Introduction to James Teit, “Traditions
of the Thompson Indians
of British Columbia” 1
The Thompson Indians, whose mythology has been recorded by Mr.
James Teit, form a branch of the Salishan tribes which inhabit large
portions of the states of Washington, Idaho, Montana, and of the Province
of British Columbia. They live on Fraser and Thompson rivers a
little above and below their confluence.
The following is a discussion of some of the important features of
their mythology and folk-lore.
About one half of the collection is taken up by myths referring to
transformers. While in most American mythologies there is only one
transformer who is, at the same time, the culture hero, we find here
several personages to whose actions the present shape of our world is
due. These are: the Coyote, three brothers Hogfennel, 2 and the Old
Man. The first and the second of these are decidedly the most influential
and important personages in the whole mythology of the tribe.
The Coyote as well as the three brothers are in a way the culture
heroes of the tribe, and the general characteristics of the legends referring
to these beings are very similar to legends of this class as found among
other American tribes. The story of the so-called “Culture Hero,” who
gave the world its present shape, who killed monsters that infested the
land, and gave man the arts that make life worth living, is one of the
most widely distributed Indian myths. In what we might call the prehistoric
era there was no clear distinction between man and animals.
At last the culture hero appeared, and transformed some of the beings
of those times into animals, others into men. He taught the latter how
to kill animals, how to make fire, and how to clothe themselves. He is
the great benevolent being, the helper of mankind. But the same great
culture hero appears in other groups of tales as a sly trickster, who
vaingloriously thinks himself superior to all other beings, whom he
407tries to deceive, and who is often punished for his presumption by the
superior powers of his intended victims. No method of warfare is too
mean for him, if it promises to lead to victory; no trick is too low to be
resorted to, if it helps him to reach his end. Neither is the end sought
one that we might consider worthy of this great being. It is selfish to
the extreme, the possession of riches or that of beautiful women being,
his chief aim. It is difficult to harmonize these two aspects of the myths
of the culture hero. Some investigators, prominently D. G. Brinton,
and also Walter Hoffman, 1 have held that the explanation is to be
sought for in a gradual deterioration of a purer and more primitive form
of the myth, and that the more vulgar tales are later additions to the
old cycle of myths. If this were so, the problem would still remain, why
there is such a general tendency of making the ancient culture hero the
principal figure in these tales. But it seems to my mind that the frequent
occurrence of this phenomenon requires a different explanation. It does
not seem likely that all mythologies collected while still in more or less
vigorous life should have undergone the same kind of deterioration. I
am rather inclined to think that we have to deal here with a most important
characteristic of all primitive religion.
The main features of the transformer legend appear very clearly in
the Raven tales of the Tlingit and Tsimshian. 2 The tale begins with the
miraculous birth of the Raven. The faithless wife of a chief was killed
and buried by her husband. After her death she gave birth to a child
who was eventually found and raised by a chief. The boy made a
blanket of birdskins, by means of which he flew up to the sky, where he
married the Sun's daughter. They had a son who owing to an accident
fell down from heaven and was found drifting in the sea. He was
taken to an old chief, who loved him very much and worried because
the child would not eat. By the advice of two old men who appeared
in a miraculous manner, he was given a certain kind of food. As soon
as he tasted it he became so voracious that he ate all the accumulated
winter provisions of the tribe. Then the people deserted him. Now he
assumed the shape of the raven and began to traverse the world in
search of food. He came to the mouth of a large river, where he met
408some fishermen whom he asked to give him fish. They scorned him and
refused his request. The fishermen was fishing in the dark, for at that
time the sun did not shine on our world. He threatened them, saying
that he would make the sun unless they would give him some fish, but
they merely said: “We know you, Raven, you liar!” He flew away
enraged, and went straight to the house of the chief who owned the
daylight. Here he transformed himself into the spike of a hemlocktree,
in which form he was swallowed by the chief's daughter. In
course of time she gave birth to a child who was no other than Raven.
The old chief dearly loved his grandson, and was unable to refuse any
of his requests. One day the boy asked to be allowed to play with the
box containing the daylight. As soon as he had obtained it, he resumed
the shape of the raven and flew away. He returned to the place where
he had left the fishermen, liberated the sun, and then saw that the
fishermen were the ghosts. They fled frightened, leaving their fish for
Raven. He ate as much as he desired, and became very thirsty. But
at that time there was no fresh water in the world. Therefore he set out
to obtain the water, and deceived the old chief who held it in his possession.
