Alaska, Anthropomorphism, Bay of Death, Bureau of American Ethnology, charismatic megafauna, cute, death, Drowning, Ernest Thompson Seton, Freezing, Harry Colp, John Swanton, Kushtaka, Land Otter People, Ojibwa, Otter, Reincarnation, ritual, Shamanism, Shape-shifting, Souls, Thomas Bay, Tlingit, Trickster, Tsimshian, Wilderness, William Burroughs, Zoroastrianism
There are five important facts to know about otters: (1) They are believed to be one of the most intelligent non-human species on the planet; (2) There is evidence that they have endured for more than 30 million years; (3) They have been known to create tools; (4) Every continent except Australia and Antarctica has an otter population; and (5) If the legendary Southeastern Alaskan Kushtaka is any indication, they would like to steal your soul.
The Tlingit and Tsimshian peoples, indigenous inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest Coast of the United States and Southeastern Alaska, have a robust folklore surrounding a mythical and maniacal trickster race called the Kushtaka, which roughly translates as “land otter people”, a shape-shifting species of otter that is rumored to spend a lot of its time trying to lure unsuspecting humans away from their homes in order to turn them into more Kushtaka (which in Tlingit folklore basically amounts to preventing us from achieving reincarnation and consequent everlasting life). Sometimes they don’t bother, and simply tear a victim to shreds. Not cool. Bad otter.
The Kushtaka has been treated in some literature as a boogeyman or hobgoblin. This is inaccurate and does not honor how seriously the Tlingit feel the threat of the Land Otter People. In a sense, the Kushtaka deprived the victim of everlasting life, for his soul could not be reincarnated. The Land Otter lurked to “save”, that is, to capture, those who drowned or who became lost in the woods. The unfortunate captives were taken by the Land Otter People to their homes or dens and, unless rescued by a shaman, were themselves turned into Land Otters. Kushtaka often appeared in the form of relatives or friends to confuse the victim. Dogs were protection against Land Otter People, for not only were the animals afraid of dogs, but the dog’s barking forced the Land Otter People to reveal themselves. Small children were thought to be the most in danger of being captures by the Land Otter People and were warned not to wander off from parents or to venture away from home alone (Pelton & DiGennaro, 1992, p20).
Despite the fact that the Kushtaka are considered evil and overwhelmingly regarded with a certain level of trepidation, perhaps because otters are just so darn cute and fuzzy, there are instances of benevolent behavior on the part of the Kushtaka. While they generally are credited with merrily tricking Tlingit sailors farther offshore to die, imitating the cries of an infant, or screams of a woman to lure hapless victims into rivers, or preying on small children, occasionally a tale is told of Kushtaka saving lost individuals from freezing to death in the Alaskan wilderness or freezing ocean by conveniently transforming them into a Kushtaka. More often than not, they are just plain mean. Consider a Tlingit folktale called “The Land Otters’ Captive”, recorded by John Swanton of the Bureau of American Ethnology.
Several persons once went out from Sitka together, when their canoe upset and all were drowned except a man of the KîksA’dî. A canoe came to this man, and he thought that it contained his friends, but they were really land otters. They started southward with him and kept going farther and farther, until they had passed clear round the Queen Charlotte Islands. At every place where they stopped they took in a female land otter. All this time they kept a mat made out of the broad part of a piece of kelp, over the man they had captured until at length they arrived at a place they called Rainy-village (Sî’wu-â’nî).
At this place the man met an aunt who had been drowned years before and had become the wife of two land otters. She was dressed in a ground-hog robe. Then she said to him, “Your aunt’s husbands will save you. You must come to see me this evening.” When he came his aunt said, “I can’t leave these people, for I have learned to think a great deal of them.”
Afterward his aunt’s husbands started back with him. They did not camp until midnight. Their canoe was a skate, and, as soon as they came ashore, they would turn it over on top of him so that, no matter how hard he tried to get out, he could not. In making the passage across to Cape Ommaney they worked very hard, and shortly after they landed they heard the raven. They could go only a short distance for food.
When they first started back the woman had said to her husbands, “Don’t leave him where he can be captured again. Take him to a good place.” So they left him close to Sitka. Then he walked around in the neighborhood of the town and made the people suffer so much every night that they could not sleep, and determined to capture him. They fixed a rope in such a way as to ensnare him, but at first they were unsuccessful. Finally, however, they placed dog bones in the rope so that they would stick into his hands, dog bones being the greatest enemies of the land otters.
Late that night the land-otter-man tore his hands so with these bones that he sat down and began to scream, and, while he was doing this, they got the rope around him and captured him. When they got him home he was at first very wild, but they restored his reason by cutting his head with dog bones. He was probably not so far gone as most Victims. Then they learned what had happened to him.
