Cultures

Big Men of the Okanagan, Native story


Legends and Stories of the Okanagan

(as it appears in Appendix 2 from A Pioneer Gentlewoman in British Columbia: The Recollections of Susan Allison -1860’s-, edited by Margaret A. Ormsby)

On the shore of the beautiful Okanagan Lake, Torouskin encamped. The summer was well advanced, and with the great heat of the long, long days, a dead calm set in. The lake that had so recently been rough and tempestuous now shone sill and placid as a mirror, reflecting the surrounding mountains and groves of vine maple and cottonwood that fringed its margin. The white swan floated majestically on the smooth surface; the loon, uttering her sad wailing cry, dived into the depths of the beautiful lake; in the cloudless sky above circled the osprey.

Near Torouskin’s camp, the snow-born Look-look-shouie emptied its icy waters into the great bottomless lake. The Look-look-shouie, like the lake into which it flowed, had undergone a remarkable change since the summer set in; the deep dark torrent that had raged so furiously had now dwindled into a small pellucid stream alive with kin-e-ninnies [kokanees]. Torousin’s aged grandsire lay stretched on the upper bank of the Look-look-shouie, smoking Quillshettlemen in a small pipe of dark green stone, and watching the antics of Torouskin’s children as they splashed about in the clear, cold stream, endeavouring to catch the bright denizens of the water. As the venerable old man gazed, he recalled the days of his own childhood. So absorbed was he in his dream that he never noticed the approach of his grandson until he felt the touch of Torouskin’s hand on his shoulder. “Wherefore dost thou gaze so earnestly at the stream, father of my father?”

“My thoughts,” replied the old man, “were back in the days of my childhood when I too was young; then would my mother take me by the hand and swinging a basket over my shoulder, lead me forth up the stream to my father’s fish trap. There we would fill our basket with the shining kokanees. Sometimes we would stray into the silent woods and gather ripe berries until we grew weary, then flinging ourselves down on the soft moss watch a family of skunks frisking about catching large brown beetles. Oft I would stand on my mother’s shoulders and thrusting my hand into a hole in a dead tree, draw forth from its nest a young sparrowhawk. Day by day would I watch the down little balls until their eyes were opened, then would I take one home. Ah! How fondly I did I treasure my little pet until it found wings and flew off leaving me mourning. Thus hath it been all the days of my life, all that was loved, all that was treasured, hath gone – even as that much-loved bird. Youth, strength, everything I prized has departed and I remain useless, helpless.”

“Nay, say not so, my father,” said Torouskin tenderly, “for thy wisdom remaineth. Who so esteemed in counsel as thou art? Even now I was about to ask thine aid in weaving osier baskets such as my father used to catch these fish, even as thou and my father caught them of old.”

The old man, soothed with these words, smiled with pleasure. Torouskin, summoning his children, started off to cut willows in a grove near the lakeshore; but bright-eyed Minat-coe lingered and taking her grandfather by the hand, led him out to gather bundles of wild hemp, the filaments of which her deft fingers would twist into strong twine to bind the osier baskets.

Happy was the group that sat on the shore of the great Lake weaving the long pliant osiers into a trap or conical basket. The old man sat smoking, or instructing the younger members of his family. “Ke-ke-was [grandfather],” said the lively Minat-coe, “what if it should happen to my father even as it happened unto thee, when thou wert young, when the Big Men came down from their caves, allured by the abundance of fish?”

“Jest not, my child,” replied the old man fondly stroking Minat-coe’s glossy head, “for once they took him hardly would he escape.”

“Tell us about the Big Men, Ke-ke-was,” cried everyone in a breath. The old man shook his head. “Tell me, Ke-ke-was,” persisted Minat-coe, coaxingly, and the old man slowly filling his pipe began thus:

“In the days that are gone I hunted in the mountains alone and fearless. Game of all kinds was plentiful and every night I returned to our camp with my horse heavily laden. At last my father and mother grew weary of meat, and longed for the bright trout that frequent these waters. My father went up the stream a days’ journey from our encampment, and built a fish trap similar to the ones we are making now. When he had finished, he put me in charge of it. I visited it daily, every morning. I went at sunrise and returned with fish enough for all our tribe. Suddenly the supply of fish ceased. Day after day I went but found nothing in the trap. Thinking it must have been robbed, I resolved to watch, so taking my blanket with me one night, I lay down by the trap. The moon had not yet risen, and the night was dark and cloudy. All night I watched but no one came near the trap. Towards morning I fell asleep and soon I began to have troubled dreams. I heard a shrill shrieking whistle as of the north wind, and my senses were oppressed by a vile, suffocating odour. Suddenly I awoke to a consciousness of being lifted off the ground. Upwards I was lifted until I found myself on a level with a monstrous face.

“I was too frightened to observe much, for a huge pair of jaws opened, and emitted a laugh that sounded like thunder. I expected every moment to be put into that huge mouth and devoured; but the great creature in whose hands I was, stooped down and lifted up my blanket, which had fallen to the ground, and wrapping it carefully around me, placed me in the bosom of the goatskin shirt he wore. I struggled until I got my head into the air, for there was a fearful smell of garlic about this huge creature that nearly choked me.