On being pursued he spilled the water, and for this reason we
find water all over the world. At another time, when he was hungry,
he set out to obtain the herring, which he obtained by fraud. He also
cheated the cormorant, tearing out his tongue and thus depriving him
of the faculty of speech. For that reason the cormorant says wulewulewule
up to this day.
It is not necessary to go into any further details. It will be seen that
the main characteristic of these tales is the fact that the Raven gave
the world its present shape while trying to satisfy his own wants, and
that he employed fair means and foul to reach his own selfish ends.
While his actions benefit mankind, he is not prompted by altruistic
motives, but only by the desire to satisfy his own needs. I find that in
most tales of the transformer, or of the culture hero, the prime motive
is, as in this particular case, a purely egotistical one, and that the changes
which actually benefit mankind are only incidentally beneficial. They
are primarily designed by the transformer to reach his own selfish
It will be well to illustrate the peculiar mental attitude of the transformer
by giving a few other examples. Among the Chinook 1 we find
409the Coyote as the principal transformer or culture hero. He was the
first to catch salmon with nets. He was hungry and tried to learn the
art of catching salmon. He made a little man of dirt, whom he asked
about the method of obtaining salmon. This artificial adviser told him
how to make a net, and informed him regarding all the numerous
regulations referring to the capture of salmon. He obeyed only partially,
and consequently was not as successful as he had hoped to be. He became
angry, and said: “Future generations of man shall always regard
many regulations, and shall make their nets with great labor, because
even I had to work, even I had to observe numerous regulations.” He
used to drive his baskets filled with dry salmon to his winter quarters,
but one day they all ran away and jumped into the river. Since he had
failed in this attempt at making life easy, he cursed all future generations,
condemning them to carry all loads on their backs and taking
away their powers of making the loads go by themselves.
The Tillamook, 1 a Salishan tribe, tell the following story of the transformer:
In the beginning there were two animals in each mussel, and
one day the transformer overate. This annoyed him, and he threw away
one of these animals, so that each mussel should not have too much
meat. It will be seen from this that all the changes that these transformers
made were in a way changes for the worse, and that they made them
in anger at some disappointment that they had had, or at some discomfort
that they had suffered, not with a view of benefiting mankind.
While the Raven was regardless of man, the Coyote of the Chinook
made most of the changes to spite him.
Among the Athapascan tribes of northwestern America we find also
most inventions made and transformations accomplished by a being
who tries to reach his own selfish ends. Thus Petitot 2 tells of Kunyan,
who made the first arrows for defending himself. Later on he killed the
people, and when the deluge was threatening he built a raft to save
himself. It seems that on it he collected the animals for his future use.
He then brought up the mud from the bottom of the sea, from which a
new earth was created. Later on he found that there was no water in
the world and he obtained it for his own use.
The Klamath myths of the “Old Man,” recorded by Gatschet, seem
to partake of the same character. The “Old Man” is the creator, but in
ridding the country of malevolent beings he only tries to overcome his
410own enemies. He kills North Wind and South Wind in revenge for
their having killed his brother.
I might add many more examples of this character, almost all from
the tribes of the northwestern parts of America, but it may be well to
add an example taken from another region. The god Kutka of the
Kamchadal, according to the description given by Steller, corresponded
exactly to the Raven creator of the Alaskan Indians.
It seems, therefore, that in this region at least, the being who gave
to the world its present shape and to man his arts was not prompted by
altruistic motives. He did so in the course of his personal adventures,
often with the direct aim of harming his enemies. He is not what we
ordinarily understand by the term “culture hero,” a benevolent being
of great power whose object it is to advance the interests of mankind,
but he is simply one of many more or less powerful beings who gave
the world its present shape. With this conception of the so-called culture
hero the difficulty disappears of uniting in one person the benevolent
being and the trickster. He helps man only incidentally by advancing
his own interests. This he tries to do by fair means or foul, just as the
Indian will treat his enemy. When he overcomes his enemies, the result
of his labors must accrue to the benefit of his fellow beings or of later
generations, while wherever he fails, he necessarily often appears as a
foolish trickster. We have a condition corresponding almost exactly
to the attitude of mediæval Christendom to the devil. The latter was
considered as a powerful being, always intent to advance his own interests.
Often he succeeds, but often his triumph is defeated by the
cleverness of his adversaries. The difference between these two series
of myths lies mainly in the fact that the devil in all his adventures had
only one object in view, namely, the acquisition of souls, while the
Indian transformer struggled with a great variety of enemies who infested
This aspect of the transformer myths makes it also intelligible why
failures as well as successes should be ascribed to the hero. There was
no psychological reason which made it more difficult to ascribe failure
to him than success; and since he was one of the most important figures
of Indian mythology, it is quite reasonable to suppose that gradually
more and more tales clustered around him.
