“Wishpoosh, the giant beaver who ate trees and men with equal ease” – Nard Jones
We have a fondness for beavers, imagining they are little furry balls of protestant work ethic with disarmingly cute buck teeth, odd tails, and natural carpentry skills. But beavers are actually jerks. And beaver gods are proportionally bigger jerks. Your average Castor canadensis (North American beaver) is an aggressive and territorial rodent that spends much of its time marking the boundaries of its domain, and viciously assaulting other woodland creatures that dare to cross the border into what it considers its property by manifest destiny. Those beaver lodges that we think of as adorable little family homes are actually forts from which beavers can sally forth to defend their realm, and beaver dams are the organic equivalent of the Berlin Wall. According to wildlife control specialists, “Beavers will maintain and defend territories that they mark by scent mounds made of mud and debris. If a beaver detects an unfamiliar scent on its territory it becomes very aggressive and violent. Usually beavers will slap their tails on the water to frighten other animals away but if this doesn’t work they won’t hesitate to attack.” Basically, once a beaver has arbitrarily decided on his property lines, he will unleash fifty pounds of chisel-toothed fury that would make Vlad the Impaler proud on any interlopers. Humans have spent so many years making them into hats that we’ve neglected to notice that they have rather off-putting personalities. Evidently, Native Americans felt less of a need for hats, and thus were more acquainted with what a pain in the ass a beaver could be, exemplified by an ancient beaver remarked upon in the origin myths of numerous indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest (particularly the Nez Perce and Klickitat), a certain Wishpoosh, who despite his huggable moniker, was a gigantic monster beaver that hated everyone and everything with a passion bordering on psychosis.
The Klickitat legend of the origin of the Indian tribes takes us back to the time of the Watetash and to a monstrous beaver called Wishpoosh, which lived in the lakes at the head of the Yakima River. Instead of being a cluster of small lakes as at present, there was at that time one great lake. Wishpoosh was of monstrous size and covered with scales which glittered like gold, while his eyes were like balls of fire. He had the vicious habit of eating all the fish and other animals in and around the lake, and even in many cases would gnaw up the trees and even rocks (Lyman, 1904, p227-228).
The time of the Watetash (“animal people”) references a primordial world before, “the time of the first grandfather when the sun was as yet the earth too had grown but little and was only a small island. The chief of the animal people was Speelyei the coyote, not the shrewdest of them all. Speelyei was the friend of people” (Williams, 1912, p32). This ancient world before modern humans was populated by semi-divine (sometimes good, and sometimes evil), uncommonly large, rational animals, all of which could talk. Many of the features of our world are attributed to the machinations and merrymaking of the Watetash and stories abound of Coyote’s encounters with Fox, Porcupine, Grizzly Bear, Wildcat and the rest of the forest fauna. All the animals have different personalities and peccadillos, with varying degrees of goodness or badness, and Coyote, being a trickster is often playing pranks on them all. Among these reasonably sociable creatures, the Beaver stands out as particularly nasty. Why? Because beavers are jerks.
A great while ago, in the wonderful age of the ancients, when all kinds of animals spoke and reasoned, and before the present race of Indians existed, there was a mighty beaver, Wishpoosh, that lived in Lake Cleellum. This beaver was god of the lake, owning it, and claiming property in all the fish, wood, and everything in and about its waters. He lived in the bottom of the lake; his eyes were like living fire; his eyebrows bright red; and his immense nails or claws shone and glistened like burnished silver. Like so many other of the Indians’ animal gods, he was a bad character, and very destructive to life. He had made the lake and its surroundings a place of terror; for he destroyed and devoured every living thing that came in his way. To those he could not kill, he denied the privilege of taking fish, of which there were plenty in the water. All about in the country the people were hungry for fish; and, with plenty nearby, it seemed hard that they must starve (Evans, 1889, p62).
So, Wishpoosh, “of enormous size and voracious appetite, was in the evil habit of seizing and devouring the lesser creatures and even the vegetation” (Lyman, 1917, p8). He was not just your ordinary beaver, rather some kind of huge demon beaver with glowing red eyes and massive claws, which he used to murder every living thing, plant or animal that came within reach. Even when he couldn’t catch you, he hoarded the ample supply of fish in his lake, and had absolutely no qualms about letting everyone else starve to death out of sheer spite. Coyote determined to do something about this and went after Beaver, and their epic wrestling match is credited with creating many of the geographical features of the lakes around the headwaters of the Yakima River.
