives and trying to get them to eat transformed food (de Laguna 1972:745).

The Mental Structure: Land Otter and Middle World

The mental structure in operation in regard to the “drowned humanoids” can be illustrated by the equation: drowned humanoids are to the socially alive and the socially dead as the land otter is to the land and water. I will exemplify this mental structure by focusing on one member of the drowned humanoid class, namely the kucda-qa.

The kucda-c^a, which are symbolized by the land otter, are in some regards unique spirits. It is well documented in the ethnographic literature, pertaining to many parts of the Pacific coast, that the way a person dies determines the fate of the soul in the afterworld. The spirits of people who drown or die from exposure in the woods often meet different fates than those of people who die by other means. Among the Tlingit “such persons do not die but are believed to continue their existence on this earth, not in the afterworlds to which go the souls of those who have died ordinary deaths or deaths by violence” (de Laguna 1972:747), This view is reflected in the Tlingit language. In speaking, the Tlingit do not use the usual words for died or killed in reference to the act of drowning or disappearing in the woods (de Laguna 1972:766). Drowning and especially the loss of the body was the most dreaded form of death (Emmons c. 1933, Ch. VI:28). When a person was drowned or lost in the woods, “every effort was made to recover the body, for it if were not cremated (or buried) the soul remained earth-bound in the form of a land otter” (Ibid:536).

The kucda-qa clearly represents a class of “dead spirit” that has made a transformation into a different dimension. A dimension not of the normal Tlingit “afterworld,” but of an “other world.” This “other world” dimension seems to be a transitional zone between two “worlds.”

Since, as Emmons (c. 1933, Ch. VI:26) points out, “the provision for the dead. . .is the most sacred obligation of Tlingit life,” it is clear that the kucda-qa serves the function of relieving the social tension inflicted on relatives when they are unable to give a person a proper funeral. A continued existence of the dead as kucda-qa at least ensures that the living relatives can still interact with the dead of the usual mutual benefits (see de Laguna 1972:532, 536, 768; Swanton 1909:29).

Like the metaphysical kucfca-qa, the biological land otter occupies a transitional zone. The land otter is equally at home in the water and on the land. I think it is precisely because of this spatial or environmental ambiguity, that the Tlingit have drawn an associational mental analogy.

The use of analogy to describe such ambiguous states is not uncommon. For examples, I refer to the Ainu term “ota” or “sandy-beach” which appears in two descriptions of throat-ill­nesses. Both of the illnesses are “characterized by excess discharge of liquid (saliva) as occurs with water on a sandy beach during high tide” (Ohnuki-Tierney 1977:22). And the Haida term for the plant Apargidiuni boreale which is translated as “land-otter-leaves/medicine” (Turner 1974:56). This plant shares the land-otter trait of being “semi-aquatic.”


In conclusion, these humanoid monsters were not the peripheral manifestations which is the role played by Sasquatch in our culture today. They were very much an integral part of their respective societies. Their function was actively maintained at a number of social levels. For example, the kucda-qa are intricately connected with shamanism. It is through these powerful transitional spirits that shamans are created and through whom shamans communicate between the living and the dead (Swanton 19-9:86; Krause 1956:195; Oberg 1973:18; Emmons c. 1933, Ch. VII:6, 8). In other cases their function was maintained through such activities as the winter ceremonials, and through everyday story telling.

Although one cannot prove or disprove the existence of Sasquatch by reading the ethnographic literature, there are clearly some cultural explanations available for the humanoid monsters in Northwest Coast Indian tradition. Indian cultures developed mental structures in which humanoids played an important role.

At least one class of humanoids served the vital social function of integrating the world of the living and the world of the dead. Maintaining the unity of the living and the dead provides an answer to the human question of immortality. It is this unified system that defines humankind as an immortal phenomenon (immortal, that is, if certain rules and regulations are properly followed) and in doing so promotes social stability. A second class of humanoids functioned to define humanity more directly by showing what it means not to be human. The identification of Sasquatch with either of these classes of humanoids is an oversimplification of the sociocultural realities.

References Cited

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