It may be asked why, if the hero of these tales is not intentionally a
benefactor of mankind, do his acts so often result in advantages to man.
I believe the explanation of this phenomenon must be looked for largely
411in the circumstance that the human mind has a tendency to consider
existing conditions as the results of changes. The world has not always
been what it is now. It has developed, either for better or for worse. On
the whole, the progress of invention among a more primitive people
is not so rapid that man is induced to speculate on the possible future
achievements of his race. There is rather a tendency to consider the
present accomplishments as the stationary result of a previous development.
Therefore it is hardly likely that Indian traditions should speak
of lost arts; they will rather refer to the introduction of new arts, and
consequently the introducer must appear as the culture hero. The only
exceptions that seem at all possible are such that the native imagines
the existence of previous races which were able to accomplish certain
feats by means of magical powers, which in course of time were lost.
These ideas are embodied in many animal stories, and appear very
clearly in the Coyote tales of the Chinook to which I referred before.
It is the same when we consider the relation of man to animals and
plants. Everywhere he has succeeded fairly well in conquering ferocious
animals and making others useful to himself. There is hardly any being
that he is not able to overcome in some manner or the other. But still
the difficulties are often so great, that we can easily understand how his
fancy will create stories of animals that man was not able to subjugate,
or conditions under which he was not able to conquer the animals that
furnish food and clothing. His fancy cannot as easily invent conditions
under which it would be possible to conquer the animal world more
easily by natural means, than is done now, because he cannot foresee
possible improvements in weapons of attack and defense. Therefore
it seems intelligible why so many stories describing the primitive status
of our world refer to the extinction of monsters by heroes.
It seems to me that the tales described heretofore do not contain the
peculiar psychological discrepancy which is so puzzling, if we bear
only in mind that the so-called culture hero is not considered by the
Indian as an altruistic being but as an egotist pure and simple.
But there are many cases in which the natives have advanced to a
higher point of view, and ascribe to the hero at least partially the desire
to benefit his friends. With the development of this point of view the
incongruity of the various parts of the transformer myth becomes more
and more striking. When the Algonquin, for instance, tell that
Manibozhoo instituted all the secret societies for the benefit of mankind,
that he is a great and benevolent being, and at the same time relate the
412most absurd stories of their hero, the psychological discrepancy of the
two groups of myths becomes very evident.
It is important to note that we find a gradual transition from the
purely egotistical transformer legends, if I may use this term, to the
clearly altruistic series. The transformer legend of the Kwakiutl of
Vancouver Island 1 is instructive in this respect. The transformer meets
a number of enemies who are planning his death. They do not recognize
him and tell him of their plans. Then he transforms them into
animals, and ordains that they shall be the food of man. He is thirsty,
and in order to obtain water, he slays a monster that has killed a whole
tribe. In all these cases he acts from egotistical motives. Later on he
gives the laws governing the religious ceremonials of the tribe. This he
does in the following manner: he meets the ancestors of the various
clans, and they test their powers. Sometimes he is vanquished, and then
his adversary obtains certain privileges as the fruit of his victory. In
other cases he proves to be the stronger. Then he takes pity on his rival,
and gives him certain ceremonials as a present. In all these adventures
he appears as a powerful chief who is travelling all over the world, not
with a view of making man happier, but doing so incidentally in the
course of his adventures. Still the Kwakiutl look at him distinctly as the
culture hero, and in this I see a fundamental difference from the manner
in which the Tsimshian look at the Raven. They recognize the Raven
as the creator, but his actions were so little dictated by considerations of
the needs of man that they owe him no thanks for what he has done.
The Kamchadal express this attitude accurately when they say that the
god Kutka was very foolish, that he might have arranged things much
better when he was creating the world. The transformer of the
Kwakiutl, on the other hand, gave his gifts to the ancestors of the various
clans, and these gifts were naturally intended for the benefit of their
families, although they were not prompted by clearly altruistic motives.
Therefore the Kwakiutl revere their transformer. The mental attitude
has entirely changed. 2
But other important changes of nature and similar events came about
without any such intention on his part. Death was the result of a bet
between him and a woman. Animals obtained their fat in a feast given
to them by the transformer.