When the world was new Wishpoosh, the Beaver, dwelt in Lake Clellum. The lake was full of fish, but Wishpoosh would not let the red men have any of them. When they came to fish he pulled them down into the lake and drowned them. When Coyote heard of this he said, “I had better kill Wishpoosh, so that people can have fish to eat.” He went to the lake and began to fight Wishpoosh. They fought so that they tore out the banks of the lake. The water rushed down the mountain and into the canyon. It formed another lake in Kittitas valley. Wishpoosh swam to that lake. Coyote followed him, and began to fight him again. They fought so that they tore out the banks of that lake. The water rushed down to Toppenish, above the land of Klickitats. There it formed a very large lake. Yakima was flooded. Some of the water is left in the rivers to this day. Wishpoosh swam to that lake. Coyote followed him, and began to fight him again. They fought so that they tore out the banks of that lake. The water rushed down to the place where Great River received the Yakima and the Snake. There it formed the largest lake of all. Wishpoosh swam to that lake. Coyote followed him and began to fight him again. They fought so that they tore out the banks of that lake. The water rushed into Great River. Wishpoosh swam down Great River. Coyote followed him. At the breakers, where the Bitter Waters begin, he caught up with Wishpoosh and killed him (Lyback, 1925, p309-310).
At least in death, this cantankerous Castor served a purpose that us humans can get behind. Coyote liked the idea of “people” and figured that simply letting Wishpoosh rot was a waste of perfectly good resources, so he cut him into little bits and formed different tribes from his various appendages and organs, each bit of anatomy lending its particular characteristics to each group of people.
Now Coyote was very tired. Therefore he asked Muskrat to help him. Together Coyote and Muskrat pulled the great beaver to land. Then they cut up Wishpoosh. They threw the pieces over the land. From the head of Wishpoosh, Coyote made the Nez Perces, great in council. From the arms he made the Cayuses, powerful with the bow and warclub. From the legs he made the Klickitats, famous runners. From the ribs he made the Yakimas. From the belly he made the Chinooks, short, fat people, with big stomachs. Coyote at last had only the hair and blood of Wishpoosh. These he flung far up the valley to the east. They became the Snake River Indians, a tribe of war and blood. Thus Coyote created the tribes. Then he returned up the Columbia (Judson, 1910, p102).
Next time you see a bunch of beavers diligently working away on their dam, or slapping mud on their lodge, suppress the urge to feel all warm and fuzzy. Beavers are jerks. Big beavers are big jerks. It seems that June Cleaver may have been wrong. You can never be too hard on the beaver.
Evans, Elwood, 1828-1898, and Or North Pacific history company of Portland. History of the Pacific Northwest: Oregon And Washington; Embracing an Account of the Original Discoveries On the Pacific Coast of North America, And a Description of the Conquest, Settlement And Subjugation of the … Original Territory of Oregon: Also Interesting Biographies of the Earliest Settlers And More Prominent Men And Women of the Pacific Nortwest, Including a … Description of the Climate, Soil, Productions … of Oregon And Washington … Portland, Or.: North Pacific history company, 1889.
Judson, Katharine Berry. Myths And Legends of the Pacific Northwest, Especially of Washington And Oregon. 2nd ed. Chicago: A.C. McClurg, 1910.
Lyback, Johanna R. M. Indian Legends. [Chicago]: Lyons and Carnahan, 1925.
Lyman, William Denison, 1852-1920. The Columbia River: Its History, Its Myths, Its Scenery, Its Commerce. 3rd ed., rev. and enl. New York: Putnam , 1917.
Lyman, William Denison. “Myths and Superstitions of the Oregon Indians”. American Antiquarian Society. Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society. Worcester, Mass.: American Antiquarian Society, April 1904.
Williams, John H. b. 1864. The Guardians of the Columbia: Mount Hood, Mount Adams And Mount St. Helens. Tacoma: J.H. Williams , 1912.