Origin of the Gnawing Beaver
The Haida of the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia were great hunters of whales and sea otters.
There was a great hunter among the people living at Larhwiyip on the Stikine River. Ever on the alert for new territories, he would go away by himself for long periods and return with quantities of furs and food. He had remained single, although he was very wealthy and his family begged him to take a wife. As a true hunter, he observed all the fasts and cleanliness and kept away from women.
One day when he returned from a hunting trip, he said, “I am going to take a wife now. After that I will move to a distant region where I hear that wild animals are plentiful.” So he married a young woman from a neighboring village who, like himself was clever and scrupulous in observing the rules. When the time came for them to go on their hunting trips, they both kept the fasts of purification, and the hunter got even more furs and food than he had before.
Some time later, he said to his wife, “let’s go to a new country, where we’ll have to stay a long time.” After many days of traveling, they came to a strange land. The hunter put up a hut, where they lived while he built a house. When he had finished it, he and his wife were happy. They would play with each other every night.
Soon he said to her, “I’m going to my new hunting grounds for two days and a night. I will return just before the second night.” In his new territory he made snares in his trap line, and when these were set, he went home just before sunset on the second day. His wife was very happy, and again they played together all through the night. After several days, he visited his snares and found them full of game. He loaded his canoe and came back, again before dark on the second day. Very happy, he met his wife, and they worked to prepare the furs and meat. When they had finished, he set out once more, saying, “This time I intend to go in a new direction, so I will be away for three sleeps.” As he did, and rejoiced in being with his wife again when he returned.
To amuse herself when she was alone, the woman went down to the little stream flowing by the lodge. She spent most of her time bathing and swimming around in a small pool while her husband was away. As soon as he returned, she would play with him. No he said, “Since you’ve become used to being alone, I’m going on a longer trip.” By then he had enlarged his hunting house, and it was full of furs and food.
The woman again took to her swimming. Soon she found the little pool too small for her, so she built a dam by piling up branches and mud. The pool became a lake, deep enough for her to swim in at ease. Now she spent nearly all her time in the new lake and felt quite happy. When her husband returned, she showed him the dome she had made, and he was pleased. Before going away once more, he said, “I’ll be gone a long time, now that I know you are not afraid of being along.”
The woman built a little house of mud and branches in the center of the lake. After a swim she wold go into it and rest. At night she would return to the hunting house on land, but as soon as she waked in the morning, she would go down to the lake again.
Eventually she slept in her lake lodge all night, and when her husband came back, she felt uncomfortable staying with him at the house. Now she was pregnant and kept more to herself, and she preferred to sty in her lake lodge even when her husband was home. To pass the time, she enlarged the lake by building the dam higher. She made another dam downstream, and then another, until she had a number of small lakes all connected to the large one in which she had her lodge.
The hunter went away on a last long journey. He had enough fun and food to make him very wealthy, and he planned that they would move back to his village after this trip. The woman, whose child was due any day, stayed in the water all the time and lived altogether in the lodge. Buy now it was partly submerged, and it’s entrance was under water.
When the hunter returned this time, he could not find his wife. He looked all over, searching the woods day after day without discovering a trace of her. He was at a loss, unwilling to go back to his people without knowing her fate, for fear that her family might want to kill him. He returned sadly to his hunting house every night and each morning resumed the search.
One evening at dusk, he remembered that his wife had spent much of her time in the water. “Perhaps she traveled downstream,” he thought. The next day he walked down to the lake that his wife had dammed and went around it, but he saw nothing of her.
After many days of searching, the hunter retraced his steps. When he came to the large lake, he sat down and began to sing a dirge. Now he knew that something had happened to his wife; she had been taken by a supernatural power. While he was singing and crying his dirge, a figure emerged from the lake. It was a strange animal, in its mouth a stick which it was gnawing. On each side of the animal were two smaller ones, also gnawing sticks.
Ten the largest figure, which wore a hat shaped like a gnawed stick, spoke. “Don’t be so sad! It is I, your wife, and your two children. We have returned to our home in the water. Now that you have seen me, you will use me as a crest. Call me the Woman-Beaver, and the crest Remanants-of-Chewing-Stick. The children are First Beaver, and you will refer to them in your dirge as the Offspring of Woman-Beaver.”
After she had spoken, she disappeared into the waters, and the hunter saw her no more. At once he packed his goods, and when his canoe was filled, traveled down the river to his village.
For a long while he did not speak to his people. Then he told them what had happened and said, “I will take this as my personal crest. It shall be known as “Remnants-of-Chewing-Stick, and forever remain the property of our clan, the Salmon-Eater household.” This is the origin of the Beaver crest and the Remnants-of-Chewing-Stick.
–Based on two versions of the same myth, reported by
William Beynon in 1949 and Marius Barbeau in 1953.