In short, we find that among various tribes the altruistic side is developed
It seems quite intelligible that with the progress of society there should
develop a tendency of substituting for the coarse motives of the primitive,
transformer higher ones. With the consciousness that the changes
effected by the transformer were useful to man may have developed the
idea that they were made with the view of benefiting mankind. The
traditions of the Kwakiutl may be taken to indicate a transitional point
in the ethical aspect of these myths, the changes being made not for
the good of mankind, but for the benefit of a particular friend of the
transformer. The less the altruistic idea is developed, the less will be
the consciousness of a discrepancy between the tales representing the
transformer as a benefactor and as a trickster. The higher it is developed,
the greater will be the friction between the two groups of tales.
Hence we find that wherever this idea is brought out most clearly, the
tales of the trickster are ascribed to a different being. The personage of
the transformer is split in two or more parts; the one representing the
true culture hero, the other retaining the features of the trickster. This
has been done in the mythology of the Micmac and Penobscot, 1 where
Glooskap retains almost exclusively the features becoming to the benefactor
of mankind. Still I think that in a few of his adventures the more
primitive conception of the transformer may be recognized. The more
sophisticated the tribe, the more sharply, it seems, is the line drawn between
the culture hero and the trickster.
I am well aware that the theory here proposed does not clear up all
the difficult questions connected with this subject, but I think that it
at least does away with the troublesome psychological discrepancy between
the two aspects of the transformer. I venture to suggest that perhaps
this theory would appear better established if all the Indian mythologies
were recorded just as told by the Indian uninfluenced by contact
with civilization. As a matter of fact, many were recorded by
missionaries, who would naturally introduce in all tales of a culture hero
414the altruistic element much more strongly than intended by the Indian.
Their whole training would tend to introduce this bias. The same
is true to a certain extent of all White collectors, unless the traditions
are recorded verbatim. I have examined the available literature quite
closely, and find that very few collectors actually give the motive which
led the transformer to carry out certain actions, although the latter is
often implied by the incidents of the story. I think that in all probability
if Indian mythologies were available in their pure original form, the
egotistic character of the transformer would appear much more strongly
than is the case at present.
Such criticism must, however, be applied most sparingly, because the
plausibility of our theory may induce us to reject evidence on account
of its incongruity with the theory. It seems, however, justifiable to suggest
to collectors of myths the desirability of paying particular attention
to the motives ascribed to the culture hero and to investigate if his
character is that of a pure egotist in other regions and among other tribes
than those mentioned before. If this should prove to be the case, I
should be inclined to consider the theory that has been suggested here
as well established.
The traditions of the Thompson Indians, as recorded by Mr. James
Teit, show a peculiar development of the transformer myths. There are
at least four distinct personages who may be considered as culture heroes
or transformers. The most important one among them is the Coyote,
around whom a great many traditions cluster. In his case the peculiar
mixture of characteristics described on the preceding pages is well
marked. He is a being of great power; he performed many feats in
consequence of which the world assumed its present shape. A great
many striking local features of the country inhabited by the Thompson
Indians originated through his agency. In many of his actions he appears
as the trickster, and all his methods are based on sly cunning. The
series of Coyote legends of this tribe resembles the Coyote tales with
which we are familiar from a number of points on the western plateaus
of our continent, and I do not doubt that they belong to this series. In
all these tales he appears as a transformer and a culture hero, but he is
not moved by the desire of benefiting mankind; he accomplishes all
transformations of the world in the pursuit of his own ends.
The second series of transformer myths refer to the three brothers. I
do not think that we can interpret the differentiation of transformers
in the legends of the Thompson Indians as solely due to the developing
415desire of differentiating the altruistic and egotistic side of this being,
because the tales of the Brothers do not by any means bring out an
altruistic point of view more clearly than those of the Coyote. It seems
much more likely that the latter group of legends are simply new traditions
introduced from the lower course of Fraser River. A comparison
between these tales and the transformer legends of the tribes living at
the delta of Fraser River and on southeastern Vancouver Island show
that these two series are practically identical, except that the latter series
is very much more elaborate. 1
It is not so easy to explain the origin of the legend of the transformer
Hog Fennel. This being is the son of the hog fennel (Peucedanum), a
plant which plays a most important part in the ceremonials of the tribes
of lower Fraser River, but which, so far as I am aware, is not personified
to any extent among them. I have not found any analogon of this
legend among the neighboring tribes.
The fourth transformer is called “The Old Man,” but it does not
seem that there are many elaborate myths referring to him. The whole
concept of the Old Man is so much like that of the Kootenay and Blackfeet,
that I am rather inclined to consider these groups of tales as having
a*common origin. In order to establish this point, it will be necessary
to investigate the transformer tales of the Shuswap and Okanagon,
which are, however, only imperfectly known.