After this time, however, he would always eat his meat and fish raw. Once, when he was among the halibut fishers, they wanted very much to have him eat some cooked halibut. He was a good halibut fisher, probably having learned the art from the land otters, though he did not say so. For a long time the man refused to take any, but at last consented and the food killed him. (Swanton, 1909, p189)
In case you are under the mistaken impression that Kushtaka sightings are ancient history, in 1900, a gold prospector named Harry Colp and three companions, exploring the Patterson Glacier north of Thomas Bay (Known locally as “The Devil’s Country”, and called “The Bay of Death” by the native Tlingit due to a 1750 landslide that killed 500 villagers, incidentally attributed to the machinations of malevolent Kushtaka), returned with a tale of a disturbing encounter with the Kushtaka. Colp wrote about his encounter, but the manuscript he penned was not discovered until after his death by his daughter, and has since been reproduced as “The Strangest Story Ever Told”.
I left come the next morning, which was a fine sunny day. I took only the rifle with me, and when I came to the ridge, sure enough there were a few grouse hooting. I shot two and had gotten them when I bagged another one, which fell down the ridge about a hundred yards before it hung up.
While on my way down to pick it up, I found that piece of quartz. Up to that time I had paid very little attention to what the country I was in looked like, as it was so heavily timbered and brushy. The formation didn’t show up and I had no tools with me to uncover it. The top of an old snag had broken off and fallen, scraping the top moss and loose dirt for a space of about eight feet wide and eighteen or twenty feet long, uncovering this quartz ledge which is where I found this piece.
This ledge was worked smooth by a glacier at one time. I couldn’t find anything to break a piece off with, so I used the butt of my gun to get that piece. In so doing, I broke the stock of my gun, thus ruining it for further use. This didn’t worry me any, as I knew there was not game in the country larger than a grouse and damned few of them. “My first thought was of the richness of the quartz and of you fellows and getting back to town to round you all up so we could get busy on it. After looking over and enjoying the feeling of knowing I had made a rich find, I covered the ledge up again with moss, limbs, and rotten chunk.
Finishing that job, I thought I would climb the ridge directly over the ledge and get my landmarks, so I could come back to it again or tell you where it was if anything should happen to me. This I did, climbing straight up over the ledge on the ridge till I reached the top, which was about six hundred feet above where I found the ledge.
I looked down below me and picked out a big tree with a bushy top, taller than the rest and about fifty feet to the right of the ledge. Looking over the top of this tree from where I stood, I could see out on Frederick Sound, Cape of the Straight Light, the point of Vanderput Spit (Point Vanderput); and turning a little to the left, I could see Sukhoi Island (Kodiak) from the mouth of Wrangell Narrows.
Satisfied with that, I turned half round to get a back sight on some mountain peaks, and lying below me on the other side of the ridge from the ledge was the half-moon lake the Indian had told me about.
Right there, fellows, I got the scare of my life. I hope to God I never see or go through the likes of it again. Swarming up the ridge toward me from the lake were the most hideous creatures. I couldn’t call them anything but devils, as they were neither men nor monkeys-yet looked like both. They were entirely sexless, their bodies covered with long coarse hair, except where the scabs and running sores had replaced it. Each one seemed to be reaching out for me and striving to be the first to get me. The air was full of their cries and the stench from their sores and bodies made me faint.
I forgot my broken gun and tried to use it on the first ones, and then I threw it at them and turned and ran. God, how I did run! I could feel their hot breath on my back. Their long claw-like fingers scraped my back. The smell from their steaming, stinking bodies was making me sick; while the noises they made, yelling, screaming and breathing, drove me mad. Reason left me. How I reached the canoe or how I hung on to that piece of quartz is a mystery to me.
When I came to, it was night; and I was lying in the bottom of my canoe, drifting between Thomas Bay and Sukhoi Island, cold, hungry and crazy for a drink of water. But only to satisfy the latter urge, I started for Wrangell, and here I am. You no doubt think I am either crazy or lying. All I can say is, there is the quartz. Never let me hear the name of Thomas Bay again, and for God’s sake help me get away tomorrow on that boat! (Excerpt from “The Strangest Story Ever Told”, Handwritten Manuscript, Colp MS 140, Alaska State Library)
Now how does such a screamingly adorable fuzzyhead like an otter get mixed up in this sort of soul-eating behavior, you ask? I mean, for god’s sakes, Otters hold each other’s paws when they are swimming and cover their eyes as they swim on their backs napping. They ooze cuteness. The Tibetan symbol for universal love involves the pairing of the six traditional enemies – garuda and snow lion, otter and fish, crocodile and sea-snail. According to Ojibwa legend, an otter was entrusted with the secrets of the Grand Medicine Society. Zoroastrians hold ceremonies to honor dead otters they find in the wild, and consider it an act against nature and their gods to kill one. Otters are widely regarded as fun-loving, industrious, sociable creatures. How do we reconcile the soul-stealing, flesh-rending, child kidnapping monstrosity that is the Kushtaka with the insufferably whimsical creature that launched a thousand children’s stories like The Wind in the Willows or inspired American naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton to say, “the joyful, keen and fearless otter; mild and loving to his own kind, and gentle with his neighbor of the stream; full of play and gladness in his life, full of courage in his stress; ideal in his home, steadfast in death; the noblest little soul that ever went four-footed through the woods”? The trickster element of the Kushtaka is understandable, as one can imagine the playful otter pranking people with abandon, but that does not account for the more malevolent aspects that appear to be more central to Kushtaka mythology. A few people have begun to suspect the otter of hiding depravity and criminal insanity, such as Richard Martin of Coast and Kayak Magazine, who said, “Otters exhibit no self control, no family values, and practice lots of kinky sex” (“The Dark Side of Sea Otters”, 1997), but Mr. Martin is in the minority.