“Soon he began to whistle. It was the same sound I had heard in my sleep and thought was the north wind. The Big Man calmly filled the basket with fish out of my trap, then, slinging it onto his shoulders, he stopped and taking me out of his breast, he took a fish and tried to cram it down my throat, but seeing me choke he desisted and put me once more in his bosom and went on his way whistling.

“Peeping out of the bosom of his shirt I saw we were in a huge cave. It was dark save for the red glow of some smouldering embers at the farther end. Throwing a few twigs on the embers, the Big Man blew them until with a sharp crackling sound they began to blaze, then I saw how vast a cave we were in. It was somewhat low for its size, and from the roof hung garlic, meat and herbs. Taking me out of his shirt, the Big Man tied me with a rope by the leg to a log that lay near the fire. There he stood looking at me, and then for the first time I had a good look at him. Thou knowest, Torouskin, that I was ever esteemed a large man, but standing by the Big Man my head was scarce level with his knees. His body was covered with garments of goatskin and was white, and he had a long bushy beard that hung down to his waist. After taking a long look at me he went to a dark corner of the cave and presently returned with an armful of soft furs, which he threw on the ground at my feet and signed me to lie down. He next began to string fish on a long slender willow, which he hung in front of the fire. I watched his movement with fear and curiosity; soon I heard a shrieking whistle outside the cave. At first it seemed distant, then it came nearer and soon it ceased, and with a loud trampling noise, another Big Man entered the cave. He had evidently been hunting, for he carried three fine does supported by their necks from his belt as thou, Torouskin, would hang a grouse. Pulling them from his belt, he threw them on the ground and advancing, squatted down beside the Big Man who had taken me, and they began to converse in voices like thunder. As I watched the two Big Men I was struck with the mild kindly look on their big faces. Presently my captor came to me and loosing the strong rope that held me, took me over to the firelight for his companion to look at. The other Big Man after examining me closely, burst into a fit of laughter in which his companion joined. Then he seated me on his knee while his friend took the fish from before the fire and they began to eat their evening meal. They gave me a portion and seemed much amused to see me eat. Suddenly one of the Big Men gave a howl of pain, and moaning, held out his hand for his friend to look at. The other Big Man examined it tenderly and big tears of sympathy streamed down his cheeks. Standing on his knees I could see that a fishbone had run into his thumb and as their fingers were altogether too clumsy to remove it, I seized the bone in my teeth and pulled it out. The Big Man smiled, looked grateful, and soon dried his tears. I afterwards found that these Big Men were extremely sensitive to pain, the least hurt would make them cry and moan.

“After they had eaten their supper, my captor rose and rolling a large stone to the mouth of the cave, blocked the entrance. Then he took me and laid me on my bed of skins, carefully tucking me in. The fire died down and the cave grew dark, then I heard the most horrible sounds, which I felt could only be the snores of these men.

“Long, long was I kept by my kindly captor. In vain I tried to escape but they watched me too closely. Every day I went out in the fisherman’s shirt until the run of fish was over. Every day the hunter came back laden with game. When they left me alone they always left me securely tied. They treated me with the greatest kindness and were affectionate with each other, but they would never let me go free and my heart grew sad, and I longed to see my own people once more. I watched unceasingly for a chance to escape, and at last once night I observed a ray of light stealing in between the rock and the entrance. I rose softly and found a crack left open through which the moonlight was streaming; it was large enough for me to force my way through. As soon as I was outside the cave I ran with all my might. I cared not wither as long as I was free. For months I wandered, living on roots and berries, and at last I struck the headwaters of the Look-look-shouie and following down stream, found my father’s camp.

“How my father and mother rejoiced to see me again! But even now as the winter approaches I dread to hear the shrill shrieking of the north wind as it rises in gusts and sweeps over the great Lake, for in it I hear the whistle of the Big Men.”

“Ke-ke-was,” cried Minat-coe when the old man had finished his story, “are the Big Men spirits? Do they even as we die?”

“Who can tell my child, no one knows. There are strange things in these mountains.”

Next morning Torouskin went up the stream and built a dam and set a trap, which he visited daily. He always returned with an abundance of fish. One day he returned empty-handed and in terror. At first he refused to tell the cause of his fear, but when pressed by the old man, he told the following story:

“I went up to the fish trap as usual this morning and after I had gathered the fish into the basket and was about to return I heard a shrieking whistle! Nearer and nearer it came. I hid I in the long grass, trembling, and waited and waited. Then with a heavy tramp that shook the earth, a man of monstrous size came whistling along. His face was turned upwards watching a large white swan. He passed close to me and I quaked lest his huge foot should crush me; he never heeded me, but went on gazing after the swan and so he passed my hiding place, whistling. A strong smell of garlic filled the air around. When he had passed my hiding place I crept out and came home as fast as I could run, regardless of my fish. Never will I doubt the wisdom and truth of the aged, for, as thou sayest, Ke-ke-was, there are many strange things in these mountains.”

Source: Osoyoos Museum

bigfoot bearded civil war

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