If the legends of the Brothers and those of the Old Man are really of
foreign origin, the numerous instances of contests between these beings
may be explained quite naturally as a result of comparisons of their
powers. Numerous examples of this kind are known from the mediæval
epics, in which the heroes of most heterogeneous groups of legends are
made to struggle against each other. This is the leading idea of the
tradition of the “Rosegarden,” in which all the heroes of the old German
tales appear, and compete against one another.
This theory is acceptable only if it is possible to prove that the tales
of the Thompson Indians really contain foreign elements. It may be
well to discuss at least one of their legends rather fully with a view of
establishing this important point. I select the Coyote tradition for this
We will begin our analysis with the story of Coyote's son. 2 It is not
certain that the beginning of the story, in which it is told how the Coyote
416made boys out of clay, gum, and stone, has any analogue among the
neighboring tribes. It is true that among the coast tribes a myth occurs
in which the gum is presented as a man who is made to melt in the sun;
but it occurs in entirely different connections, and it is doubtful if this
incident in the Coyote tradition is directly related to the corresponding
tale of the coast. The latter refers to the attempt of the Raven to obtain
gum. He induces the gum-man to go fishing with him. He exposes him
to the hot sun until he is melted.
The next incident of our tale, however, can be traced among many
of the neighboring tribes. Coyote makes a tree, which he induces his
son to climb. Then he makes the tree grow until it reaches the sky. The
inducement held out to the boy is a nest of eagles on the top of the tree.
The Ponca 1 tell the same incident. They relate, how Ishtinike makes a
tree, and induces his friend to climb it in order to recover his arrows.
Petitot tells the identical story from the Hare Indians and from the
Chippewayan. 2 Livingston Farrand has found the story of an ascent
of the sky by means of a growing tree among the Chilcotin, who live
northwest of the Thompson Indians. The boy reaches the sky and
travels over an extensive prairie. After a while he reaches houses in
which baskets and other household utensils are living, and when he tries
to carry away one of them, he is beaten by the others, and finds that
they are the inhabitants of the house. This last incident has no close
analogue among the other tribes, although it reminds us forcibly of the
visit to the house of the shadows, told by the Chinook, Tsimshian, and
Tlingit. 3 In these tales the traveller reaches a house inhabited by shadows,
by whom he is beaten whenever he tries to take away some of their
provisions or their household utensils.
Coyote travels on, and meets two blind women, whom he makes
quarrel by taking away their food. They recognize him by his scent
and are transformed into birds. This tale is found extensively along
the Pacific coast. The tribes of lower Fraser River tell of a boy who
reached the sky, and met two blind sisters. He takes away their food
and makes them quarrel. Then they advise him in regard to the dangers
that he is going to encounter on his way to the house of the sun. 4 The
same incident occurs in the traditions of the Coast Salish, referring to a
417man who tried to recover his wife, who was carried away by a finback
whale. He descended to the bottom of the sea, and met a number of
blind old women, one of whom was distributing food among the others.
He took it away, opened their eyes, and in return was given advice by
the women. 1 The Comox tell of a young man who visited the sky, where
he met the Snail-women, whose food he took away. He restored their
eyesight, and they advised him in regard to the dangers he would
meet. 2 The Kwakiutl have the tradition of a man who wanted to marry
the daughter of a chief. On his journey he met a number of old women,
and the same incident occurred as told before. 3 In Nahwitti the same
story is told of a great transformer who met four blind girls, whom he
made quarrel in the same manner. He transformed them into ducks. 4
The Bella Coola tell of a boy who reached the sky, and restored the eyesight
of a number of blind women. He transformed them into ducks. All
these incidents are identical with those recorded among the Thompson
Indians. Far to the east, in the collection of tales of the Ponca made by
Dorsey, a similar incident occurs, which, however, bears only slight
resemblance to the one discussed here, and which may be of quite
independent origin. It is told how an invisible visitor burns the cheek
of the Thunderers, and thus makes them quarrel. 5
The following incident, in which it is told how the boy visited the
spiders and how they let him down from the sky, does not exhibit any
striking similarities with the tales of the neighboring tribes, although
the occurrence of a descent from heaven by help of a spider is an exceedingly
frequent feature of North American mythologies. The descent
from the sky is remarkably similar to a descent told by the tribes of lower
Fraser River, in which two spiders let the visitor down in a basket tied
to a long rope. When he reaches the tops of the trees, he shakes the rope,
whereupon the spiders continue to let him down until he reaches the
ground. 6 In a Chippewayan story 7 a person is let down from the sky
by means of a rope.