Otter behavior can seem very human to us, and this can be misleading. “The suggestion is that we understand (rationalize, make sense of) the actions of others by ascribing to them the kinds of thoughts, perceptions, motivations that we ‘know’ govern our own behavior as individuals. Thus we make sense of the behavior of a pet dog or a filmed otter by ‘anthropomorphizing’ the animal – by ascribing to it a human intellect with human values, goals, and reasoning abilities. We appear to do the same with more metaphoric creatures as well” (Kronenfeld, 2008, p128). In fact, otters have been described as “charismatic megafauna”, that is, easy to anthropomorphize, magnets for conservationists, and lending themselves to marketable toys and popular zoo exhibits. The ease with which the otter can be anthropomorphized may give us a clue as to why it was viewed so ignominiously by the Tlingit, and also may explain a difference in perception between the sea otter and land otter. As observed in anthropologist Richard Barazzuol’s thesis The Tlingit Land Otter Complex: Coherence in the Social and Shamanic Order, “The land otter was probably perceived as the most human-like animal in that environment. The sea otter had a prestigious place in Tlingit society as a bringer of wealth during the period of the fur trade until its near extinction in the nineteenth century. However it is the land otter that occupied a prominent place in the belief systems of the Tlingit. Particular attributes of the land otters lead to the perception that it has the ability to create a symbolic bridge uniting human and animal. It was seen as an ambiguous figure which had the ability, like the Tlingit themselves, to function well both on the land and in the water” (Barazzuol, 1981, p.74).
Due to a direct association with Tlingit shamanism i.e. one who manages to escape the land otter people and return home is regarded as prime shaman material (also, some Kushtaka myths allow for humans who have been turned into Kushtaka to occasionally return home to their village and provide assistance to relatives), the Kushtaka represents a symbolic link between the living and the dead. As observed by anthropologist Kenelm Burridge, the most significant confrontation with truth and reality among traditional societies is death. How you die, when you die, and where you go when you die are cross-culturally fraught with significance. In a harsh environment like the Alaskan wilderness or coast, death can come suddenly and unexpectedly, and bodies may never be recovered. Tlingit treatment of corpses is cosmologically significant in that they believe with proper preparation; a dead person’s spirit is reincarnated back into the clan lineage. An unrecovered corpse presents a significant liminal problem – does the Tlingit individual who disappears in a blizzard or drowns at sea get reincarnated despite the lack of proper ceremonial? The problem is solved by saying that the unrecovered fatality has “gone to the land of the otter people”. The application of this theory to those who are psychologically troubled (they are regarded as having been captured by otter people, but were incompletely turned into Kushtaka), further suggest that this is a symbolic means for dealing with the marginal, either socially or ritually.
Next time you are at the zoo admiring the antics of the playful otters as they slip and slide, look for the little gleam in their eyes that says, “I may be cute, but I’ll eat your soul for dinner and drag you away to the den of the land otter people, where I will vampirically turn you into one of us”. Otters have had it easy for too long. They know they are cute. They will use it against us. As William Burroughs said, “Like most qualities, cuteness is delineated by what it isn’t. Most people aren’t cute at all, or if so they quickly outgrow their cuteness … Elegance, grace, delicacy, beauty, and a lack of self-consciousness: a creature who knows he is cute soon isn’t.” Then they come for you.
Barazzuol, Richard. “The Tlingit Land Otter Complex: Coherence in the Social and Shamanic Order”. Masters Thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, 1981.
Kronenfeld, David B. Culture, Society, and Cognition. Mouton de Gruyter: Berlin, 2008.
Pelton, Mary and DiGennaro, Jacqueline. Images of a People: Tlingit Myths and Legends.Englewood, CO: Greenwood, 1992.
Swanton, John Reed, 1873-1958. Tlingit Myths And Texts. Washington: Govt. print. off., 1909.