I love being welcomed into other cultures by individuals who are proud of their heritage and eager to share it. Yesterday I attended a gathering of pastors at a church in Neah Bay, Washington, which lies in the far northwest corner of the “Lower Forty-Eight” United States.
Neah Bay is the largest community on the Makah Indian Reservation. A visit to the outstanding Makah Museum taught me many things. The unfortunate burial of the Makah village of Ozette preserved numerous artifacts that teach us about “pre-contact” Native American tribal life. A 1750 mudslide covered ten long houses and that tragedy has been redeemed in a small way by providing the modern Makah nation with a wealth of knowledge about its ancestors.
As a dog lover, I was fascinated by the fact that the Makah bred a special type of dog that was sheered for its “wool.” This, of course, was due to the absence of sheep, goats, llamas and the like. These particular canines were kept on an island to prevent their interbreeding with camp dogs. Unfortunately, their breed is no longer known, although I am curious as to whether it could be established from studying remains, assuming the tribe still knows which island was used as their refuge.
The news that intrigued me most was that, in Makah mythology, at the time of their creation, all of the animals could speak. Now, it will not surprise any readers to know this reminded me of another creation tale. My thoughts immediately leapt to the story of Narnia’s creation, which C.S. Lewis describes in The Magician’s Nephew.
[Aslan] was going to and fro among the animals. And every now and then he would go up to two of them (always two at a time) and touch their noses with his. He would touch two beavers among all the beavers, two leopards among all the leopards, one stag and one deer among all the deer, and leave the rest. . . . the creatures whom he had touched came and stood in a wide circle around him. . . . The Lion, whose eyes never blinked, stared at the animals as hard as if he was going to burn them up with his mere stare. And gradually a change came over them. The smaller ones—the rabbits, moles, and such-like—grew a good deal larger. The very big ones—you noticed it most with the elephants—grew a little smaller. Many animals sat up on their hind legs. Most put their heads on one side as if they were trying very hard to understand.
The Lion opened his mouth, but no sound came from it; he was breathing out, a long, warm breath; it seemed to sway all the beasts as the wind sways a line of trees. Far overhead from beyond the veil of blue sky which hid them the stars sang again; a pure, cold, difficult music. Then there came a swift flash like fire (but it burnt nobody) either from the sky or from the Lion itself, and every drop of blood tingled in the children’s bodies, and the deepest, wildest voice they had ever heard was saying: “Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.”
In the Makah creation story, the two brothers of the sun and moon changed preexisting material into the people and creatures we know today. Here is the brief account of their labors. It is interesting to note that both accounts impute personhood to the trees, as well as the animals.
When the world was very young, there were no people on the earth. There were no birds or animals, either. There was nothing but grass and sand and creatures that were neither animals nor people but had some of the traits of people and some of the traits of animals.
Then the two brothers of the Sun and the Moon came to the earth. Their names were Ho-ho-e-ap-bess, which means “the Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things.” They came to make the earth ready for a new race of people, the Indians. The Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things called all the creatures to them. Some they changed to animals and birds. Some they changed to trees and smaller plants.
Among them was a bad thief. He was always stealing food from creatures who were fishermen and hunters. The Two-Men-Who- Changed-Things transformed him into Seal. They shortened his arms and tied his legs so that only his feet could move. Then they threw Seal into the Ocean and said to him, “Now you will have to catch your own fish if you are to have anything to eat.”
One of the creatures was a great fisherman. He was always on the rocks or was wading with his long fishing spear. He kept it ready to thrust into some fish. He always wore a little cape, round and white over his shoulders. The Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things transformed him into Great Blue Heron. The cape became the white feathers around the neck of Great Blue Heron. The long fishing spear became his sharp pointed bill.
Another creature was both a fisherman and a thief. He had stolen a necklace of shells. The Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things transformed him into Kingfisher. The necklace of shells was turned into a ring of feathers around Kingfisher’s neck. He is still a fisherman. He watches the water, and when he sees a fish, he dives headfirst with a splash into the water.
Two creatures had huge appetites. They devoured everything they could find. The Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things transformed one of them into Raven. They transformed his wife into Crow. Both Raven and Crow were given strong beaks so that they could tear their food. Raven croaks “Cr-r-ruck!” and Crow answers with a loud “Cah! Cah!”
The Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things called Bluejay’s son to them and asked, “Which do you wish to be—a bird or a fish?”
“I don’t want to be either,” he answered.
“Then we will transform you into Mink. You will live on land. You will eat the fish you can catch from the water or can pick up on the shore.”
Then the Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things remembered that the new people would need wood for many things.
They called one of the creatures to them and said “The Indians will want tough wood to make bows with. They will want tough wood to make wedges with, so that they can split logs. You are tough and strong. We will change you into the yew tree.”
They called some little creatures to them. “The new people will need many slender, straight shoots for arrows. You will be the arrowwood. You will be white with many blossoms in early summer.”
They called a big, fat creature to them. “The Indians will need big trunks with soft wood so that they can make canoes. You will be the cedar trees. The Indians will make many things from your bark and from your roots.”
The Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things knew that the Indians would need wood for fuel. So they called an old creature to them. “You are old, and your heart is dry. You will make good kindling, for your grease has turned hard and will make pitch. You will be the spruce tree. When you grow old, you will always make dry wood that will be good for fires.”
To another creature they said, “You shall be the hemlock. Your bark will be good for tanning hides. Your branches will be used in the sweat lodges.”
A creature with a cross temper they changed into a crab apple tree, saying, “You shall always bear sour fruit.”
Another creature they changed into the wild cherry tree, so that the new people would have fruit and could use the cherry bark for medicine.
A thin, tough creature they changed into the alder tree, so that the new people would have hard wood for their canoe paddles.
Thus the Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things got the world ready for the new people who were to come. They made the world as it was when the Indians lived in it.