The following incidents of the tale do not give any occasion for remarks,
although they remind us in a general way of the tales of the
418neighboring tribes. When we confine ourselves to more complicated
incidents, we are again struck by those told on p. 26. Raven is given
deer-fat by a person whom he had helped before; he took the fat
home and gave it secretly to his children. The attention of the people
was called to this fact by the noise the children were making when being
fed by Raven. A person made one of the children disgorge the fat, and
thus discovered that Raven was well provided for, while the other
people were starving. This incident occurs in the traditions of the Coast
Salish, where a boy sends fish to his grandmother, who hides them until
dark. The fish are discovered when she begins to eat them. The same
tale is told by the Kwakiutl. The boy sends his grandmother whale
blubber, which is discovered when she is eating it. The incident is also
told at Nahwitti. Farther north the traditions agree with that of the
Thompson Indians, in that a child is made to disgorge the food. We
find this tale among the Bella Coola and among the Tsimshian. 1 Farrand
has recorded the same tale among the Chilcotin.
The following parts of the tradition have close analoga on the coast;
more particularly with the mink tales of the tribes on lower Fraser River
and with the transformer tradition of the Tillamook. 2
Among the other Coyote tales the fourth and the last are rather remarkable
on account of their distribution. Coyote meets a cannibal. He
proposes that they shall close their eyes and vomit into two dishes, in
order to see what kind of food they eat. Coyote exchanges the dishes
before the cannibal opens his eyes, thus making him believe that he
himself is a cannibal. The Shuswap ascribe this incident to the Coyote
and the Cannibal Owl, while far to the south the Navaho tell the same
of Coyote and the Brown Giant. 3
The last story tells of the unsuccessful attempts of Coyote to imitate
his hosts who produced food by magical means. We may compare with
this tale that of the Chinook, who tell how Blue Jay tried to imitate his
hosts; 4 that of the Comox, Nootka, and Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island,
and of the Bella Coola and Tsimshian of northern British Columbia. 5
who tell the same story of the Raven. Farrand found the tale among
the Chilcotin. Dorsey has recorded it among the Ponca, who tell of
419Ishtinike's vain attempts to imitate his hosts, 1 and Rand tells it from the
Micmac, among whom the Rabbit is the hero of the tale. 2 Finally we
find it told of the Coyote among the Navaho, although among this tribe
the incidents are materially changed. 3
The distribution of the various parts of the Coyote legend as described
here is conclusive proof of its complex origin. It is quite inconceivable
that all these complex parts of the tradition should have originated independently
among the tribes among which we find them now. This
view is strengthened by the fact that the incidents are most nearly alike
among neighboring tribes. In the Thompson tales recorded by Mr. Teit
are found numerous additional instances of close resemblances to those
of their neighbors which corroborate the evidence brought forward in
the preceding remarks.
It appears, therefore, that there is ample proof of transmission of tales
to the Thompson Indians from foreign sources and vice versa. It was
suggested before (p. 416), that if such proof can be given, we may assume
that the transformer myths originated from different sources, and
have not had time to amalgamate. The similarity of the series of
Coyote tales with the Coyote tales of the south and east, and with the
animal tales of the coast, and of the legend of the Brothers with the
transformer tales of the delta of Fraser River, point to the sources
from which the various series of transformer tales sprang.
I doubt if it will ever be possible to determine the origin of all the
parts of the tales of this tribe that have been woven into their structure.
It may be that we shall better understand the history of their development
when we shall have fuller collections than are now available from
the tribes of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Their relation to the
legendary lore of the coast tribes of British Columbia, however, seems
well established. It appears that a considerable number of tales were
borrowed bodily from the coast tribes, and were incorporated readymade
in the tales of the Thompson tribe. It is, therefore, certain that
these importations when interwoven with mythical tales never have
had any symbolic significance among the people whose property they
are now. They are not nature myths, in the generally adopted sense of
the term. While dealing with phenomena of nature and with the peculiarities
of animals, they are not the result of tribal thought; they are
420at best adaptations of foreign thought, but much more frequently importations
that have undergone little if any change. The present character
of Indian mythologies can be understood only by historical studies
regarding their origin. How much is due to independent thought or to
gradual adaptation, under the influences of environment and of new
social conditions, remains to be determined by detailed comparative
We may trace the influence of environment in the modifications that
the tales undergo, owing to differences in the mode of life of various
tribes. Thus the tales of the fishermen of the seacoast who spend most
of their time in their canoes, and whose villages are located near the
shore, differ in many respects from the tales of the Thompson Indians,
who hunt part of the year in the mountains. The animals who are the
heroes of the tales also change from one locality to the other. In northern
British Columbia Raven takes the place of Coyote; on Vancouver
Island Mink takes his place, while still farther south, among the Chinook,
Blue Jay assumes many of his functions.
But much more striking than the influence of geographical environment
is that of the social status of the tribe. The clan organization of
the coast tribes pervades their whole mythology and all their traditions,
while the loose social organizations of the tribes of the interior gives
their tales a peculiar character. This difference is brought out strongly
in the myths of the transformer as found among a number of coast tribes
and those of the interior. Every clan 1 has a legend expounding the events
that took place at the time of meeting between the transformer and the
ancestor of the clan, while there is no such personal relation between the
Indians and the transformer in the interior. The rivalry between clans
is one of the mainsprings of action. It is evident that in many cases tales
which originally had no totemic bearing were appropriated by a clan
and changed so as to become clan traditions. I have described a number
of such changes in a fuller discussion of the social system of the
Kwakiutl. 2 Other tales developed numerous variants among various
clans, the more elaborate social organization acting as a stimulus for the
development of traditions. The same is true in the case of ritualistic
myths. They are all part and parcel of the complicated rituals of the
coast tribes and some of them are made to explain the ritual. Conclusions
421founded on observation of the tribes of British Columbia and
on that of the Pueblo tribes of the southwest agree, in that they tend to
show that the ritual and, we may say in a more general way, the social
system, have been foisted upon the myths, thus producing variations,
which tend to establish harmony between mythology and social phenomena.
The Salish tribes, to which the Thompson Indians belong, owing to
their wide distribution and diversity of culture, offer an interesting example
of the influence of social organization upon mythology. The
great body of the people have the same loose organization that we find
among the Thompson tribe; but among the tribes living on the coast
more complex conditions prevail. They have been under the influence
of the tribes of the coast of British Columbia for so long a time, that
their customs and beliefs have undergone material changes. The loose
village community has been replaced by one claiming common descent
from one mythical ancestor.
This transition may be observed among the tribes of the Delta of
Fraser River, which are closely allied to the Thompson Indians. Each
village has a mythical ancestor, and some of these are described as animals.
It may be well to make clearer the peculiar character of these
tales by means of a few abstracts of myths.
The ancestor of one tribe whose village is close to the mouth of
Fraser River, was Beaver-Man. When the transformer visited his village
they had a contest, in the course of which they tried to transform
each other. Finally the transformer proved to be the stronger of the
two. He transformed the man into a beaver. It seems that in a few cases
these traditions contain memories of historical events. Such seems to be
the case in the tradition of the origin of a tribe living on Harrison River.
One of the descendants of their ancestor is said to have invited the
ancestor of another tribe, who was descended from the marten and the
mountain goat, to descend from the mountains and to live with him.
Since that time the descendants of these two chiefs are said to have
formed one tribe. 1 I think the occurrence of these traditions must be
explained in the following way: The coast tribes north of Fraser River
are divided into totemic clans, each of which has a clan tradition. All
the privileges of the clans are explained by the clan traditions, which,
for this reason, are considered a most valuable property. That this is
so is indicated by the jealousy with which the property right to certain
422traditions is guarded by the families of the coast tribes. When the Salish
tribes began to be thrown into contact with the coast tribes, the lack of
family traditions must have been felt as a great disadvantage. Their
lack made the tribe, in a way, inferior to their neighbors on the coast,
and for this reason the tendency and the desire of evolving myths of
this character becomes intelligible. But the tribe was organized on a
different basis from that of the coast people. While the latter were
divided into clans, the idea that was present to the minds of the Salish
people was that of the village community; and it is clear, therefore,
that the traditions which developed would be of such a character that
each village would have one mythical ancestor.
The same change has taken place among the Bella Coola, whose
mythology is much more thoroughly modified by the coast tribes than
that of the Salish tribes of Fraser River.
These considerations have an important bearing upon the interpretation
of the myths of primitive people. I have tried to show that the
material of which they are built up is of heterogeneous origin, and that
much of it is adopted ready-made. The peculiar manner in which
foreign and indigenous material is interwoven and worked into a somewhat
homogeneous fabric depends to a great extent upon the social conditions
and habits of the people. Oft-repeated actions which are the
expression of social laws, and which constitute the habits and customs
of the people, may be expected to be more stable than traditions that are
not repeated in a prescribed form or ritual, and have thus become intimately
associated with habitual actions. This is probably the reason
why we find that ritual moulds the explanatory myth, and why, in a
more general way, the myth is made to conform with the social status
of the people. Discrepancies between the two, in a general way at
least, belong to the class of phenomena that are called “survivals.” The
discrepancy may consist in the preservation of earlier customs in traditions,
or in fragments of early traditions under modified social conditions.
The survivals themselves are proof of the gradual process of
assimilation between social conditions and traditions which has wrought
fundamental changes in the lore of mankind.
Both factors, dissemination and modification on account of social
causes, must tend to obscure the original significance of the myth. The
contents of mythology prove that attempts at the explanation of nature
are the primary source of myths. 1 But we must bear in mind that, owing
423to the modifications they have undergone, we cannot hope to gain an
insight into their earliest form by comparisons and interpretations, unless
they are based on a thorough inquiry into the historical changes that
have given to myths their present forms. It would seem that mythological
worlds have been built up, only to be shattered again, and that new
worlds were built from the fragments.424
1 Memoirs of the American Folk-Lore Society, vol. 6 (1898), pp. 1-18.
2 Peucedanum macrocarpum, Nutt.
1 D. G. Brinton, The Myths of the New World, third edition (1896), p. 194;
Walter J. Hoffman, “The Menomini Indians,” 14th Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, Part 1 (1896), p. 162.
2 F. Boas, Indianische Sagen von der Nord-Pacifischen Küste Amerikas (Berlin,
1895), pp. 272ff., 311ff. A fuller version of the Raven legend of the Tsimshian has
since been obtained, which has been utilized here.
1 F. Boas, “Chinook Texts,” Bureau of Ethnology, Bulletin 20 (1894), pp. 92
1 Journal of American Folk-Lore, vol. 11, no. 41 (1898).
2 E. Petitot, Traditions indiennes du Canada nord-ouest (Paris, 1886), p. 131ff.
1 F. Boas, Indianische Sagen von der Nord-Pacifischen Küste Amerikas, p. 194ff.
2 As a matter of fact, there are contradictory attitudes among the Kwakiutl. The
group to which the transformer “belongs” have respect for his deeds, while others
consider him as malevolent because he transformed men into animals (see F. Boas,
Religion of the Kwakiutl Indians, Columbia University Contributions to Anthropology,
vol. 10, Part 2, p. 177).
3 George B. Grinnell, Blackfoot Lodge Tales (London, 1893), p. 137 et seq.
1 S. T. Rand, Legends of the Micmac (New York, 1894), passim; and Charles G.
Leland, The Algonquin Legends of New England (Boston, 1885), pp. 15 et seq. and
pp. 140 et seq.
1 F. Boas, Indianische Sagen, etc., pp. 19 et seq., pp. 45, 63; also pp. 66, 201.
2 Teit, Traditions, etc., p. 21.
1 J. O. Dorsey, “The Cegiha Language,” Contributions to North American Ethnology,
vol. 6 (1890), p. 607.
2 Petitot, Traditions indiennes du Canada nord-ouest (Paris, 1886).
3 F. Boas, Indianische Sagen, etc., p. 316; Chinook Texts, p. 181.
4 Indianische Sagen, etc., p. 38.
1 Ibid., p. 55.
2 Ibid., p. 118.
3 Ibid., p. 136.
4 Ibid., p. 202.
5 Dorsey, The Cegiha Language, p. 204.
6 Boas, Indianische Sagen, etc., p. 40.
7 Petitot, Traditions indiennes du Canada nord-ouest, p. 358.
1 Boas, Indianische Sagen, etc., pp. 53, 133, 180, 264, 303.
2 Journal of American Folk-Lore, vol. 11, no. 41 (1898), p. 140.
3 Washington Matthews, Navaho Legends (Boston, 1897), p. 227; Boas, Indianische
Sagen, p. 9.
4 Chinook Texts, p. 178.
5 Boas, Indianische Sagen, pp. 76, 106, 177, 245.
1 Dorsey, loc. cit.., pp. 557.
2 Rand, loc. cit., pp. 300, 302.
3 Matthews, loc. cit., p. 87.
1 In regard to the use of the term clan see p. 359 of this volume.
2 “The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians,”
Report of the U. S. National Museum for 1805 (1897), p. 328ff.
1 Boas, Indianische Sagen, pp. 24 et seq.
1 Compare my later views, pp. 446 et seq. of this volume.